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.

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