David Hanes-Gonzalez Photographs capturing Mexican boxing culture

WordsBruno Bayley

As a first-generation Mexican-American, photographer David Hanes-Gonzalez has often found himself frustrated at his lack of connection to his Mexican roots. A boxing fan himself, when he learned more about Mexico’s incredible impact on the sport, he set out to create a project around its boxing culture. A two-week project became two years, as he painted an intimate picture of the sport’s importance to Mexico, and formed a much deeper connection with his family’s home country. He walks Bruno Bayley through some of the shots that mean the most to him.

“Everyone has those moments in life, and that was mine,” says David Hanes-Gonzalez. “I felt I had to go to Mexico, to experience boxing culture there and take photos.” The photographer was born in Chicago where he grew up surrounded by family who had crossed from Mexico to the United States during the 1980s. During the pandemic, working a job he didn’t enjoy and weathering long, cold winters, new priorities swam into focus. “My Spanish wasn’t that good, which is common with first generation kids, but it always bothered me, and I wanted a healthier lifestyle.” The idea of living in Mexico was already on his mind, but travel restrictions were daunting. “Where could I go to improve my Spanish and live a more active lifestyle that’s not Mexico…?”

A black-and-white photograph of a small boy wearing boxing gloves in a boxing gym. His father stands behind him.

Hanes-Gonzalez moved into a small apartment in Miami in 2020 and took up boxing, eventually being invited to take photos in the gym where he trained. About eight months into his training a friend asked him about his background. “I told him I was Mexican American, and he was like, ‘Did you know the Mexican boxing style is famous?’” 

That conversation was the germ of “No Te Dejes,” a nine-day shoot in 2021 that morphed into a two-year project. “Growing up, Mexico was where my family was from, but it wasn’t who I was. I felt this dire need to understand Mexican culture better. The project allowed me to double down on photography and boxing, but it also allowed me to learn about the country my mom was from.” 

A black-and-white photograph of a young boxer training with a speed bag. Due to his height he uses a chair in order to reach the speed bag.
A black-and-white photograph of a young boxer preparing to enter the ring, as men adjust his helmet and offer him support.

For Hanes-Gonzalez the Mexican boxing style is a reflection of national character. “It’s for brawlers, moving backwards is a sign of defeat. If you are fighting someone who’s always coming at you, who’s resilient, who’ll take ten punches to get you with one good hit, they start to seem superhuman. I think it says a lot about Mexican society: every day is a fight for a better future…for opportunities.”

Hanes-Gonzalez is convinced that his deep-seated desire to understand the culture made the project work. “Sure, not being a ‘gringo’ foreigner with no ties to the culture helped, but people also knew that I loved boxing, they understood I wanted to uplift the culture. I wanted to fill a hole in depictions of Mexico and boxing…I wanted to fill that hole that was in me.”

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“Protegernos Virgen” (Protect us Virgin)

A black-and-white photograph of two boxers training with religious sculptures and the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe in the background.

“When I was researching images of Mexican boxing all I saw was photos of fighting, of Canelo [Álvarez] or other famous boxers. I was missing the pictures of the people still fighting to be Canelo, fighting for a better future,” says Hanes-Gonzalez. His photographs of bouts reflect only moments within whole lives dedicated to—and enriched by—boxing. The familiar snapshots of punches landing are conspicuously few. “The project’s about boxing as a culture, not fighting.”

Michel Aguilar

A black-and-white photograph of a boxer Michel Aguilar sitting on a stool and looking into the camera, with a large cross necklace around his neck and posters in the background.

Hanes-Gonzalez is adamant that boxing saves lives more than it damages them, explaining that for many in Mexico City boxing offers the only way out, instilling discipline and dedication in those training. “Boxers learn about putting forth effort. It’s an individual sport, but you represent your neighborhood, your gym, your coach. Boxing gives a sense of pride, of belonging…to be a good boxer you need to be a good person in the ring and outside it.” 

He was constantly aware of needing to represent his subjects honestly. “I didn’t want to do this project and have the boxing community be like, ‘That’s not who we are.’ It’s very easy as a first generation Mexican American to cling to the cliché of what Mexican culture is. It’s how it’s marketed to us: all Mexicans love tacos! Tequila! Mariachis! That stuff can all become very stereotyped.” Avoiding cliché was key. “People told me that when they saw my photos they realized, for the first time, how unique their everyday was. They were like ‘Oh! I see what you see!’ That was humbling for me.”

Kevin Juarez

A black-and-white photograph of a boxer staring into the camera during a training session. In the background is a cross, skulls, and photos in relation to Dia de Los Muertos, a Mexican celebration honoring family and friends who have passed.

“In Mexico City you can’t walk four blocks without seeing a church. 90 percent of restaurants or tiendas will have some sort of crucifix or Virgen de Guadalupe in them,” says Hanes-Gonzalez. While symbols of religion are near-omnipresent in Mexico City, incorporating them into the images was considered. “Religion is intertwined in every facet of the culture. The Virgen is in everyone’s homes, everyone’s connected through religion. I wanted Mexico to come alive [in the photos].” This image, taken in front of a gym’s ofrenda, or altar, during Dios de los Muertos, captures for the photographer the inseparability of religion, community and boxing in the nation.

Salvador ‘Pelón’ Juárez

A black-and-white photograph of a boxer shadow boxing in front of a cross that overlooks his hometown of Chimalhuacán, Mexico.

Salvador ‘Pelón’ Juárez became one of Hanes-Gonzalez’s favorite boxers. “I was looking at his Instagram and he was posting these amazing images of him biking on this mountain, videos of him shadowboxing next to this big cross. I was like, ‘We have to go!’” The photographer visited Juárez in his hometown of Chimalhuacán, just outside Mexico City. “I went to his house, he treated me with good energy, we hiked up the hill and took this photo. For me it’s about religion, faith, and his love for his city, his resilience. It’s one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken.”

“La Casa de Sparring”

A black-and-white photograph of a boxer after a training session at the gym located in the middle of the La Merced market in Mexico City. The boxer tenses his muscles and screams into the camera.

Photographers selling hastily printed snapshots at fights told Hanes-Gonzalez about La Casa de Sparring, a gym nestled in the middle of the biggest open air market in Mexico city, La Merced. “After walking through ten minutes of markets you get to this huge warehouse where the meatpackers are, full of dead cows and people cutting up meat. In the middle there’s a flight of stairs and up on the first floor’s a boxing gym,” he says. On a Saturday the gym hosts boxers from across the city and even other states who come to spar with new opponents. “You see amateurs, professionals, kids, olympic boxers. It’s like the church of boxing.”