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Stunning Olympic gold gives Mexicans a boost

Mexico fans celebrate after their team wgold medal men's soccer final against Brazil 2012 Summer Olympics Saturday Aug. 11 2012

Mexico fans celebrate after their team won the gold medal in the men's soccer final against Brazil at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

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Updated: September 14, 2012 6:12AM

The gold medal won by Mexico in Saturday’s Olympic soccer final, against star-studded Brazil, is something Mexicans will talk about for decades to come.

Until the weekend, Mexico never had played in an Olympic final. World Cup finals have been elusive. Generations of Cubs fans know what that’s like.

In sports we love to tell stories about David beating Goliath.

I know and continue to meet Mexicans who are underdogs in life.

Although a middle class seems finally to be emerging in Mexico, centuries of government corruption created an extraordinarily wide gap between rich and poor. The stifling reality that one could never get ahead in Mexico is what led to waves of legal and illegal immigration to the U.S.

Life here can be stifling in different ways. Immigrants deal with low wages, prejudices and stereotypes. Since the U.S. economy tanked in late 2007, backlash against Mexican immigrants has boiled.

News out of Mexico is often bleak. We hear about drug cartels and crime syndicates taking over chunks of the country. This is personal for me. I can’t visit my father’s grave in Mexico because it is too dangerous.

Saturday’s Olympic victory for Mexico? That was personal for me, too. It was satisfying because it was unexpected and because, frankly, Mexico needs the boost even if it’s a fleeting one.

Brazil has won the World Cup five times. It has stars who go by one name, including a player named Hulk. Mexico had no stars, at least not at game’s outset. One of its best players, Giovani dos Santos, missed the Olympic final with an injury.

For all of Brazil’s success, that country has never won an Olympic soccer championship, but that was supposed to change over the weekend. A coronation for that country, host for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, was all but bestowed until Mexico’s Oribe Peralta scored the first of his two goals 29 seconds into the game.

After the game, I set out for Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood to check on the vibe. I saw more Mexico soccer jerseys than usual, but the celebration was somewhat muted, probably because of the early start time of 9 a.m. in the Central time zone and limited live viewing that required digital cable.

A few block parties were not yet under way, but disc jockey Robert Oviedo had music blaring for one about to start at 18th Place.

“Windows were open; you could hear people cheering,” Oviedo said of the moment Mexico made history by winning 2-1. “Everybody started celebrating.”

I caught up with another man, clad in a green Mexico jersey, sitting on a stoop sipping a can of Modelo beer.

He said he wears the jersey only when Mexico wins. His celebration would not last long, he added.

“It’s all work,” he said. “I like watching the games, but there’s no time. I work two jobs.”

He gave the name Jose Zavala when I asked for it, but I realized later I didn’t verify it.

I could understand if he had lied. He told me he is illegal. Some undocumented workers go by false names.

“It’s so tough out there,” he said.

I asked if he has at least one day free during his 80-hour workweek.

Sunday, he said, but on that day he must sleep and do his laundry.

“Free but not free,” he said.

By then I had all but forgotten about the game.

Back to reality.

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