Back to Brownsville | Chronicling a soccer team, and a sister city, skilled at border crossing

A 1910 map, by Norris Peters Co., indicating the border between Brownsville and Matamoros, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. (Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, Washington, D.C.)

Appreciation for the storytelling gifts of Oscar Casares grows on hearing that his narrative of Gladys Porter High School winning the state 5A high school soccer championship in 2006 derives fully from reconstruction. Casares could not attend the championship match outside Austin, thus could not experience directly the racist taunting directed toward the Brownsville, Texas, side—labeled “Brownville” on a placard depicting the team as cartoon mouse Speedy Gonzales. Showing reserves of class and courage, Porter scored twice in extra time in the ’06 title match to defeat nationally ranked Coppell from North Texas (see Apr 13).

The account by Casares in Texas Monthly (Nov 06) has been chosen for The Best American Sports Writing 2007 (Houghton Mifflin), the annual collection published each fall. In an interview on Apr 20—included in full in our first podcast (see below)—Casares characterizes the Rio Grande region from which the Porter Cowboys hail as isolated geographically and culturally from the rest of America, yet still nurtured by easy symbiosis with brethren across the river and by a majority Latino population proud of a distinctive heritage:

South Texas itself, if you look at a map of Texas, just south of San Antonio and Corpus [Christi] is the King Ranch. It was at one point the largest ranch in the country if not the world, I think. It was four-fifths the size of Rhode Island when it was all one ranch. To drive through the King Ranch will take you roughly about an hour. It’s brushland, scrubland. There’s really very little out there.

This forms a natural boundary between South Texas and everything to the north. To the southwest we have the Rio Grande and then to the east we have the Gulf of Mexico. And so the region itself is kind of isolated in a very significant way. It means that, growing up there, you grew up in a certain isolation and I think to a certain degree a certain innocence. I know I certainly did, not ever imagining necessarily a sense of otherness. … You don’t have that sense that you’re on the outside.

Kids grow up there with a very strong sense of who they are and of their culture, without necessarily having to defend it in any way or feel self-conscious about it. It just is who they are. … [The Porter High School players] had such a strong sense of self and what they wanted to do. Their coach, [Luis] Zarate, did a great job of centering them. In speaking to the coach and to the players, it was obvious that they had been affected by the comments, but it wasn’t to the point of being devastating. It was something that distracted them certainly, but they managed to focus and get back into the game.

Link to Amazon page

The cover of Casares’s volume
of short stories, Brownsville (Little,
Brown, 2003), plays off the story
“Chango,” featuring a decapitated
squirrel monkey.

Casares, in the interview, links the provocative remarks and signs of the Coppell supporters—tournament organizers forced removal of the racist messages—to tensions in Texas and the United States over immigration reform and fears of a growing Latino presence. One wonders if, within an American soccer culture that has not fostered long-standing ties by ethnicity and origin to professional clubs, these emotions are expressed at the grassroots, such as in the youth game, where regional political grievances can find an outlet.

In our minds we associate the Porter-Coppell 5A final of 2006 with an incident outside Charlotte, North Carolina, last November. Before a soccer game between Forestview High School of Gastonia and Charlotte Catholic, Forestview students broadcast a 90-second snippet of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. The Charlotte Catholic coach, who is black, also accused Forestview players of shouting racial epithets during the game, although these latter charges were not upheld.

The North Carolina High School Athletic Association suspended a Forestview assistant coach and goalkeeper and placed the soccer team on a one-year probation. “This has changed lives,” Forestview coach David Shearer told the Charlotte Observer afterward (Kevin Cary, “District Suspends 2 Over Nazi Speech,” 9 Nov 06). “After tonight … I don’t think anything will be normal.”

Small-town soccer in this case again helps illuminate hidden histories. The unthinking provocation of the Goebbels broadcast contrasts sharply with Gastonia’s background as a hotbed of labor organizing—it was the site of the Loray Mill strike in 1929—and as a setting for the progressive feminist works of authors such as Grace Lumpkin and Myra Page. Gathering Storm, Page’s first novel, centered on the Communist-led strike at Loray Mill, events and memories long suppressed in this predominantly conservative region. Interviewed by Tina Baker, collaborator on In a Generous Spirit: A First-Person Biography of Myra Page (University of Illinois, 1996), Page in the late 1980s, then living in a retirement home, nevertheless felt guardedly optimistic:

For us, there’s still a leftover fear of what people will think. We felt so isolated during the McCarthy probes, and before that with the Ku Klux Klan. I hope that it will never be like that again; I don’t believe it will. I think the American people learned something. … Now we accept that we have something people want to hear. (quoted by Suzanne Sowinska, The Women’s Review of Books, 1 Mar 97)

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. [...] Angeles Times writer Sam Quinones (25 Jul 07) as well as with Oscar Casares, author of Brownsville (10 May 07). Posted in: Mexico, Stadia & Supporters, USA Tags: AC Milan, Americanista, Atlanta, Bimbo [...]

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