Associate Professor of Spanish
Department of World Languages and Cultures
The news of Muhammad Ali’s death on June 3
sparked a wave of nostalgia in my senses. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, I witnessed his rise to popularity and power every time my father and his army buddies got together to watch the boxing match. With great passion they would discuss every detail of the fight imitating Ali’s fancy moves. Their excitement about this boxer inspired me, as a fifth grader, to write my “report on a famous American” about Ali even though I didn’t like boxing in general…too violent!
I checked out books on Ali, I read with amazement how and why Cassius Clay changed his name, how he won an Olympic gold medal and then threw it in the river because people in his home town wouldn’t let him eat in their restaurant since he had dark skin; my ten-year-old mind couldn’t understand this, I was outraged at the unfairness, I told my mom, and I felt sorry for him. I wrote that report in 1967 and it had a profound effect on me; it was a powerful intrusion and introduction of discrimination and segregation into the psyche of a child.
As I look back, I see my elementary school report as a foreshadowing to my serendipitous bilingual encounter with the Champ twenty years later, one hot August afternoon in 1987 at the Pan Am Games in Indianapolis. I was hired to work as a volunteer interpreter/ translator in the Media Center for the Games, but only after an intense background check and Spanish language evaluation; it was not easy to score one of those unpaid, yet coveted positions. The consolation prize was valuable enough: our credential badge served as a ticket to any sports event at the Games. It was an exciting summer!
The Media Center was set up as a resource room for journalists, reporters and photographers from all the countries represented at the Games, from Canada and the Caribbean to Central and South America. It was alive with activities, lined with desks, photocopiers, typewriters, telephones, fax machines, and other equipment. There was always a steady hum in that room and constant excitement as the reports came in on the medal winners and their corresponding countries. The Center also housed the interpreter/ translator section, where I and other volunteers worked on translating documents and announcements; in addition, we were available to reporters, journalists and other officials who needed an interpreter in the field for such interactions as interviewing athletes or talking to a clerk at the store. The miscellaneous nature of the job made every day an adventure. I remember taking a Cuban photographer to a camera store to find a compatible battery for his camera; I interpreted an interview for the local news channel between an Indianapolis reporter and a Mexican family that had driven all the way to Indiana from southern Mexico in their truck. The reporter was impressed with their story and said he was happy that I was available to accompany him or he wouldn’t have been able to do that human-interest segment. Sometimes the interpreters were in high demand and the translating section of the Media Center remained empty until one of us returned.
One day as I was busily translating a document, an Argentinean reporter hurried in and approached my desk looking for someone to facilitate an interview with a boxer. I shrank away and looked around at the other desks trying to pawn that task off to some other volunteer, but there were no other interpreters around. I felt insecure since I did not spend as much time as I should have studying the vocabulary for boxing in our Pan Am Interpreter Manual. The violence inherent in that sport made me keep turning the pages! I politely told the reporter that boxing was not my strong point and that another volunteer would be back soon. So, I dutifully went back to work translating my document. He gently grabbed my arm and pulled me to my feet stating emphatically:
!Esto no puede esperar!
Se trata de
… and he said a name,
? I didn’t understand since he was talking so fast. That was it, I was doing the interview, like it or not, and I knew I would get knocked out with the first question. I stumbled but walked in rapid step with the journalist, thinking, thinking…recalling the vocabulary I did study: right hook, left hook,
gancho con la derecha, gancho con la izquierda
, light weight, heavy weight,
peso ligero, peso pesado
, somebody help me! We had walked a few blocks and turned the corner at the Convention Center.
A crowd was gathered near one of the walls and the journalist pushed me to the front where several robust attendants, (body guards?) stood next to someone sitting at a table signing autographs. I recognized Muhammad Ali immediately,
and my breath was taken away…I followed the journalist’s orders:
Preguntale al guardaespaldas si puedo hacerle unas preguntas a Mua Mailee.
“Excuse me, sir, this journalist from Argentina would like to know if he may ask Mr. Ali some questions.” The attendant approached Ali and whispered in his ear; Ali slowly nodded yes without looking up. What’s wrong with him??… I thought… and the attendant replied, “He can take two questions only.”
Se puede hacer solo dos preguntas…
The journalist agreed and began:
Sr. Ali, ¿a qué se dedica usted ahora?
Mr. Ali, to what are you dedicating your life now? He looked up at me and with a blank stare responded; his speech was impaired, but I confirmed his answer with the attendant: “My religion and raising funds for my Foundation.” I looked down at the table at that moment and noticed that he was signing his autograph on little white bags of chocolate chip cookies called ‘The Champ.’ There was a small round picture of Ali on the package along with a tiny image of boxing gloves. All proceeds from the sale of the cookies would go to his Foundation. After jotting down my translation of Ali’s response to the first question, the journalist continued with the second:
¿A quién considera el mejor boxeador de peso pesado en el mundo hoy día?
“Who do you consider the best heavy-weight boxer in the world today?” Michael Spinks…Ali pronounced the name slowly and went back to signing his cookies. The journalist took notes and concluded the interview:
La delegación argentina le agradece
“The Argentinean delegation thanks you for your time.” Ali nodded.
We walked back to the Media Center together…I was still numb from the surprise! The journalist expressed his compassion and sadness upon seeing Ali in this condition, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He told me about past interviews he had with Ali more than a decade earlier where the feisty, sassy boxer threw boisterous verbal punches effortlessly and eloquent insults slid off his tongue like butter. I hadn’t kept up with the news on Ali and his condition; but during that interview I learned about it first-hand…once again, I felt sorry for him, just as I had after writing my little report twenty years earlier. The journalist thanked me repeatedly, gave me a hug and said he was grateful for my help. I smiled.
Every day at the Pan Am Games that August I was somebody’s hero on a small scale. But, I could never imagine that I would come face-to-face, in a bilingual round with one of America’s largest scale heroes of all time: global champion of the boxing ring, world-wide hero of civil rights, social activism, victims of Parkinson’s and more generally, compassionate advocate of the Human race.
In 2011, I was in Louisville, Kentucky and happened upon the Muhammad Ali Center, the “Foundation” only in the germination stage in 1987 that Ali mentioned in our bilingual interview. Impressive and inspirational! A beautiful testament to the life and philosophy of an exceptional human being, a Champ on all fronts. In the Center’s gift shop I bought a mousepad exhibiting colorful butterflies in flight. As I sit at my computer each day here at Chapman, I am reminded of what it can mean to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”: even the most aggressive beginnings can be transformed into a gentle work of art.
I’m retiring because there are more pleasant things to do than beat up people.