Sunday, September 19, 2010

a season in 'Little Mexico'

Woodburn High School, located in Woodburn, Oregon just outside of Portland, consistently produces hugely talented soccer players--most of them children of immigrants or immigrants themselves--who have grown up playing the sport "in the street"--that is, with players of all ages, sizes, and skill levels, which often leads to better, more well-rounded players. Yet they lack the privileges of students at richer, whiter schools, whose parents have the time and money to send them to private soccer clubs throughout the school year to refine those skills. In his book The Boys From Little Mexico, Steve Wilson writes of the clash between the Woodburn High School students and the wealthy pupils of Lakeridge, from the affluent Portland suburb Lake Oswego:

Only 5 percent of Lakeridge students are eligible for a free or reduced lunch. At Woodburn High, 75 percent of the students are eligible for a free or reduced lunch.

...The one place the two communities come together on equal footing is on the soccer field. Not coincidentally, the two demographic groups represented on the field--upper-middle-class Anglos and working-class Hispanics--are also the two groups in the United States for whom soccer is a real sport and not a punch line.

Wilson hails from apm's old headquarters of Portland, Oregon, and he recently took the time to answer some questions from us about his book, one which seems to me particularly significant in a time when the anti-immigration voices in the US have grown especially shrill and hateful. He uses Woodburn's soccer team, the Bulldogs, to tell not just a story about soccer, and American soccer in particular, but a story about a new generation of immigrants in the US--who, like persecuted Irish immigrants and loathed Italian immigrants and other groups before them bear the brunt of a nation's collective insecurity and wholesale identity crisis.

Steve and I talked about immigration, and the need for better recruitment of soccer players among Hispanics, and, of course, footy. So, without further ado, here's our conversation:

At the beginning of the book, you mention seeing and then losing an article about the Woodburn soccer team, but what made you decide to write this book in the first place? Are you a soccer fan? What aspect(s) of the story compelled you to take on this project?

I have been writing essays and nonfiction articles for years, mostly about travel. That stemmed from a fairly footloose period in my twenties, when I traveled a lot to inexpensive countries, including Mexico. During my travels I became very interested in the way that people from different cultures interact, and I was looking for a story about that kind of cultural clash when I read about the Bulldogs.

So, I was not a soccer fan before I began following the Woodburn team. I had been to some professional games, dating back to the old NASL San Jose Earthquakes when I was a kid. I also attended some games overseas. But the soccer aspect of the story was for me, initially at least, simply part of the larger story of being an outsider in America. As soccer fans in the U.S. know, enjoying the Beautiful Game is enough to set you apart from all the usual football-baseball-basketball sports fans, even if you grew up in America. Since soccer is such a big part of Mexican culture, the mostly Mexican and Mexican-American kids in Woodburn not only had a different language, different social roles, and darker skin than the stereotypical "American," they also were passionate about a sport most Americans don't follow.

With that said, I became a big soccer fan by the end of the season. Partially this was because I was around the Bulldogs so much, and I began to care about the things they cared about, but also it came from standing on the sidelines. Seen on a TV screen, soccer can appear to be slow and not very physical. But as I learned standing just feet away from the action, it is a tough, physical, and exciting game. I think it's a great sport.

What were the most difficult/frustrating aspects of researching and writing this and the most enjoyable/rewarding parts?

The most difficult aspect was that Woodburn is about an hour from my house, and I did the research while in grad school. I also had a part-time job and a small child, so I was constantly rushing to get to games and rushing to get to class and back home. It would have been better to move to Woodburn. These practical concerns also limited the amount of time that I had to poke around town, and so limited the number of people I could speak to during the season. This is why the book is structured the way it is structured, giving over sections to the larger life stories of Carlos and Octavio, because these stories I could get through interviews at any time, rather than just during the season.

The most enjoyable part was definitely hanging out with the Bulldogs at practices and before games. I was in my late 30s when I was doing the research, so it had been a while since I had been in high school. Spending time with all these 16 and 17 year-old boys reminded me of how much fun it can be to be that age. They were mostly cheerful and fun-loving in that very particular teenage-boy way, lots of physical humor and jokes about girlfriends. They weren't stressing out about paying the mortgage or picking up their kid from day care on time. They just wanted to have fun and play soccer. It was nice to be around that kind of energy.

