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Robert J. Elisberg

Robert J. Elisberg

Posted: August 26, 2008 12:36 PM

A Gold Medal Life Worth Knowing


There was one of those truly-wonderful Olympic stories last week that didn't get the attention it deserved.

Henry Cejudo won the Olympic gold medal in freestyle wrestling. It was a remarkable, emotional battle. Barely leading in the final round, he had to hold on when his opponent suddenly took the upper hand, had Cejudo on the mat and about to be reversed. Yet Henry Cejudo fought him off, regained his feet and won.

He didn't just win the gold, however. He became the first American in history to win a gold medal in that weight class, 55 kilograms. More than that, he became the youngest American at 21 to ever win a gold medal in freestyle wrestling, in any weight class.

That's not the story, though.

What was so emotional was what came next. After the clock ticked to zero, Cejudo fell to his knees, in tears, weeping, unable to move. The crowd erupted in joy and wild cheers, waving American flags all over the place. Cejudo covered himself in an American flag and almost uncontrolled began racing throughout the fieldhouse with it.

2008-08-23-HenryCejudo.jpg
Photo by L.A. Times

His pride was bursting for his country because of what he came through. It's not just that his family had been so profoundly poor, often staying in places for only two months before having to move yet again. But when he first made it to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado four years ago, it was the first time in his life that he'd slept alone.

But that's not the story.

At the World Championships last year -- his first major senior international competition -- he not only didn't get a medal, he didn't even win a single match.

He almost didn't win a single match at these Olympics, too. He had to come from behind to win each of his previous three contests, just to get to the finals.

Now he has an Olympic gold.

And that's not even the story.

His story goes deeper and is truly the American Dream. One that embodies everything that Americans envision as wonderful about the nation and the opportunity it provides. One that all Americans burst with overwhelmingly pride over.

Or most do, anyway.

You see, the thing is, Henry Cejudo is the son of two undocumented, illegal Mexican immigrants.

Not to make a political point -- oh, okay, specifically to make a political point -- there is a segment of the population who would have every illegal immigrant deported, no matter what their situation. If they had their way years ago, Nelly Cejudo would not be in America today, where her son Henry was born, raised and grew up to win a gold medal for his country and bury himself in his flag. And in tears of patriotic joy.

That whole American Dream thing? It could have been a nightmare.

Henry Cejudo's single mother raised six children, moving among numerous cities, from Las Cruces, New Mexico, into Arizona, now to Los Angeles. "Numerous times," by the way, is the only accurate way to describe it, because he lost count at 50. He never saw his father after he was four years old. The family struggled daily - his mother earned money doing almost anything. Often two jobs at a time, working in factories, cleaning toilets, even carpentry, you name it. Henry earned money selling tacos on the street.

America gave Henry Cejudo an education and a life. He gave America a gold medal. And he gave inspiring encouragement to countless other young people with nothing, in equally dire conditions, the awareness that there is a future, a goal to strive for, whatever that goal may be, a hope.

What's that worth?

To be clear, Henry Cejudo is not an illegal immigrant. He was born in the United States. But of course he's only here because his mother came illegally. And only remained because he didn't go to Mexico with his mother has she been deported. This is no defense of illegally entering the United States. Further, there are many reasons to improve the illegal immigration situation in America. There are many ways to improve it. But there are also many reasons not to think it's an easy "one answer fits all" situation. It's not just that sometimes when people come illegally to America they turn out to make a better life for themselves, but that, in doing so, they make a better America.

To be fair, it certainly doesn't always work that way. But if one is willing to be fair, one has to also accept that it does happen. And we're all better off when it does.

Certainly, U.S. immigration policies and enforcement have to be changed. But just as certainly, "deport them all, and no amnesty for anyone" is not the answer. That's the point here, and the only point. It's not the answer, not only because it is so monumentally impractical as to be near-impossible - it's also not the answer because it misses so much of what America gains. Serious, complex problems require serious, complex solutions.

It's to America's benefit to find what benefits America the most.

Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that the results of Henry Cejudo's story is typical. But let's equally not fool ourselves into thinking that his story of the seeds planted by illegal immigrants making America a better place is uncommon.

2008-08-23-HenryCejudo2.jpg
Photo by A.P.