futbolistas without borders

Mexico's soccer team
Mexico’s soccer team that includes U.S. born Mexican Americans
LA Times sports reporter Kevin Baxter recently published an article on Mexican American female players going south of the border to play for Mexico’s national team. This article is a follow-up to a previous article (“Athletes without borders” April 1, 2010) that focused on U.S. born Mexican American athletes playing in Mexico’s sports leagues and the Sports Games for Mexicans Abroad tournament.  It is understandable why some Mexican American athletes decide to play south of the border. It allows them to get more playing time,  prolong their athletic careers, compete in international games (Olympics and World Cup), improve their Spanish language and reconnect with their ethnic heritage. Although Mexico’s coaches and sports officials paint a romantic picture and readily accept them as  “Mexicans” it is not clear what the responses are from teammates and fans. When U.S. born Mexican Americans visit Mexico they are often referred to as “pochos” or “pochas” meaning a person of Latin American descent who speaks poor Spanish and is “too Americanized.”  Apart from the language barrier there are cultural barriers that makes adjustment more difficult than is revealed in both articles.  Also, Mexico’s interest in recruiting Mexican American athletes is not a recent phenomenon. In my article, “Playing Across Borders” I trace the historic connection between the Mexican sports federation,Confederación Deportiva Mexicana or CODEME and the Mexican Athletic Association of Southern California. It was during the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles that the Mexican government began recruiting Mexican Americans for its Olympic teams especially in boxing and track-n-field.  Now that the Olympic Games in London is near the Mexican government is gearing up to recruit athletes from Mexico de afuera (Mexico outside of Mexico).

La Raza Tennis Association

Despite the increasing number of Spaniard and Latin American players in professional tennis there are no U.S.-born or raised Latinos or Latinas in U.S. tennis. Finding and developing young Latino and Latina tennis players has been a big challenge for the United States Tennis Association. angellopezbio

One Latino tennis coach who has been actively working to increase the Latino talent pool is Angel Lopez. Growing up in San Diego’s Mexican American barrio of Logan Heights during the early 1970s Angel Lopez never knew that Latinos played tennis until he learned about “Big” and “Little” Pancho in his high school class. His mother was from Sinaloa, Mexico and father from East Los Angeles, Lopez grew up speaking Spanish at home and English at school. Inspired by the remarkable tennis histories of Richard Gonzalez and Francisco Segura, Lopez picked up of a racket and after two years won the singles championship in La Raza Tennis Tournament.

This tournament was organized by the La Raza Tennis Association (LRTA), a non-profit organization whose mission was to “foster and develop the game of tennis in San Diego County, to encourage development and participation of promising young players of the Spanish-Speaking Community.”. LRTA was formed in 1974 by Bill Molina to “expand the interest and enjoyment in the game of tennis among the Chicano community and help develop the young tennis talent.”   In 1976 Lopez was considered the “community’s up and coming tennis star” tennis player and received financial backing by LRTA to travel to tournaments and take private lessons with Pancho Segura at the La Costa Resort.Lopez recalled one occasion when he was “racially profiled” driving to the exclusive tennis resort in Carlsbad, CA, and was stopped them by a policeman who did not believe that he was training under Coach Segura.

Despite the racial and class barriers that he encountered as a young Chicano from Barrio Logan, Lopez never stopped competing, winning a full tennis scholarship for the University of Arizona and playing professionally in national and international tournaments. Lopez’s greatest contribution to the sport of tennis, however, was becoming one of the United States Professional Tennis Association’s top coaches. As director of tennis operations at San Diego Tennis & Racquet Club since 1979, Lopez has coached top junior and professional players, including Alexandra Stevenson, Kelly Jones, Alejandro Hernandez and Zina Garrison. In 1994, Lopez was the head coach of the Newport Beach Dukes of World Team Tennis.  More importantly Lopez has been working on and off the tennis courts to increase Hispanic participation in the sport. In 1994 Lopez was chosen as one of the top 100 Role Models by the Mexican Heritage Foundation. At the 2004 Indian Wells Tennis Tournament Lopez was recognized for his many years of service to the Southern California’s Hispanic youth and a year later was appointed by Billie Jean King to the USTA National Hispanic Participation Task Force Committee.  Lopez never forgot the mission of the La Raza Tennis Association and the mentorship of Pancho Segura by founding the Angel Lopez Tennis Academy to develop young Latino and Latina tennis players.

