Soledad O’Brien follows female boxer in latest “Latino in America” special

Champion boxer Marlen Esparza hopes to compete for the U.S. at the 2012 Olympic Games.

By Stacey Harrison

Female boxing is a subject not always treated with a lot of respect. In fact, it’s just now getting representation in the Olympics, making its debut at the London 2012 Games. One athlete hoping to be there is Marlen Esparza, who has won six national titles in the United States, and possesses a focus and determination that would rival any competitor in any field.

Esparza’s quest for Olympic glory is the subject of In Her Corner: Latino in America, airing Sunday at 8pm on CNN. Soledad O’Brien and her crew followed Esparza for about a year as she trained at her home base in Houston, and competed in competitions all over the country. I talked with O’Brien about what she learned about female boxing, and following the story wherever it took her:

You got interested in the subject from a magazine article. What made you think there was a story there?

What surprised me about the article was inside was a spread that was all Latinas. We started researching boxing, probably because I thought it seemed against what I would have thought of as a stereotype of women fighting. I just never thought it would be a sport full of Latinas, and I’m very, very wrong. As soon as we started researching who’s who in boxing, of course, Marlen Esparza’s name is at the top of every list, and Cristina Cruz as well. … That’s when we started looking for stories and characters.

Did you go in aiming to focus just on Marlen, or was that just a natural development?

“We really started with Marlen, and I think we always go in with one story but because it’s a news documentary we go wherever it takes us. So Cristina was an interesting story as well. In truth, she hasn’t won any national championships and Marlen has won six now. Over the years, Marlen has acquired more in terms of medals, but Cristina is a big, giant deal here in New York. … But going in, it wasn’t really one, it wasn’t even two, if someone else had come in and their story was remarkable, we would have expanded to that. … We’re always very flexible. (SPOILER ALERT!) And of course as soon as Marlen lost to Cristina Cruz, the story became ‘Who is Cristina Cruz?’ especially since she has not won a national championship.”

When something like that happens, do your personal feelings come into it? You’re sad for Marlen, but obviously intrigued by the unexpected development.

“You know, I just think it’s interesting. The story took a turn. Everybody was surprised. Marlen obviously cries and is stunned, and I think we all were also, because it really was unexpected. I like all our characters, I really kind of fall in love with them. I root for Marlen, I root for Cristina. If I took my boys to [Madison Square] Garden to watch Cristina box, I’d root for her. Because you root for all the hard work and dedication and putting the time in. In terms of the story, I think it made the story more interesting because you got to see [how] people’s characters come out when they’re challenged. It’s classic. A real story of how tough you are emerges when suddenly things don’t go your way. So I thought that was an opportunity to show really what Marlen was made of, and what Cristina was made of. I think we just thought, ‘Oh, gosh. Stunned. Can’t believe that happened.’ And ‘Won’t this be interesting to see what happens next?'”

How did you go about dividing up covering the boxing stuff and the larger social issues?

The way we broke it down was the boxer, the coach, the family, the community, and it was to show all those different parts that go into the making of this young Latina boxer. I guess in a way, if you do a story well, it could be a Latino in America story, or we could just call in “In Her Corner” and not call it Latino in America. It’s just a great story about a young woman trying to overcome a lot of obstacles to be incredibly successful in ways most of us will never even be able to dream about. But I didn’t really think of it as, ‘Well, this is about boxing. You really have to get boxing and understand boxing and care about boxing to love this doc.’ I think it was a story about somebody who’s challenged, and boxing is the prism through which we view her success and her failure. … We cover it in the way that Marlen thinks about the fact that she’s Mexican-American. You know, she’s a boxer first. She’s also a young woman who really does believe that if she is successful, there will be an impact on her community. You already see it. All these young girls worship Marlen. … She clearly is beginning to understand that she is a role model to her community, because she’s been successful. She also understands that if she’s really successful — you know, if one day she’s on a Wheaties box — she also has the potential to change other people’s minds about what it means to be Mexican-American. I think the way we portray it is very true to how Marlen thinks about it. Marlen thinks about boxing. She doesn’t sit around thinking, ‘My goal is really to be a role model, and I’m going to do it is through boxing.’ She is like, ‘I am a boxer.’ And now it’s beginning to dawn on her that, ‘Wow. The more success I get, I guess I’m also a role model, and a representation of Mexican-Americans in this country. That’s kind of a good thing.'”

Did Marlen and her trainer, Rudy, become more comfortable with you and the crew being around as time went on?

“Yeah, everybody does. One of the things that we were very clear about was that we would have cameras in her face. I never go in and say, ‘Oh, you’re not even going to notice us.’ You will notice us. We will follow you around for a year, you’re going to notice us. Where I was impressed was that even at her lowest moments, she was always willing to talk. She never said, ‘No, I’m not going to talk to you. I’m not going to answer any questions.’ Even when she was really upset she never said, ‘Get out of my face. Go away. I don’t want you guys here.’ She could have. I thought that was pretty impressive. And then everybody, as they get to know you better and as you keep showing up for stuff, they begin to trust you. It’s just a matter of camping out with people, and that’s happened on every shoot that I’ve done. I think that after a while people are like, ‘Oh, I guess you are coming back tomorrow.’ ‘Here you are again in my driveway.’ That’s one of the biggest upside of documentaries is that you really get to spend a lot of time with people so that they trust that you’re going to tell their story accurately. One of the things Marlen said at one of the screenings that we did, she said, ‘You portrayed my dad exactly as my dad is.’ In the doc, there are moments when she’s snitty, when she says, ‘Really what I want to do is crush everybody’s dream.’ She’s hardcore. In a news doc, our goal is not to make her a likable character, it’s to show you who she is. She’s tough.”

So it sounds like Marlen is pleased with the end results, then?

“We did a couple screenings together in New York, and then a couple in Houston. I think she is the kind of  person who doesn’t have a huge ambition to be on TV that way. Her people didn’t seek us out and say this is a great story, and when we asked her if she’d do it, she said no. She told the crowd in one of the screenings that she felt it was conceited. Like, ‘Why am I getting the attention? I just want to get good at what I do.’ I think that’s who she is, she’s a very low-key person. I don’t think she’s a big showoff. When asked if she was happy [with the documentary], her response was, ‘I think it’s a pretty accurate portrayal of how it was.’ … As a journalist, that’s exactly what I want. I want her to say it is very true to how it went, the ups and the downs.”


Cristina Cruz laces up a pair of boxing gloves for CNN's Soledad O'Brien.

Photos: (top) © 2011 Cable News Network. A Time Warner Company. Credit: Rose Arce; (bottom) © 2011 Cable News Network. A Time Warner Company. Credit: Elizabeth Nunez