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Life, loss and 'cosas chingonas': Chicharito's battle for balance and endless search to find himself

It is a difficult thing, vulnerability, an aspect of life that most of us never master.

To open yourself up, to expose yourself to people, to find comfort in the uncomfortable is a difficult, difficult thing.

It can be emotional to relive the darkest moments, the ones that you would rather never revisit. It can be painful to listen to those that can never truly understand. And it can be difficult to face your biggest critic, yourself, head-on before you are truly ready.

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But vulnerability can also be freeing, in a way. And so Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez is here, ready and willing to be vulnerable. He is ready to talk about anything and everything: the loss of his grandfather and how it broke him, the pressures of fame and how it impacted him and, perhaps most importantly, his search for himself and how that changed him.

Over the course of a 40-minute interview, he hits every emotion. He laughs, he smiles, he tears up on more than one occasion. He looks deep down at himself and finds a way to reflect, connecting himself to the bigger picture. He ponders life and its meaning, his role as a human in search of humanity.

Because, after all of these years, that is how he sees himself: as a human dealing with human things.

As extraordinary as he is and despite all he has achieved, what Hernandez wants most is to be understood, to have his feelings mean something. Really, he just wants to be treated like everyone else.

In some ways, that is an impossibility, because anyone who has followed this sport has developed a perception of Chicharito over the years. He has been in the spotlight from the moment he was born, after all, as a third-generation Mexican star that has captivated the world from Guadalajara to Manchester to Madrid to Los Angeles.

But, underneath all that, underneath everything people have come to know about Chicharito, lies Javier, the person. And that person is one that has been stuck at a crossroads with himself for quite some time.

It is a person that he lost sight of, at one point or another, a person that separated itself entirely from the public persona he has built over all of these years.

And so, these days, Chicharito wants to show the world a bit more of Javier, partly because he himself is still trying to discover exactly who that is.

"There was a little bit of a difference [between Chicharito and Javier] before, but that's what I'm trying to do," he tells Goal over the course of an interview that touches on life, death and everything in between. "I am the same. I am both in a way. I'm a soccer player as well. I think it's more the perception of the people, right? 

"In the end, I just go on the pitch and I play soccer in the way that Javier does it. It says Chicharito because I took that nickname very proudly from my dad because he was Chicharo as well and all of the story through my family and stuff like that... I'm just trying to do that."

"I find myself in that place where I'm accepting myself," he adds. "I'm not running away from unpleasant moments. I can recognize what I need to work on in an emotional or mental way. Part of that is physically and part is all my surroundings and with the people that I love, I need to practice all of that stuff. 

"When problems or when situations hit where we are not so blessed, that's when you need to show the world."

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Over the past few months, Hernandez has undertaken the task of showing himself to the world, even the moments that have proven particularly painful. 

The year 2020, he says, was the worst of his life. Like everyone else, Hernandez was forced to reckon with the coronavirus, a pandemic that separated him from his family. He was left alone in Los Angeles, a new home, with those he loved spread across Mexico and Australia.

And then came the tipping point.

In April, Tomas Balcazar, the famous campeonísimo that spent years dominating Mexican football with Chivas, died at age 88. But Balcazar was much, much more than just a Mexican legend; he was Hernandez's grandfather, his inspiration, his friend.

That death shook the LA Galaxy star to his core. It was his father, Javier Hernandez Sr., and Balcazar that helped him fall in love with the sport and, eventually, helped him cope with fame once he surpassed even their incredible achievements. It was those two that taught him how to be a professional athlete, but also a man that was worth knowing when those 90 minutes were over.

The moment Balcazar died, his grandson changed forever.

"When that happened, in that moment, I was very, very depressed obviously," he says, "and I was lonely. But I never felt lonely, in a way. More or less, it was like I was scared of being lonely because I didn't accept myself truly or love myself, but deep, deep in the core, like deep in the bones, because I knew when that moment happened, that takes a lot of responsibility."

He, admittedly, struggled with it as his personal demons quickly became a defining characteristic of his professional life. In a way, everything that was troubling Javier was proving too much for Chicharito to bear.

Signed by the Galaxy as a marquee attraction to replace Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he struggled. He scored just twice in 12 appearances, earning criticism from every which way as he failed to live up to the hype. While his family grieved in Mexico, Hernandez remained in Los Angeles as he tried to somehow separate the pain from his career.

