Everyone knows him. They know his name and his age. They know where he was born and where he was raised. They know that a boy from a small pueblo in Mexico named Dzitia was the first person to win Olympic gold for his country at the 2016 Rio Olympics. He conquered the ring and proved the spectators wrong. When they raised his gloved fist in the air, the entire nation cheered.
Not many knew that every day after practice, he wandered around El Centro in Merida, the closest city to Dzitya. He would stand in front of stores or on corners with a little old and rusty can. The can was once home to Salsa Casera for the enchiladas his mama would make. Now, it was the waiting room for 20 pesos. There was a little note taped to the side of the game. Por favor, ayúdame a ir a los Juegos Olímpicos de Rio de Janeiro. Cualquier cantidad de dinero ayuda a mi causa. Please, help me go to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Any amount of money helps my cause.
Over the past few months the note had faded, his handwriting becoming illegible. The ink had cried away. He would walk in the rain, on buses, through stores. Sometimes he stood outside the enormous cathedral. Once the sky grew dark and the stores closed, he would bike an hour home. On weekends, he stopped in front of popular taquerias and tried to beg a little more. But no matter how it went, he always greeted his mama with a kiss on the cheek when he got home.
“How did it go today at the gym, mijo?” she always asked, as had been her routine since he was the young age of eight.
A fake smile would stretch his lips. He would simply say, “The same, Mamá. Don’t worry too much.”
There were days when he pretended the sting in his eyes was from the dirt roads. Those were the days that he came home with not one more peso. He’d stare at the jar with his collected money and sigh. He couldn’t understand what was happening to him. He was qualified to compete; he wanted to compete. But he had no way of getting to Rio from Mexico. Most days, no one talked to him. The days he would sit outside the cathedral with his head held in his hands, my own mamá would talk to him. She would try to comfort him, although no amount of words would bring him peace. My mamá used to sell homemade dulces in a store in front of the park where the cathedral stood tall.
“What’s wrong, mijo? Don’t cry,” she used to say gently.
“Doña Xacur, I have no idea how I’m getting to Rio. I only have 1,500 pesos saved and another 1,000 from these months of begging. The round trip ticket is almost 20,000 pesos. I’m going to the Olympics, Doña Xacur. Shouldn’t Mexico be proud and send us with money from the government? I think sometimes I should just give up. There’s plenty of other wrestlers at the gym who could pay,” he would say, tears staining his tan cheeks.
“Listen to me, Ikal, you must not give up now. You can do amazing things in Rio, understand me? You can show everyone that Mexico is not just a country full of drug dealers and poverty. There is more to us. You can win gold, Ikal. Those other wrestles can’t. It is written in all thirteen layers of the heavens,” Doña Xacur would say. She would feel like crying with him as she looked at the young man. Quickly Ikal would dry his eyes and get back up. He would go back to ask for one peso—just one, if they had any to spare.
One day when he got home, a week before he was supposed to buy his ticket, his can was empty. When his mama asked how it went, he didn’t respond. He just walked to his room, abandoning the bike that carried him home every day.
His mamá was an older woman. She was one hundred percent Mayan. Her husband, Ikal’s father, was of Mexican descent. But they lived the traditional way and spoke the language. His mamá still believed in Itzaman and the pantheon of Mayan gods. Like my mamá, she also believed in the thirteen layers of heaven that stretch across the skies above the earth and the underworld of Xibalba. She would celebrate Day of the Dead and she would spend the equinox in Chichen Itza, watching the shadow of Kukulcan, the snake deity, appear on the steps.
“Ikal,” she called, “come here.”
Ikal walked out of his room slowly and sat at the small kitchen table. His normal smile was long gone from his face; all that was left was a ghost of it on his lips.
“Mijo, tell me what’s wrong,” his mamá said gently.
“There’s no way to make the money in time, Na’,” he said sadly, using the Mayan word for mother.
“There is no need to be discouraged, mi cielo. The gods work in mysterious ways. The day you were chosen to go to the Olympics everything had been decided for you. Trust them, Ikal. They will take you there.”
“Na’, there’s no way. I should just tell my coach to give it to someone else. Someone who can pay their plane ticket,” he said. The sadness in his tone was rolling off his tongue in nearly visibly tendrils.
“Ikal, do you know why I gave you this name instead of any of the other thousand names that exist in this world?” she asked.
“Because it’s Mayan.”
“Not only that, but because it means spirit. Ikal, you always had a strong spirit. Don’t let something like this break it. You must remain strong. Don’t let this take away your spirit,” she said.
“But Na’,” he began to protest.
“Trust Ikal, trust them. All will be well. What do I always say?”
“Ay, Mamá,” he sighed.
“Nya b’a’n tu’n tjax tk’on chi’l toj twiy, ku’n b’e’x ch’ajila tu’n tx’yan. It’s not wise to put a basket on your head as you will be eaten by a dog.”
“Mamá, I was never good that good at Mayan. I also don’t know what this has to do with a basket or a dog,” he said with a slight whine, his mood plummeting.
“He who walks without looking will fall into trouble,” she simply replied. “Now help me make the tortillas.”
Ikal had been the opposite of his mother. He spoke the language, but he was never able to believe in the gods. He was never able to believe anything his mamá said about the gods. But that time, he decided to try. He silently prayed before bed. The next day went as usual. So did the next few days. He was beginning to lose faith when he sat next Doña Xacur.
“When is the payment due?” she asked.
“Tomorrow,” he sighed. Maybe the gods just aren’t on my side, he thought.
“I’m sure something good will happen.”
“Unless Itzaman decides to decide to stop holding up the heavens and take me there himself, I don’t think I’m going,” he said.
“Well, if that happens, he might as well fix the north while he’s here,” Doña Xacur said in between laughs.
“I’m tired, Doña Xacur,” he said sadly. “I feel like I’m fifty years old.”
“Mijo, you’re only twenty. Don’t say that or tomorrow you’ll wake up with a grey hair,” she said with a smile. “Además, if you’re old what am I? Ancient?”
When Ikal went home that day he was greeted by his mamá and his papá, who had been in another state working. They wore large grins on their aged skin. They sat him down at the table. Both seemed eager, happy. Ikal couldn’t fathom the idea of being happy right now. He had to pay a 20,000 peso plane ticket tomorrow or he wouldn’t be able to go to Rio. And all he had saved up was 2,500 pesos.
“At your father’s job, they heard about your situation, Ikal. The story made it all the way up to the owner. Señora Sosa says that if you want, she’d sponsor you,” his papá said.
“Sponsor me?” Ikal asked.
“She’d pay for your entire trip and she says that don’t you dare think about paying her anything in return. She says she’ll be more than glad to help our country be represented at the Olympics,” his mamá said.
Ikal had never felt so blessed. The feeling surged in his chest and rose up his throat until it escaped his lips as the happiest cry one could imagine. He jumped and ran around the house like he was a child at Christmas. He hugged his parents tightly as his mamá cried with joy. For him, his problem had been solved. It was a problem that had been plaguing the back of his mind every second for almost a year. Then, in an instant, it was washed away with the tears streaming down his cheeks.
I remember how much impact Ikal had on me, watching his press interviews and commercials. I remember the stories that would fill my childhood bedroom of him. My mamá had my nine-year-old self believing that she had talked to one of the gods. Still, he gave me hope to compete. He was not a god, but an Olympian with a medal of gold resting on his chest. He was the spark for the revolution that changed Mexico’s ways of supporting their athletes. And he is the reason that I will go to the Tokyo Olympics with all expenses paid and only have to worry about training.
It all started with a boy who begged for change on the corner of Merida’s busiest corner.