CHICANOS AND THE SOMEWHAT MYSTERIOUS GAME OF FÚTBOL.
Fútbol. Football. Soccer. Whatever you call it, it captivates most of the industrialized world when World Cup competition comes around every four years. This time around, even NFL-mesmerised masses in the United States were drawn to what has been somewhat over-romantically called “the beautiful game” by aficionados. It’s a shame the United States side didn’t advance beyond the round of 16. They fought valiantly against Belgium but they didn’t make it to the quarter finals. Ni modo. I was rooting for the U.S. team. I had also rooted for the Mexican national team, but they fell short as well. Ni modo. I was able to watch those last two matches involving the U.S. team and the Mexican team after I got home from a vacation that took me and my wife through the Canadian Rocky Mountains and across the province of Alberta to the state of Montana and Glacier National Park. Magnificent scenery.
World Cup competition began as we started that two-week trip. We were on planes, trains and automobiles so we only caught glimpses of the fútbol competition going on in Brazil while we were in bars and hotels and airport waiting rooms. But you could get a sense of the excitement generated by World Cup by talking to “holiday makers” in Canada – folks from England, Japan and seemingly every other country. They all had their World Cup biases and dreams.
One of my favorite writers – Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano – years ago opened a chapter in a book with a tale that went something like this: “I am a swift, unstoppable fútbol player for my country’s national team. I am the best of the best. I fly down the pitch, outmaneuvering the opposing side, I dash to the box, I kick a prodigious shot and I score a goal, winning the match for my team. Then I wake up.”
It provides a measure of the fantasy and fanaticism that fútbol engenders. And football, or soccer if you prefer, was quite the conversation starter during that little vacation trip during the first couple of weeks of June. It led to discussions of other subjects. For example, there was my curious encounter with this woman with a decided cockney accent. I discovered that she was raised in a working class neighborhood outside of London. She’d recently moved to Christ Church, New Zealand in order to “get away from those blasted immigrants,” as she explained it. “You couldn’t hardly go anywhere in London and find places where they don’t even speak English,” she told me. I eventually asked her if she was a supporter of the National Front in England, a virulently anti-immigrant fascistic organization. It was a bit like asking someone from Atlanta if they were in favor of the Ku Klux Klan, but hell I was on holiday and this woman couldn’t harm me. She told me, “I’m not a racialist and I’m not part of that National Front, but they’re not too far wrong.” That’s a bit like saying Nazi Skin Heads are not that bad, except for that part about considering blacks and Jews (and Mexicans) sub-human. Oh, and there’s that tricky thing about the racist assaults and murders of people who aren’t like them. Details such as those. The chubby lady told me she fled England to New Zealand in order to “get away from them immigrants.” Of course, she neglected to recognize that by moving to another country she, herself, had become an immigrant. But bring the conversation back to football and the lady from New Zealand-by-way-of-London is as cheery as a character from the movie “Babe.”
World Cup in Brazil, of course, was a study in politics, activism and the broad question of income inequality. There were scores of public protests about the apparent “waste” of money going for lavish soccer stadiums instead of health care, education and massive infrastructure improvements for the masses. One of the most egregious and dramatic examples of that was the anger that followed the Belo Horizonte bridge collapse in Brazil. People died. And before that several people died during the hurry-up effort to finish stadiums and other buildings as the deadline for the start of World Cup approached. Lástima.
Like lots of Chicanos, I suspect, I’m not a giant soccer fan. It wasn’t in my blood growing up on the eastside of Los Angeles. Baseball was in my DNA. Baseball seduced me. It commanded my time and was the foundation of my dreams and fantasies. Sure, I followed “American” football and as I kid I played my share of touch football games at Lincoln Park on weekends. But soccer. That was something we NEVER played in my Chicano neighborhood. We didn’t really know anything about fútbol.
There was a day when a lot of that crystalized for me and my homies. This is back in the 1960s, just before the Chicano Movement – in all its manifestations – exploded. I was in junior high school. The school I attended was made up mostly of Mexican Americans. There was a group of students called “Foreign Students.” They were mostly recent immigrants from Mexico. We Chicanos, tapados that we were, called them “tijuaneros” or “T-Js.” Our consciousness was about as underdeveloped as it could me. The foreign students – the mexicanos – regarded us derisively as “pochos” and “agringados.” Evolved consciousness awaited us years later when were were all in the movimiento together.
So, anyway back to junior high school. We Chicanos were never in class with the “foreign students” because they had special classes in an isolated building. The emphasis was on what educators probably would regard as “remediation.” The only time the Chicanos and the mexicanos were in the same class was in P.E. And of course in physical education classes we chose our own sides. Chicanos picked Chicanos and mexicanos picked mexicanos. We played baseball and we both played well. It was competitive and everything went pretty well. Then for several days we were scheduled to play “American” football. Touch football. We, the Chicano team, beat the shit out of the mexicanos. They didn’t know a fullback from a tight end. We clobbered them and we were as smug as you could be. “Pinche T-Js, we showed them.”
Then, the P.E. teacher told us we were going to play something called “soccer.” We thought, how hard could this be? You just kick the ball around until it goes into the goal. Well, the mexicanos knew what they were doing. We Chicanos were like residents of the Sahara desert being thrown into a swimming pool and ordered to play water polo. We had no idea about dribbling a soccer ball, passing, using your head and, generally, playing this damn game called soccer. We kept grabbing at the damn ball with our hands. The mexicanos humiliated us Chicanos. Lesson learned. We weren’t quite so smug after that.
The recent World Cup competition in Brazil brought to mind some other experiences I had with fútbol. You may recall that World Cup was held in the United States in 1994. I was working as a reporter then and I covered the games held in Southern California. I attended the World Cup final which was held at the Rose Bowl. Brazil defeated Italy. It was a kick to be there. The euphoria was almost palpable. On the streets of gentrified Old Pasadena, folks were drinking in public, singing loudly and generally carrying on. The police kept an eye on the revelers, but didn’t push anyone around. Drunken gringos were climbing lampposts and the police politely asked them to come down and behave. There were no confrontations. The good-natured partying went on.
This was in sharp contrast to what I witnessed several days earlier in Huntington Park, a working class city with a predominantly Mexican population. The Mexican national team had won scored a big victory in World Cup competition. The good folks in Huntington Park went joyfully wild. They marched down the streets, they cheered, they sang. The cops weren’t pleased. There were no rocks thrown, no windows broken, no “lawlessness.” That is, until the cops started flexing their muscles – unnecessarily. They started shoving people, poking them with billy clubs. Calling them names. I was there. I saw it. I heard it. Then the gente started to shove back. Then, of course, the cops started firing tear gas at the people. Then some rocks were thrown. It all became a morbid bit of self-fulfilling prophecy. Lots of folks were arrested. The party came to an ugly end. I remember those experiences well.
Frankly, I don’t know much about soccer. Like lots of Chicanos, I don’t know much about the intricacies of the game – the strategies, the subtleties of defense and offence. Hell, I’m not quite sure what a midfielder is, other than what the name obviously implies. But I do know a little bit about the politics of World Cup, because books have been written about it and I’ve read them. And I do know that the controlling organization, FIFA, smells as corrupt and arrogant as any Medellin drug cartel or New York cosa nostra family. Most people who follow football closely already know that, but they are still exhilarated by the game. And I guess that will continue to be the case. After all, these are remarkable athletes and it is a rather beautiful game when played at its highest level.
Copyright 2014 by Luís Torres.
Luís Torres is a veteran journalist and writer. He is the author of “Doña Julia’s Children: The Life and Legacy of Educational Reformer Vahac Mardirosian” available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.com.