Lawrence, Massachusetts—Lawrence doesn’t get a lot of good publicity. It’s known as the “Ghetto of Massachusetts,” and it is one of the poorest cities in America. It’s also a heroin den.
Now two young Puerto Rican boxers are hoping to bring some good news home for a change. Xavier Vega and Jesus Flores, who both live in Lawrence, won the welterweight and heavyweight titles at the New England Golden Gloves championships this year. Now they are training for the national championship in Las Vegas, which starts this week. It’s the same tournament that launched the careers of boxing legends like Mike Tyson and Oscar De La Hoya.
Flores, 21, was born in Puerto Rico and now studies aerospace-engineering at the local community college. Vega, 20, is a Lawrence native who wakes up every day at 4 a.m. to work a full-time job as a demolitionist. Both of them spend every evening boxing with their coach at Canal Street Gym, a large gym owned by a Puerto Rican family in an old brick mill along the Merrimack River.
Vega’s grandparents were part of a wave of Puerto Rican families who moved to Lawrence during the industrial boom to work in the textile mills. Now, about three-quarters of the city’s residents are Latino, mostly from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Lawrence’s nickname, “Immigrant City,” comes from its historical role as a destination for working-class immigrants arriving from countries like Ireland, Italy, and Slovakia to work in once-thriving factories.
Flores hopes boxing will take him all the way to the Olympics, and Vega would love to go pro. Neither one is desperate to leave Lawrence, even though it gets a bad rap.
“It’s definitely rough growing up here,” says Vega, who often hears gunshots in his neighborhood at night. “But Lawrence is my home. It’s full of good people who sometimes make mistakes.”