Players from Porter High School lift championship trophy after the Class 5A boys’ soccer final, 15 Apr 06, Round Rock, Austin. Afterward, players told Porter principal Alonzo Barbosa Jr., “Sir, Speedy Gonzales won.” (www.bisd.us/porter)
The Porter High School Cowboys’ soccer season ended prematurely this year, in a regional quarterfinal playoff to Brownsville rivals Rivera. Now Rivera moves into the position that Porter occupied in 2006—unlikely challengers, from the southernmost city on the U.S.–Mexico border, to well-resourced, primarily Anglo sides from northern Texas in the state final four. The matches take place this weekend.
Gladys Porter High School, however, will always lay claim to having become the first team from the Rio Grande Valley, in any sport, to have won a state championship competing among Texas’ largest high schools (class 5A). One among five competitive boys’ soccer programs in Brownsville, Porter boasts a cohesive supporters’ organization, the Porter Nation, that employed the victory cry, “¡Si se pudo!” (Yes, we did it), to echo chants that Mexican American labor leader César Chávez once had used to galvanize farm workers.
In a region dense with storytellers and barrier-defying artists, the Porter High story has proven especially suitable for demonstrating the unique cultural position of the border dweller. Brownsville-bred writer and Porter High graduate Oscar Casares in a Texas Monthly column (“Ready for Some Fútbol?” Nov 06) shows clearly how the Porter players, in the 2006 championship game with nationally ranked Coppell of North Texas, remain de facto outsiders in an American polity that maintains little regard for those along its southern extremity.
The Porter High players are culture and border straddlers, often having to explain, if not apologize for, their presence. Casares, for example, describes the series of searches that the team had to undergo during the 370-mile trip to Round Rock, north of Austin, for the championship weekend. First a drug-detection dog inspects the players and belongings, in accordance with policy of the Brownsville Independent School District. Ninety miles later, the bus stops at a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint. Federal agents and more drug-sniffing dogs climb on board. “Everybody U.S. citizens?” the agent asks. Coaches and players, wearing identification tags to help smooth such encounters, nod.
But the greatest indignity awaits at the match. Already surrendering height advantage to opponents who are “all about one foot taller,” according to Austin-area high school coach Lupe Rodriguez (see “Champs with Class,” Brownsville Herald, 18 Apr 06), Porter faces the Coppell supporters’ bizarre chants of “USA! USA!” and a poster of cartoon figure Speedy Gonzales. The poster depicts Speedy about to be squashed and, according to Casares, carries the legend “Stomp on Brownville!” The spelling error is intentional.
Game officials ask fans to remove the sign, but the impression has been made. Casares is quick to place the Porter experience within the wider frame of immigration reform in the United States. On 26 Oct 06 President Bush signed into law a bill authorizing 700 miles of dual-layered, reinforced fencing to guard the border with Mexico in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, with one end passing a mile from Porter High School. With Democratic victories in midterm elections in November, however, it appears unlikely the $6 billion project will ever be funded. Further, politicans and businesses in these border regions wish to preserve a symbiotic relationship in cities such as Brownsville, Laredo and Eagle Pass, where “crossing the river is an everyday part of life” (Jeremy Schwartz, “Thriving Towns Fret Over Border Wall Plan,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 7 Jan 07). A bridge has connected Brownsville and Matamoros, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, since 1910; in fact, there are now three bridges.
One Coppell fan at the 2006 soccer final, oblivious to such context, calls out to Porter players, “You suck, you beaner!” The Porter Nation answers with “¡Si se puede!” Casares continues:
What the Coppell fans and the players on the charged soccer field probably didn’t realize was that their reaction toward a group they assumed was not American could hardly be counted as new. One of the most concentrated efforts to rid the country of illegal immigrants occurred in 1954, when the U.S. government officially passed Operation Wetback, a mandate to expel all illegal workers, particularly those from Mexico (as the name may have clued you in to). Led by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and aided by the municipal, county, state, and federal authorites, as well as the military, the operation resulted in a massive sweep of Mexican American neighborhoods and random stops of “Mexican-looking” people.
Within this time frame Warner Bros. introduced the Speedy Gonzales character, brandishing the convenient stereotypes and coining the phrase, in the faux-Mexican voicing of Mel Blanc, “the fastest mouse in all Mexico.” Casares notes appreciatively, though, that Speedy, with cries of ¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba! regularly outsmarted and outran nemesis Sylvester the Cat. In somewhat similar fashion, Porter players utilized what Casares describes as “more of a Mexican style,” emphasizing short passes in heavy winds that affected play in the Apr 15 final.
It certainly isn’t the kind of soccer most kids across suburbia grow up with. The quicker technique makes sense because of the smaller size of the players in the Rio Grande Valley. Porter’s approach to the game is actually quite common in this region of Texas, as well as on the other side of the river, because until recently, crossing over to Matamoros was the only way for boys to play on leagues year-round.
The championship remained scoreless through regulation, although several Coppell shots had clanged the posts and crossbar (David Hinojosa, “Brownsville Porter Sends Coppell Packing,” Dallas Morning News, 16 Apr 06). But, as often happens, the game opened up in extra time, with Coppell scoring first. Porter coach Luis Zarate, a former placekicker with the University of Houston’s gridiron football team, already, while addressing the racial slurs from the grandstands, had spread the message to players that Porter belonged. “You’re here. You belong here,” the coach said. These are well-worn coaching aphorisms, but Casares extends their meaning to the sense of belonging that Porter players and compatriots should feel in the United States, within a nation that sometimes appears to question their legitimacy.
