At home and away | With march, migrants seek space on foreign field

The playing surface at South Concho Park in San Angelo, Texas, consists of pebbles, dirt, goathead stickers and mesquite thorns, not necessarily in that order. (Arthur Spragg | San Angelo Standard-Times)

Decatur, Alabama | Until hundreds of thousands marched yesterday, it had become hard to piece together isolated movements from such places as Janesville, Wisconsin; Liberal, Kansas; Bowling Green, Kentucky; San Angelo, Texas; and Dalton, Georgia. These small to mid-sized locales have featured in recent media reports for burgeoning Hispanic populations and for the development of local, ethnically based soccer leagues.

The marchers for immigrant rights on Monday invited comparisons to the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s, with impressive organizational capacities and political and cultural alliances with labor advocates, liberal politicians and the Roman Catholic Church. Some 40,000 marchers, primarily Latino, took a day off Monday to gather outside Atlanta, a city not reputed for mass public protest. “I didn’t realize there were so many,” said Nancy Gabriel, a resident of an apartment complex in Clarkston, Georgia, a magnet for immigrant and refugee communities in the metro area.

“We usually don’t have this many fans,” said Christie McDonald of Duke after Sunday’s friendly. Duke defeated Mexico 1–0 on McDonald’s goal. (John Godbey | Decatur Daily News)

In another hamlet—Decatur, Alabama, in the Tennessee Valley—on Sunday, another expression of native Latino culture occurred as the 2,500-capacity stands and bleachers at Jack Allen Southwest Recreation Complex filled beyond capacity for an international women’s friendly between Mexico and the women’s soccer team of Duke University. “It appeared that at least five out of every six spectators at the … match were Hispanic,” writes Bradley Handwerger for the Decatur Daily.

That so many Hispanic supporters could gather in a Southern town, far from urban centers, for an exhibition of women’s soccer speaks to the sport’s place in lending cohesion to a sometimes disparate group. They sang the national anthem of Mexico loudly, notes Handwerger, with less zeal for the “Star-Spangled Banner.” In interviews, Mexican fans supported immigration reform and proposals to grant residency status to those lacking the necessary papers. Said Maria Chavez, a U.S. resident of some 20 years’ standing:

We are good workers. We’re responsible. We like to do right. … We support the United States economy. I cannot imagine this country without the people who work specifically in the field.

Locals seemed proud, judging from the article, that the Alabama Youth Soccer Association would select its new soccer complex, constructed by the local parks and recreation authority, for an international event. Yet the good feeling seemed blunted by a “back to reality” editorial in the Decatur Daily on Monday:

[O]ur education and health care systems are pushed beyond their resources; millions of undocumented aliens are driving automobiles without licenses (or insurance) and driving wages down; and a burgeoning black market for forged documents allows foreigners to, among other things, obtain the skills necessary to fly commercial airliners into crowded buildings.

It is hard not to feel that such views, calling for a clampdown on borders and enforcement of existing immigration statutes, lag the reality on the ground. In today’s Seattle Times we read of coach Juan Carlos Torres‘s persistence in building a soccer team for 18 students at the Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center. They call themselves “the Internationals” with players from Thailand, Mexico, Ethiopia, Senegal, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, all trying to gain mastery of English over one to three semesters and to move into mainstream Seattle schools. Even physical-education classes incorporate vocabulary-building drills.

Soccer helps provide familiarity and fraternity to soften the culture shock. “You put that ball out there and you don’t need language,” says another Seattle-area coach, Ireland native Mike Ryan. “It’s like taking a teddy bear to bed.”

We take special notice of Nike’s donation of white home jerseys to the SBOC side. Not that the contribution causes the athletic-apparel giant, based in the Pacific Northwest, any pain. But its aggressive “Don’t Tread on Me” marketing campaign on behalf of U.S. soccer speaks with a different voice, a saber-rattling turn that seems calculated to alienate any native who thinks that soccer is anything less than the bee’s knees and to provide ready-made comic material for announcers abroad looking for examples of American naïveté.

Less than 20 short years ago, even microscopic island nations drooled rivers at the opportunity to dribble around us; to make us wish we never gained independence from England. They laughed at us. … Other nations do not merely scout us anymore; they toss and turn and develop digestive problems over us. … So Says This American Game.

The copy writer’s penchant for alliterative “d”s fortunately did not extend to dysentery.

Some of the findings of Stodolska, left, and Santos will be published in the Journal of Leisure Research. (L. Brian Stauffer | University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign)

The chest pounding obscures a soccer culture of subtle grace and quiet dignity, discussed well in research into the leisure habits of migrants conducted by Monika Stodolska and Carla Almeida Santos of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The researchers in interviews with Mexican workers in the Chicago and Champaign-Urbana areas determined that pickup soccer and basketball games were the recreation outlets of choice, given the crushing workloads of between 70 and 80 hours per week and the need to save money for extended families. The games’ unstructured and spontaneous qualities made them appealing. Undocumented workers also did not want to risk trips beyond parks near their homes lest a wrong move lead to identification and arrest. Says Stodolska:

It is unlikely that most Americans who come into contact with transnational migrants, who employ them, and who take sides in the “immigration debate” realize or consider the sacrifices these people make to support their loved ones in their home country, the tough lives they live in the U.S. and the contributions they make to the economy.

For many, buying a beer or cigarettes is considered too wasteful. “Beer is like a tile on my floor,” said one construction worker. Within such a circumscribed life, space on the soccer pitch must seem luxurious.


The Aztlan Soccer League, named for the mythical place of origin of Aztec people, receives its due in the Pueblo (Colo.) Chieftain on Apr 17. One of the players, Juan (none wanted their last names used), contributes the harrowing tale of having to pass on traditions of his native Juarez, Mexico, to his son:

My little boy, I put him aside and play [soccer] with him. But then he goes and watches the [Denver] Broncos. … How can you compete with the Broncos?

I teach my little boy all these [soccer] moves and tricks, then he turns on the TV and there are the Broncos. After a while it’s, “Let’s go play soccer.” And it’s, “No, no. I want to go play American football.”

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. [...] The Washington Post published a recent front-page feature on the attraction of area Latino soccer leagues—and the relatively lucrative construction jobs that go with them—to professionals from Central America (Nick Miroff, “Constructing Lives Off the Soccer Field,” Aug 7). For example, Calros Nerio of El Salvador, working in suburban Virginia in the off-season and playing for Liga de Manassas, “makes more in a week installing windows and doors than he made in a month as a pro fíºtbolista.” More than 30 Latino men’s leagues field teams in Washington, with between 8,000 and 12,000 players competing each weekend. (See also 11 Apr 06.) [...]

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