Los Angeles F.C.: Soccer, Globalization, and Ethnicity

1998

One year ago this month, Major League Soccer (MLS) opened its 18th season with a cacophonous and exciting opening match between the New Jersey Redbulls and the Portland Timbers. Though the game took place in Portland and the match ended in an exciting 3-3 draw, Southern California drew the attention of broadcasters during the game’s halftime intermission. Former MLS stars and U.S. national players Taylor Twellman and Alexi Lalas engaged in a bit of banter regarding the L.A. based Chivas U.S.A. and its increasingly notorious team policy. Both players took offense to Chivas’  pro-Mexican/Latino recruiting model.  While admitting the policy came just short of racism, Lalas asserted that Chivas’ policy nonetheless remained exclusionary. League President Don Garber had tentatively thrown his support behind Chivas telling the public, “We need teams that look and feel different.” Lalas acknowledged, the need for diversity, but lamented the fate of Los Angeles’ non-Latino youth.  “If you were a young boy playing soccer in Southern California and you don’t have Mexican or Hispanic heritage,” Lalas wondered, “do you have an equal opportunity to play for both your teams in Los Angeles and right now the answer is no and I don’t know if this is the message the league wants.”

The controversy that ensued did no one any favors. In a report on “HBO Real Sports”, Chivas USA came off as tone deaf and possibility discriminatory in its hiring policies. The show followed two white coaches, Daniel Calichman and Theothoros Chronopoulos, who though evidently effective at their craft were summarily dismissed and a young African American player who felt uncomfortable enough to leave the club for another Los Angeles based team. With that said, Lalas and Twellman’s discussion obscured the fact that soccer in America, especially Southern California, remains a game for the middle and upper classes, usually punctuated by white faces and suburban fields. Indeed, Chivas USA remains a small, and thus far fairly unsuccessful operation in the U.S. In contrast the broader MLS and the enormous Olympic Developmental Program (ODP) have done little to open up the game to Americans from lower economic strata. Needless to say, working class Latino, black, and yes, white kids, can’t afford the fees nor can their parents manage the travel time or costs necessary to compete at the highest levels of youth soccer.

The fact that Lalas deployed Southern California in his comments should come as no surprise.  Los Angeles and Orange County have long served as critical spaces for American soccer dreams and nativist nightmares.  Just as Lalas papered over larger structural inequalities plaguing youth soccer with a very specific and disproportionate example, so too have international football fixtures between the U.S. and Mexico in the Southern California misrepresented an unequal relationship between the two neighbors while obscuring the troubled history of Mexican Americans in the region and nation.

American Dreams, Columbian Fears, and Nativism

Sport has long served as a means to suture communities and build social capital but  it can also provide a window into cultural anxieties. Sometimes it can drive change, such as during the late 1940s and early 1950s when Pasadena’s Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball or when Fresno born and Highland Park raised Sammy Lee twice achieved Olympic gold in diving and later played a key role in desegregating Orange County for Asian Americans.  However, more often it operates as a manifestation of cultural currents. In the era of globalization, free trade, and transnational flow of people, goods, and capital, soccer, international competitions in particular, epitomize these processes and the forces that drive them.

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Twenty years ago this summer, the U.S. men’s national team achieved what many thought impossible, a berth in the World Cup’s knockout rounds. At the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Lalas and his fellow national team members dispatched a much-heralded Columbian side, 2-1.  Of course, for the Columbians the game always had a tragic tinge. As detailed by the excellent documentary the “Two Escobars”, Columbia’s team endured death threats from organized crime before the match and we all know the fate of its talented defender Andres Escobar who was later shot dead outside a Medellin nightclub as punishment for the devastating own goal that contributed to Columbia’s world cup defeat. To say that from time to time international soccer can be a blood sport is not so much hyperbole as fact.  One should take nothing away from an American side that dutifully pulled off the unthinkable, but nor should it be ignored that forces beyond both teams control contributed to the outcome.

Though the U.S. side would go down in defeat to eventual champion Brazil in a passionate July 4th match at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Pasadena served as the setting for Brazil’s “beautiful game” as the South American side went on to defeat Italy on penalty kicks to secure the fourth of their five world cup titles.