Soccer players in south Texas, ca. 1924. In addition to such images of daily life, border photographer Robert Runyon (1881–1968) documented the development of cities and towns in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the revolution in northeastern Mexico. He maintained a portrait studio in Brownsville. (Robert Runyon Photograph Collection, The Center for American History and General Libraries, University of Texas at Austin)
In the end, the star of the Porter team, striker Jorge Briones—who would have to work two weeks washing cars to earn money for a most-valuable-player ring—scored twice in the overtime periods. He scored first from 15 yards then, following a run out of midfield, fired from the top of Coppell’s 18-yard box. “A defender deflected the shot,” writes Hinojosa in his game account, “and the change in trajectory caught Coppell goalkeeper Aaron Francis flat-footed. …”
Casares’s vignettes of Briones—who recently signed a letter of intent to play for the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA)—working at a used-car dealership and the team as a whole helping to open a new Wal-Mart Supercenter contribute to the author’s intent of normalizing the picture of Brownsville and the border land. In an interview following publication of his 2003 short-story collection, Brownsville (Little, Brown & Co.), Casares acknowledges a debt to an earlier writer of the region, Américo Paredes (1915–99).
Casares, too, works toward educating readers about the region and culture of which Richard Rodriguez, in Brown: The Last Discovery of America (Viking, 2002), writes, “Apart from the stool sample, there is no browner smear in the American imagination than the Rio Grande.” “[M]y form of activism,” Casares says, “is that by showing Mexican Americans involved in ordinary things as I have always seen them, by normalizing them, what I’m doing is sort of showing the humanity of the group” (Michael Schaub, “An Interview with Oscar Casares,” bookslut.com, Aug 03). Thus, in Brownsville, he emphasizes the everyday ambitions of the city’s residents and, while integrating regional particulars, makes these ambitions recognizable to Americans at large. In one case, an 11-year-old boy, Diego, starting his first job at a fireworks stand rides to his first day of work with his proud father.
They cracked the windows open at the top to let in the cool air. The sky was ash gray, as it had been for the past week. On the way to the stands they passed the cafés along International Boulevard, the panadería and its glorious scent of fresh sweet bread, the restaurant that sold barbacoa on Sunday mornings, the service station where the father had worked as a young man. (“Mr. Z,” 7)
One can imagine Briones experiencing such sights and smells while riding to his job. Casares even takes pride in knowing that, on his insistence, his book ended up being positioned next to cash registers at HEB grocery stores in south Texas—exceedingly rare for a work of literary fiction. The book became a “working person’s icon,” according to a profile in the Daily Texan (Rachel Pearson, “Author Brings Border Experience to His Stories,” 18 Apr 05). Brownsville residents wanted to purchase their copies from the working man’s HEB.
Thus, it seems appropriate that Casares and freshly minted Brownsville hero Briones end up tethered to the same phone connection at the conclusion of Casares’s account of the Porter High School soccer team. Briones asks to speak to Casares in Spanish. Casares passes on his congratulations, but the music at the Wal-Mart opening makes conversation impossible. Both men listen to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Casares via transmission by mobile phone.
The Rivera Raiders of Brownsville lost to touted suburban Dallas side Flower Mound Marcus, 1–3, in the state 5A soccer semifinals on Apr 13 in Round Rock.
As of mid-2007, the route for a border fence between Brownsville and Matamoros was still being mapped (Ralph Blumenthal, “Some Texans Fear Border Fence Will Sever Routine of Daily Life,” New York Times, Jun 20). Drafts from Customs and Border Protection services showed parts of the University of Texas and Texas Southmost College and the Brownsville-Matamoros bridge on the Mexican side of the fence. One man shouting from the Mexico side of the Rio Grande said, “It’s an insult. We’ll make tunnels.”
For more on the controversy surrounding the border fence, visit photographer Alex Jones‘s photo narrative of one man’s protest: the 176-mile border walk, from Laredo to Brownsville, of Jay Johnson-Castro Sr. On Mexico’s outsider, or self-taught, art, see a review of the ongoing American Folk Art Museum exhibit, “Martín Ramírez,” for the New York Review of Books (Sanford Schwartz, “A Track All His Own,” Apr 12). The Mexican laborer from Jalisco state spent 32 years in California mental institutions but, with Adolf Wölfli and Henry Darger, became one of the three most highly regarded “outsider” artists of the 20th century. Ramírez’s drawings, Schwartz writes, represent “a sign language created precisely for telling the stories of being a schizophrenic and an immigrant—of being someone continually torn between two identities and two homes.” For more on contemporary art of the Brownsville–Matamoros conurbation, directed specifically to the notion of a border fence, see a review of the exhibit “Trauseuntes/Passers-By,” featuring a Matamoros painting collective, Colectivo La Azoteca (Sara Inés Calderón, “Area Artists Attempt to Capture Border Fence Conflict on Canvas,” Brownsville Herald, 22 Oct 06). “The border is very invisible,” says painter Veronica Mercado. “People come and go.”
For information on the place of soccer in organizing Latinos on immigration issues, see the Jul 06 report from Philadelphia’s City Paper (Doron Taussig, “Using Their “Religion’ ”).