Why It’s OK for Hyphenated Americans to Root for Mexican Soccer
Last Wednesday I squeezed my way into a cantina in downtown Mexico City and tried to be on my best behavior. The Mexican national soccer team was going to play the United States in a crucial World Cup qualifying match, yet I was unsure until the last moment who I would root for. Don’t talk too loud, I instructed myself. Observe and mimic the rituals around you.
I am a U.S. citizen, born and raised on the border, but being Mexican American, and living in Mexico now, makes for a deep bipolarity when it comes to this rivalry. People live and breathe for soccer in Mexico, a do-or-die sort of relationship to the sport. Especially lately, when everything else in this country seems to be teetering on the brink. To the north, the Americans are becoming one of the world’s most exciting football teams, gradually building a tradition of excellence – true to the American way.
When you are born on the U.S. side but live with Mexican sensibilities, you can be naturally torn when these two storied teams take to the field. It’s the old “hyphenated American” push-and-pull. Root for the red, white, and blue? Or the tricolor?
I decided to play it extra-safe. On the day of the match, I wore a blue T-shirt, as an American, but lucky green socks, for Mexico. During the game, though, it didn’t take long to pick a side. Charlie Davies scored a goal for the United States in the first 10 minutes of the game, the first time ever the U.S. has led in play over Mexico at the gargantuan and mythical Estadio Azteca. When it happened, I felt instant devastation and rage, along with the others around me who were cursing the screen and throwing their hands in the air. Soon after, Mexico responded with a goal of its own — a blasting shot by Israel Castro — and I joined in the whooping and screaming.
No one around me seemed to mind that I did so in English. I had found my team.
Mexico needs me right now, I told myself, throwing back beers with other self-identified pochos. Swine flu, a faltering economy, the bloody drug war, and that border shared with a vast and powerful juggernaut called the United States of America. This was serious business. By half-time, when the score sat ominously at 1-1, the game felt like an epic struggle against an invading army.
Think about it. The U.S. long ago supplanted the role previously held by Spain in Mexico’s pantheon of national boogeymen: the imperial oppressor. A rising and powerful U.S. football squad marching into the temple of tradition-bound Mexican soccer corresponds perfectly to the rivalry’s imperial logic. And if in 2009 there is one place where Mexico refuses to be kicked around anymore by the U.S. – as it has been, ahem, for much of the last decade – it’s on the soccer field.
I did not feel like a traitor to the nation of my birth when I cheered on Mexico to its victory last week, not a bit. Think of it as an expression of cultural flexibility. Back home in the States, a Mexican American or Mexican immigrant is perpetually considered an outsider. Like many Latinos of many nations and colors, it is how we are perceived, no matter how acculturated we might be. Even though we are rocketing off into space as astronauts and joining the ranks of Supreme Court justices, Latinos can’t seem to shake the mainstream impression that we are a people apart. Mexicans, thanks to historical proximity, make up the far majority of U.S. Latinos. And with the enormous influx of immigrants into the United States from Mexico in the last two decades, mainstream society has plenty of material to refresh the lingering impression that we will always be different.
No wonder anti-immigrant attack dogs look to the wild expressions of Mexican cultural nationalism at U.S.-Mexico soccer matches in the States as evidence that “the Mexicans” will never truly assimilate. That’s a self-generating cycle. The more Mexicans are ostracized and demonized in the American mainstream, often to the point of death, the more so many will be pushed to root for the official opponent – Mexico – in their adopted country. It’s the same reasoning for why so many of us raised Mexican instead of U.S. flags during the immigrant-rights marches of 2006. To the ire, of course, of utterly scandalized fellow Americans.
All of this could make you enormously depressed, or, as I see it, proud of your options. No matter what the broader American culture says to us, the U.S. is just as much mine as anyone else’s. That means – if I’m to believe the marketing – that I have two cultures to draw from, two languages, two histories, and two teams to root for. In this case, my ties to Mexico make it easy to step out of that in-between space and cheer on the red, white, and green. Maybe some cousins or Mexican American college friends will go the other way, and that’s the beauty of it.
People can label this flexibility some sort of betrayal all they want. The way I see it, nothing says I’m proud and comfortable with being an American more than this: Wearing blue and green, a bilingual, bicultural U.S. Latino, living abroad in Mexico, cheering on a worthy and familiar rival, for the sake of the sport.
* Photo above, a Mexican American’s 1998 vintage World Cup jersey, proudly worn in victory around Mexico City, August 12, 2009.
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