For all the cosmopolitanism on display in Pasadena and Palo Alto, the World Cup obscured more troubling dynamics at the heart of Los Angeles and California demography. By 1990, Latinos, at the time consisting of almost 80% Mexican Americans, made up one quarter of California’s total population.[1]  Ten years later, Mexican Americans became the dominant ethnic group in the entire state.  Carrying with them distinguished war records from WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam, and proud of “their bilingualism, their culture and religion, their strong family ties, their capacity for hard work, [and] their ambition to make a better life for themselves,” noted Kevin Starr, Mexican Americans saw themselves as integral to American and California life.[2]

Yet on the heels of America’s success in the most international and yes, in moments, nationalistic of sporting events, California voters supported the most provincial of laws as a new anti-immigration campaign gained broad support across the state: Prop 187, sometimes referred to as “Save Our State (SOS)” initiative

In 1993, a Los Angeles Times poll found that 86% of Californians believed three forces, undocumented immigration, crime and the economy, threatened the state. A belief that immigration hurt California had been growing, ultimately manifesting itself with Prop 187. However, many Latinos and others refused to simply accept the referendum as legitimate. Historian David G. Guitierrez pointed this out in a 1999 article noting that in October of 1994 some seventy thousand people, many of them Latino descent, flooded the Los Angeles streets to protest the law.

The anti-187 march marked a renewed vigor among activists and represented one of the “largest organized protests to occur in Los Angeles since the height of the Vietnam War,” asserted Guitierrez. However, while the march drew attention to the draconian aspects of Prop 187 – its denial of public services including public education and tax subsidized health care – it also sparked anger among Californians who viewed many of the Latino protesters with contempt. Southern Californians drafted letters to the Los Angeles Times and other news outlets decrying the use of Spanish language political slogans, taking offense to reports of a three horn mariachi version of the “Star Spangled Banner”, and the enthusiastic waving of Mexican flags along side its American equivalent.[3]

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Though Prop 187 passed 59 to 41 percent in November, court challenges prevented the law’s imposition. Nonetheless, California’s Mexican Americans, particularly in the third largest Mexican city in the world at the time, were deeply aggrieved. Perhaps even worse, though Prop 187 would collapse in the face of legal challenges, in Washington D.C., Democrats and Republicans alike responded to the loud xenophobic protest from California with an even more draconian federal law. In August 1996, Bill Clinton and Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act  (PRWORA), which denied undocumented immigrants state and federal benefits outside of “emergency medical care, immunization, and emergency disaster relief.”  It also empowered states to cut off food stamps and similar benefits thus enabling the denial of Medicaid to both LEGAL immigrants and undocumented ones.[4] Whatever the merits of restricting undocumented immigration – namely the flouting of American law and perversion of federal processes – the anti-undocumented movement harbored a distinct abhorrence toward California’s increasingly brown and yellow demographics. After all due to changes in immigration laws of the 1960s, the state had also added more than one million citizens of Chinese descent and one million more Filipinos. This does not even account for the vast numbers of Vietnamese that settled in Orange County in the 1980s and 1990s. All, though particularly Chinese and Filipinos, had been long denied access to U.S. shores.  Californians howled, and Washington listened.

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Return of the Native: The 1998 Gold Cup Final

Four years after the Prop 187 debacle, soccer once again proved a flashpoint for issues regarding undocumented immigration, particularly from Mexico.  Despite its success in the 1994 World Cup, the U.S. National team struggled to draw supporters to its matches. The 1998 Gold Cup final with Mexico underlined this inability along with related currents of nativism. Federal laws like PRWORA had not reduced anxieties regarding immigration.  Taking place at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the U.S. went down in defeat to Mexico when, yes, Alexi Lalas misplayed a clearance in front of the American goal and Mexico’s Luis Hernandez quickly dispatched the ball into the back of the U.S. net.

Undoubtedly a disappointing result, the newspapers, as Guitierrez pointed out focused extensively on the crowd. The Coliseum had been packed to the gills with over 91,000 fans in attendance. Nearly 7,000 more fans watched on closed circuit television at the L.A. Sports Arena. However, the overwhelming majority of spectators rooted for the visiting side, Mexico. A “sea of red, white, and green flags” blanketed the Coliseum. Some fans hailed debris, ranging from cups of water to beer, and as is par for the course in many international soccer matches, worse, upon U.S. players. “It was an ugly [sight],” wrote Los Angeles Times reporter Grahame L. Jones, “but one Coach Steve Sampson and his players have come to expect in Los Angeles. Here it is Hernandez … and his teammates who are heroes.”[5]