Los Angeles Aztecs

laaztecsroster2The Los Angeles Aztecs was a pro soccer team founded in 1974 by a real estate millionaire, Dr. Jack Gregory, as the newest expansion team of the North American Soccer League (NASL). In 1968 the NASL was the largest professional soccer league with 17 teams playing throughout the United States and Canada. The NASL team rosters were dominated by foreign players including Pelé, the great Brazilian forward considered the best soccer player in the history of the sport, who arrived in 1975 to play for the New York Cosmos. The Aztecs surprised the soccer establishment during their first year by winning the NASL Championship over the Miami Toros. The team appropriated the “Aztecs” name attributed to the Pre-Columbian Indians of Mexico to appeal to the large number of Latino fans in the Los Angeles area. The Aztecs held their first game on May 5th at the 22,500 seat East Los Angeles Stadium against the Seattle Sounders attracting over 4,000 spectators. The crowd size was relatively small compared to the 10,000 fans who attended the four exhibition games against visiting soccer teams from Mexico. The crowd size question raised by L.A. sports writers was whether “the fans came out to see the Aztecs or the Mexicans?” One sports writer noted that the “Most frequent complaint about the Aztecs of the North American Soccer League is that the team has no Latin touch. In this garden spot so heavily populated with spirited Mexicans, not a one among the Aztecs….” These questions continued to baffle soccer promoters in subsequent decades.

The original roster was coached by Italian American, Alex Perolli, and described as a “polyglot team” comprised of players from Argentina, Trinidad, Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico and the United States. Perolli coached in several countries including Veracruz, Mexico for two years thus he used his multilingual skills to communicate with his “foreign” players. To reach out to the large Mexican fan base in the region, however, the Aztecs actively recruited players from Mexico and local Mexican Americans. One of these recruits was Jose Lopez, captain of UCLA soccer team and the No. 1 draft pick for the NASL college draft. Born in Mexicali, Mexico, Lopez was raised in Santa Ana where he excelled in soccer at Santa Ana Valley High School earning a soccer scholarship to UCLA.Another UCLA player was two-time All-American forward Sergio Velazquez (born and raised in El Monte, California) acquired in a trade with San Antonio Thunder for seven players. Another draft pick was Miguel Lopez, who was an all-CIF player at San Gabriel High School and played for Whittier College’s soccer team and semi-pro for South Bay United in the Greater Los Angeles Soccer League. When coach Perolli fired the Trinidad goalie, he convinced Blas Sanchez to leave University of Mexico for the Aztecs and immediately turned around the team’s losing streak. Although the Aztecs were winning home games they were averaging 5,160 spectators below the league average of 8,390. Aztecs owner hoped that “the Mexican goalie will attract Latin fans to the Aztec game.” The lackluster crowds and dwindling gate receipts forced Dr. Gregory to sell the team to a consortium of businessmen.

Los_Angeles_Aztecs

The public perception of soccer as a foreign sport haunted club owners who worried about declining gate receipts, so they began to “Americanize” the sport by crafting new rules for team rosters. In 1977, the North American Soccer League instituted a new rule requiring teams to native-born players to be on the soccer field at all times in 1979 and three in 1980. The NASL also required that each team have at least 4 “American” players (later changed to seven) on its active roster. Known as the “3-American Rule” was a step in developing more U.S. born soccer players because according to Phil Woosman, NASL Commissioner, “the situation has developed that the caliber of foreign players being brought into the league has advanced far higher than the caliber of American players coming into the league.” As one California Surf goalie put it, “It’s no secret why soccer hasn’t taken off in this country. It comes down to one word. Americanization. People can’t identify with the players when most of them are foreigners.” Key to the Americanization of pro soccer was developing college soccer teams with more U.S. born players. With the creation of the first NCAA soccer championship in 1959 colleges began to take soccer more seriously. UCLA Bruins prided itself has having eight American started in 1974 compared to four years earlier when the entire 30-man roster represented 22 nationalities. This rule was responsible for the decline of Latino players in the NASL. In 1978 there were only 15 Latino players remaining in club rosters. This Americanization plan also impacted the L.A. Aztecs. The new owners hired a young coach, Terry Fisher, to transform the team into the “New” Aztecs. The “New” Aztecs, however, did not include Latino soccer players. For example, check out the changing composition of the Aztec team rosters in the North American Soccer League Rosters website. In a published article titled, “Pro-Soccer’s Anti-Latino Game Plan ” (Nuestro Magazine, , May 1978) former head coach at Los Angeles Mission College and California State University Northridge, Horacio “Ric” Fonseca accused the NASL of trying to “Americanize” the game by discriminating against Latinos, both U.S. born and foreign players. Fonseca makes a convincing case by citing examples of three Latino players in the “old” Aztecs who were either traded or released because “they would not sufficiently ‘Americanize’ soccer—as if U.S. Latinos were not American!” Some coaches, according to Fonseca, also preferred players who could speak English and an “English style of play” that would attract more U.S. fans. The worst racist incident came when American players from the NASL team, Philadelphia Atoms, refused to play with new players from Mexico (the new owners were a consortium of businessmen from Jalisco, Mexico) because they “considered it an insult to play with a team of ‘Mexican scrubs’.” When rumors spread that the L.A. Aztecs were also going to be sold to a Mexican company the L.A. Times attempted to reassure readers with the headline “Aztecs to stay north of the border–in Pasadena”. “No, the Los Angeles Aztecs aren’t going to play their games in Mexico City or East Los Angeles. They’ll be back at the Rose Bowl. And the players can cancel those Spanish lessons they’d been planning to take because the Aztecs aren’t going to hire a Mexican coach.” It was true that the Aztecs did not hire a Mexican coach (instead they hired a Brazilian coach) but the other rumor was true. In 1981 the L.A. Aztecs were sold to the Mexican television network, Televisa through a California subsidiary.