"When I lived through the death of my grandfather, I gained a lot of weight," he says. "I was alone, I didn't accept myself. There was like an emptiness."

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That death, that sudden life change, was the most visceral pain Hernandez had ever felt, and rightfully so. Loss, in any form, is life-altering. But what is even harder is coming to the realization that you were not even able to be there to say goodbye in the moments before your life changed forever.

As Hernandez says, that loss created different emotions, primarily fear, and it was not the first time he had felt that one. It had been an emotion that had dictated a large portion of his life: fear of failure, fear of disappointing those that poured so much into him, fear of losing everything he had earned, on the field and off of it.

But, this time, Hernandez dove deep into that fear, analyzed it and embraced it. He used it to change his approach to fitness and nutrition. He began to work with a coach that focuses on his mental health. But, most importantly, he began to take all of those outside events, looked inward, and found a way to push them back out in a healthy way.

"The most important decisions, and the most complicated ones that in the end were the ones that brought me closer to the life that I deserve, were are ones when honestly, I was scared, afraid," he says. 

"I think that 99 per cent of my decisions, the most important decisions in my whole life, didn't come from pleasure or a place where it was going to be divine. No, it was completely the opposite.

"It was like, be vulnerable, be exposed, be yourself, grow. It scares the sh*t out of everyone and it's good, but don't run away because that's where the ego comes from. Ego is protecting you from death, and then when ego feels that you are vulnerable or once you are exposed, like you cannot defend yourself, for the ego what it means is like you're closer to death in a way, when you are vulnerable.

"That's what ego is like. It's a team-mate sometimes. You're going to find your ego in whatever way that you want, so that's why I believe I start doing it because it's an exercise for myself to be me, myself. It's important to show the hard road. Sadly, part of showing it is that it is a long road."

Over the last few months, he has tried to take others on that road with him. He has opened up like never before, in interviews and on social media as he has tried to offer at least a brief glimpse into the man behind the soccer player.

And, quite often these days, those two parts of him come together. After scoring twice in a  3–2 win over Inter Miami, Hernandez broke down in tears. After losing himself during his first season in LA, the soccer player and the man were finally beginning to meet again.

He has scored seven goals in seven games to start this MLS season, establishing himself, finally, as the star everyone knew he could be. But he is the first to admit that, even if the goals dry up, he is still in a much better place than he was a year ago.

"The goals are just a part of, of my sport," he says, "and my job obviously is one of the most important ones because you need to score to win games. We all want to win because we like competition and that's why we're into this amazing sport.

"Yeah, I'm pretty good. I'm in a very balanced place with myself. I feel very connected with myself and feel that I'm pushing to live the life that I deserve, embracing the challenges, embracing the difficulties that I have, not even my sport but in my life, to be me.

"What that means is, of course, I'm going to make mistakes. I'm not the greatest soccer player, I'm not the best soccer player, I'm not the best friend, I'm not the best partner, I'm not the best father, I'm not the best human, but none of us are the best because best doesn't exist.

"The reality is we need to be the best versions of ourselves, and we need to enjoy the process, because you will never get to a destination that you can see like 'I have my graduation' or 'I'm my best version so I need to stay here'. That's my opinion and that's what I believe."

As part of that, he points to those even more famous than himself: athletes, rock stars, actors. He points to the way we as the public perceive their successes and failure, and he points to the responsibility that falls on both sides to change those perceptions.

In his view, it is on public figures to be role models, to be open and honest about their struggles so that others can see them and understand them. But it is also on society to embrace that, not villainize it, if they want those role models to truly show themselves.

"I don't know if you saw the Billie Eilish documentary and you see Taylor Swift and you can hear the song from Justin Bieber 'Lonely' and you realize, like, wow," he says. "Like you saw Britney Spears, like my god. We have a responsibility as a society and it's not only them. It's not only their problem. They're just doing the sh*t that they love."

The Bieber part, in particular, hits hard. "Lonely" is Bieber's attempt to come to grips with childhood fame, to put words to the sacrifices that come with being in the spotlight.