I came to this book as a huge soccer fan, of course, but I think this is also an important book given the state of the immigration in the US right now. Have you had any feedback regarding that aspect of the book?

Readers are quick to pick up on the immigration aspect of the book, and the most insightful reviews that I have seen point out that although there is a lot of soccer in the book, Boys is not really a soccer book. It's really about these kids trying to find their place in a country that isn't really ready for them. I've had several radio interviews where time was spent on this topic and hopefully, with the current immigration debate, that will continue.

Are you still in touch with any of the people you wrote about in the book?

We had a team reunion in July, which was the first time I had seen many of the kids in years. I am in touch more regularly with the people who have very central roles in the book: Coach Flannigan, Omar, Carlos, and Octavio. Mike Flannigan is coaching again, a youth club team this time; Omar is still trying to sell his house and move to Texas, Carlos is about to start his senior year in college, and Octavio is back in the U.S. ready to start his junior year at college.

Do you read soccer books, or did you read any soccer or more general sports books in preparation for writing this one? Any that you particularly recommend?

For background information on soccer, I relied heavily on Soccer Rules Explained by Stanley Lover, and The Simplest Game, by Paul Gardner. I found Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, by Markovits and Hellerman, to be very useful, as well as Soccer Against The Enemy by Simon Kuper and How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer.

I read quite a few sports narratives in preparation for organizing the narrative of Boys. The two that were most useful to me were Friday Night Lights by HG Bissenger and Fall River Dreams by Bill Reynolds. Anybody who hasn't read Friday Night Lights should run out and do so immediately--it is the prototype for taking a sport and using it as a lens through which to examine a community. It is also at times beautifully written.

As someone who’s very frustrated with US soccer’s continued inability to effectively reach out to Hispanic/Latino communities and recruit beyond the upper middle class private soccer clubs, I really like that you addressed this issue in the book. I think we’ve got a wealth of soccer talent in this country which is simply going to waste. Do you have any further thoughts on this, or how it might be more effectively addressed?

Common wisdom is that the mostly Mexican and Mexican-American soccer talent in the U.S. has not been tapped because we scout our future professionals through elite (and expensive) club teams and colleges. I agree with this. I also don't see that American teams will expand their scouting to include high school and adult men's league teams (where most Latino teens play) until soccer is a much larger sport in the U.S.

I equate this to basketball. We have all heard stories of young black men scouted on the playgrounds of American cities, usually by people with relationships to private high schools. This happens because of the incredible wealth that is generated by the NBA and college basketball, and by the prestige high schools receive that produce top NBA and college players. (No doubt there is money making its way to the high school as well, although I have not done any research on that.)

Soccer in the U.S. doesn't have that kind of money or infrastructure, and until it does, I expect that we will continue to miss talented Latino players.

On the other hand, as we have seen recently, Mexican teams do have that kind of scouting system, and Mexican scouts have been traveling the U.S. looking for potential players, especially those with Mexican passports. What is interesting to me about this is that for the first time we are seeing some of those players making the decision to return to the U.S. to play, after getting their start in Mexico. We saw this on the U.S. National team, with Herculez Gomez and Jose Torres, both of whom slipped though the MLS cracks before finding success in Mexico. Here in Portland, we're seeing another example of it with Omar Salgado, who is trying out for the Timbers in preparation for the MLS Superdraft. Salgado is from El Paso, but has been playing for Chivas's U20 team and could have decided to stay in Mexico. With our growing Latino population mostly fueled by Mexican immigration, I expect to see more kids with roots in both countries choosing to play in the U.S. because of non-soccer reasons, such as family or lifestyle. As soccer continues to grow in the U.S., that decision should become an easier one to make.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Soccer and immigration in the U.S. are bound together in the U.S. I see our country's changing demographics reflecting that bond through soccer's ongoing growth in popularity. However, I think that growth will take place over generations. Soccer fans need to be ready for a long, slow road to acceptance in this country, just as immigrants do.

Thanks for the questions. Go Timbers!

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