Latinization of Public Parks

arroyoverdeSince I was a child my family celebrated Easter Sunday at Arroyo Verde Park in Ventura, CA. This park is situated between two canyons with hiking trails and playgrounds that keep children busy all day long. Over the years I have witnessed a kind of “Latinization” of Arroyo Verde and other public parks. You can hear Spanish spoken everywhere, buy paletas from paleteros and listen to musical trios playing traditional ranchera songs. This Latinization of parks generated complaints from surrounding neighbors because of the overflow of parking into neighborhood streets. Because of the high demand for tables park goers began setting up camp overnight which irritated city recreation officials who then banned camping overnight and shorten the hours. Now a line of cars begins forming at 4am until the gates open at 6am and then a mass rush of vehicles race to find a table. Others attempt to find one on foot. For example, my brother who has reserved the family table every year, has perfected the art of finding the park tables. He looks for one next to the playground and bathrooms. He arrives at the park in the middle of the night but instead of waiting in line he takes a hike along the trails to stake out a table. Once the gates open and as people begin to dash toward the tables (like they are running a 100 meter yard dash), my brother descends from the bushes with one chair on each hand and sits down on a table. He gets the best table every time!

Latinos as the “Hardest Workers”

migrants

I’m tired of hearing that Latinos and Latinas are the “hardest workers” because of some biological gene or cultural trait. Historically agricultural employers attributed Latino worker preference for farm labor, not because of economic necessity, but because they were genetically “built lower to the ground,” it was supposedly “easier for them to stoop.” More common are cultural explanations for the hard work ethic. It reminds me of the “cultural racism” frame discussed in Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s book Racism without Racists, which relies on stereotypical arguments about the low social standing of Mexicans due to their “culture of poverty.” A common statement is that “Mexicans work very hard on the job but they do not put much emphasis on education.” Even President George W. Bush commended the hard work and sacrifice of Latino workers. In 2005 Mexican President Vicente Fox made a controversial statement by claiming that Mexicans were more than willing to do any work compared to blacks who refused any type of work. The problem with these statements is they pit workers against each other and fail to analyze the structural factors that force any worker but especially undocumented migrants to work harder and harder to feed their family. One must also examine the economic situation of a migrant’s homeland to understand why they started working as a child instead of going to school.

Soccer Fields are Not Just for Playing

Here is another great example of how one can use sports as an organizing tool. In a recent  Los Angeles Times article, Raul Macias, organized a soccer league but when he could not find soccer fields he entered the realm of politics. His first confrontation was with the L.A. parks and recreation department which essentially told him to “learn English” and “go back to Mexico,” but Raul was persistent in helping out the kids by keeping them out of trouble and involved in soccer.  After securing soccer fields with his political maneuvering and organizing a group of parents and soccer players, Juan became a political activist to be reckon with, attracting politicos, environmental activists, and city officials seeking his advise and support.

Don Juan and Soccer Players

Don Juan and Soccer Players

Taco Trucks as Cross-Cultural Spaces

I was reading the L.A. Times editorial about new estrictions on Taco Trucks in the L.A. area and was thinking about why I prefer taco trucks over full service Mexican restaurants. Apart form the more intimate connection between the cook and customer, I enjoy the conversations around the taco truck. I meet all kinds of people that I would have never met before. I like the quote” the crowd around a taco truck is the closest thing we have to a unified Los Angeles soul.” In thinking about my new favorite taco truck in Pullman, WA it is the only place where I see so many Latino families in one location waiting for their orders and speaking Spanish. It is rare to find a public space in Pullmania where Spanish is flowing so freely. But if you look closer it is not just Latinos who visit the taco trucks, people from different nationalities love Mexican food but also enjoy the “taco truck experience.” I would argue that Taco trucks are important cross-cultural spaces where Latinos and non-Latinos meet, talk and build community ties. The reality is the “taco truck experience” is a contested space. Restaurant owners, neighbors, law enforcement and city officials view the taco trucks as an economic and community threat, but customers and supporters need to advocate on their behalf. Ironically it often Latino retaurant owners and politicians who are supporting these strict regulations and heavy fines. O.k. now I’m hungry and ready for another taco truck experience.

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