"What if you had it all but nobody to call? Maybe then you'd know me," the Canadian sings. "'Cause I've had everything but no one's listening and that's just f*ckin' lonely."

It is a song that clearly resonates with Hernandez, who, all these years later, is still figuring out how to cope with balancing his mental health with his own fame.

"In the end, money, fame and all of that stuff, they are just tools," he continues. "They don't define me. What defines me is how I utilize those tools.

"Of course, I would love to win championships. I can speak in a more superficial way and say I want to win championships with this amazing club. I want to score a lot of goals, I want to win games and stuff like that. I want to achieve all of that.

"But it's not about emptiness, it's not just to accumulate success, not just to show that I'm a better or worse human than anyone. It's just the pure, pure love of seeing how far I can go and pushing myself beyond my limits. Like my brain says, 'This is your limit', like why? Why are you telling me that? No."

His road, by nature, is longer than others, simply because his life is a little different than others. His fight is similar, sure, and his internal battles are ones we all go through, but Hernandez is also putting himself into the public eye, for better or worse.

Part of that is positive, of course. He embraces the idea of being a role model, an example to those that believe athletes are the closest thing we have to perfection. Hernandez loves the idea that he can show that that idea is not true, that he is just like the rest of us emotionally, only better at kicking a ball for 90 minutes every weekend.

But there is the negative. There is the pressure, the scrutiny, the criticism. But, for the first time in his life, he is shutting that off, even if he knows that will come. 

"That departure and that death helped me to love myself, to accept myself, to surrender to a lot of things that I don't have in control," he says. "I just surrender and let go and something that I realized, I knew it before, but now it was like practice time, like showtime, and I didn't do it in the beginning, but then I started doing it. I believe that we don't have ideas; ideas have us.

"You can't have the idea, the idea has you, because then you don't question that idea. You do whatever that idea is going to tell you, in a way."

It is one of several concepts he brings up throughout the conversation, but one that opens up entirely new conversations altogether if you want to dive deep enough. On the surface, it is a simple thought but, if there is one thing Hernandez is desperate to show, it is that there is much more than what is seen on the surface.

These kinds of thoughts are the ones that comfort him when he tries to find that balance between the highs and the lows. But the saying that truly governs his life is still the one he has made famous for years.

"I have this phrase, and it's become very famous in Spanish: imaginemos cosas chingonas," he says. "It means 'imagine very amazing things'.

"In a way, it's free, man, it's free, because if you can imagine, very scary and unpleasant scenarios, you can also imagine as well some f*cking amazing things.

"People think when you are good, everything is very chill and balanced and you can chill. It's the opposite. I'm embracing more the chaos of what the universe says to me and I'm resilient, more resilient than staying the victim in those moments."

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That brings us to the big question: who is Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez and how does he want to be perceived?

Is he the superstar athlete, the goalscorer, the champion? Is he the megastar built on confidence and bundles and bundles of goals?

Is he the self-aware thinker, the dreamer, the fighter? Is he the man stuck in an endless battle with himself, the human constantly analyzing and reanalyzing what it means to be a human?

Or is he all of those things at once, a complicated mess of a person with highs and lows just like everyone else? 

That question is not for him to answer; it is for you. He may fit some of those labels in your mind or maybe even none of them. You may think more of him or less of him depending on what you have seen of him so far. 

But that perception is not what drives him, but rather his own perception of himself, the one that has him pushing on with this endless quest to discover what it means to be Javier, whoever that is.

"It's very tough," he says, pausing for a moment to collect himself. "My God, it's so difficult, but it's like, in the end, I don't care how they're going to see me because the way they're going see me is their perception that they're going to have.

"Until they sit with me this way, and even then it takes time to know me, even the people that love me and see me three times a week, they're not going to know me fully in one week anyway. People that I love and the people that I'm knowing or meeting with stuff like that, it takes time to know people.

"I'm changing, and not changing into different people, my essence isn't going to change, but I'm a better version of myself...So in the end, I don't care if they judge me, I don't care if they criticize me, I don't care if they even speak good about me or they love me, I don't care.

"The purpose of showing myself, it's like as an avatar, not personal, because I can't take the credit. I don't give a sh*t about that. It's just me showing you that, if I can, you can. Period.

"That is the most important thing for me. It's like whatever, but if I can, you can."