Published May 26, 2011
MEXICO CITY – Look up from an oppressive Mexico City traffic jam and you see the baby face of Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez smiling down from a giant billboard. Look ahead and his image beams from an ad on a bakery truck.
Though he lives and plays more than 5,000 miles away for English club Manchester United, the 22-year-old whose nickname means "Little Pea" is everywhere in his home country at a time when Mexico is in dire need of a hero.
It's not just because Chicharito has enjoyed a stunning debut season with the English powerhouse, scoring 20 goals and winning a fan vote as player of the season after his $9.8 million move from Guadalajara's Las Chivas.
It's not even that he could be one of United's key players in Saturday's Champions League final at Wembley against favored Barcelona.
Rather, his gleeful celebration after every goal, with arms outstretched and mouth agape — as if even he is astonished by his talent — is the perfect antidote to daily reports of shootouts, kidnappings and mass graves in a country racked by drug violence that has killed more than 35,000 people since late 2006.
For Mexico, Chicharito's success is about much more than football.
"He's the only thing Mexicans believe in right now," writer and cultural commentator Guadalupe Loaeza said. "We don't believe the government, the institutions, the political parties. But through months and months of this crisis, Chicharito has brought us good news in front of the whole world."
He has numerous fan blogs, including the official "Locos por El Chicharito," and several songs, in English and Spanish, dedicated to him.
The match against Barcelona and its Argentine striker Lionel Messi — considered the best player in the world — is expected to draw record TV viewers in Mexico and be a bonanza for local bars and restaurants.
Mexico's Televisa network has postponed a broadcast of Mexico's beloved national team playing Ecuador in an exhibition at the same time in Seattle, Wash. Chicharito and United get top billing with the match being shown live on a giant screen on the esplanade outside Mexico's 100,000-seat Aztec Stadium.
The Mexico-Ecuador match will be shown on delay after Chicharito has had his day.
Javier Ahedo, general manager of a Chili's restaurant in central Mexico City, says because of Chicharito, Manchester United has been drawing crowds all season.
"This place fills for every game, and even though other teams like Barcelona are playing in the same hour, the people want to see Chicharito," he said. "It's crazy."
Hernandez hails from Guadalajara and a football dynasty. His grandfather, Tomas Balcazar, played on a Mexico World Cup team, as did his father, also named Javier Hernandez, whose nickname "Chicharo," or "The Pea," led to the star's moniker.
He is hardly Mexico's first international sport star to lift the country in a time of crisis. Rookie Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela wowed the baseball world in the 1980s during a Mexican peso crash. Hugo Sanchez, probably Mexico's most successful footballer up to now, helped Mexicans forget the financial ups downs of the 1990s with his record-breaking career with Real Madrid.
Still, while many Mexican players have flourished in European leagues, they have mostly done so in Spain or Italy, places not too far removed from home culturally or linguistically.
Chicharito is an unprecedented success story in England where other Latin American players have struggled with the chilly, damp climate and food, not to mention the quicker, more physical play that overpowers Latin-style finesse and technical skill.
He is helped by the fact that his family moved with him to Manchester, where he tells interviewers he still gets his mother's homemade tortillas.
In his first season he scored 20 goals in various tournaments, tying the Mexican record for a striker making a European debut. He could be the first Mexican to win the Champions League in his first season and only the second to do so behind Rafael Marquez, who won the title playing for Barcelona.
Chicharito's carefully guarded image, which draws millions in endorsements, is clean and outgoing. So far he seems without the ego of many top players, and his commercials feature kids. He smiles as much in his encounters with the public as in his photos and graciously signs autographs, drawing accolades at least for now from all corners: journalists to image consultants to everyday folk.
"He's my idol, even though he's from the Chivas," said Rene Ocampo, a 38-year-old salesman who roots for rival club Pumas. "He makes us feel better as Mexicans."