Speaking to reporters Lalas commented on the proceedings.  Such situations, the defender noted, never got easier.  Not being able to play true home matches undermined the national team’s ability in international play. Undoubtedly true statements, but Lalas then took it a step further. “I’m all for roots and understanding where you come from and having a respect for your homeland,” he told reporters, “but tomorrow morning all of those people are going to get up and work in the United States and live in the United States and have all the benefits of living in the United States. I would never be caught dead rooting for any other team than the United States because I know what it’s given me.”[6]

Listen, beating up on Alexi Lalas is not the point. His frustration, from the view of an international soccer player, is understandable. Next time the U.S. plays a World Cup qualification match in Columbus, Ohio – when the temperature barely rises above freezing- you know why. However, his comments also ignore the troubling under currents of Prop 187, the (PRWORA), or the decades of discrimination endured by not only Mexican and Mexican Americans, but other immigrant groups victimized by racist state, and federal law, and unscrupulous industries and agribusiness.

Under the Bracero Program, implemented during WWII’s labor shortage and more or less renewed periodically until the 1960s – American agricultural and industrial interests exploited the federal guest worker program, encouraging undocumented immigration along side the federal program.  One need only look to the work of Ernesto Galarza – Merchants of the Labor: The Story of the Mexican Worker  (1964), Spiders in the House and Workers (1967) and Agribusiness in California (1977) – for evidence. In Merchants of Labor, Galarza traced the history not only of the Mexican migrant, but also counterparts including Chinese, Filipino, and “Okies” pointing out that agribusiness finally settled on Mexican labor once the assimilated “Okies” moved into other industries. Growers of the Southwest and California looked to exploit the cheapest labor available. Under the aegis of the Bracero program, argued Galarza, exploitation and discrimination were common.[7]  Remember, when U.S. officials under President Dwight Eisenhower worried about the increasing number of undocumented workers pouring into the U.S. in the 1950s along side the program, the government instituted “Operation Wetback” to limit undocumented migration.  Yes, that happened.

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The aforementioned Guitierrez also contributed to this history with his masterwork, Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants and the Politics of Ethnicity.  Though filled with numerous valuable insights regarding Mexican American history – one of my peers in graduate school called it “THE book on Chicano political history” — the UCSD professor noted one of the residual effects of the Bracero Program and undocumented migration were white Americans’ inability or unwillingness to distinguish between Mexican American citizens and undocumented migrants. Ultimately, whites conflated the two such that Mexican Americans lived under an aura of suspicion no matter their patriotism, contributions or devotion to the country.[8]

Consider the long history of what has become known as Mexican culture, a mixture of Spanish and indigenous influences, in Southern California.  This history stretches back to the 1600s and one can argue continues to define large aspects of the SoCal culture. If anything, L.A.’s Anglo population arrived largely as result of internal migrations from the Midwest and South in the late 1800s and early 1900s. To be denied membership in a region that remains largely defined by your presence must be endlessly frustrating. Recent immigration laws in Arizona and elsewhere have highlighted this persistent tension.

With the passage of the Border Industrial Program in the 1960s that placed maquiladoras on the Mexican U.S. border and NAFTA in the 1990s, the flow of trade and labor increased, though in reality movement between what is today California and the American Southwest and Mexico goes back centuries well before the rise of nation states.   These economic and political forces encouraged migration between the two nations.  Reservations about such developments, especially in the wake of NAFTA and contentious debates about the merits of globalization, exacerbated these grievances.  Working class Americans, both black and white, believed that white collared types benefitted from such labor flows as they suffered.

In this context, soccer’s perception among the public probably magnified these conflicts. As Americans began to adopt the sport, unlike in other nations where the game remains distinctly working class, it garnered the support of the middle and upper classes. “Here, aside form Latino immigrants,” noted Franklin Foer in 2006’s How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, “the professional classes follow the game most avidly and the working classes couldn’t give a toss about it.”[9] Throw in the sport’s popularity amongst the most despised of social groups and one almost native to Los Angeles, hipsters, and borrowing from SoCal punk rockers Bad Religion, you have “a recipe for hate.” Granted in recent years this has shifted somewhat as the popularity of video games like FIFA soccer, satellite access to international leagues in Europe, and better more accomplished American footballers have combined to make the game more popular.  Today no one calls the game “socialist” or “un-American”, but they did in the 1980s and 1990s.

“No other country has been as subjected to the free flows of capital and labor, so constantly remade by migration, and found its national identity so constantly challenged,” noted Foer. “In short, America may be an exception, but it is not exceptionally immune to globalization. And we fight about it, whether we know it or not, just like everyone else.”[10] Indeed, soccer mirrored feelings about immigration and globalization, and few regions epitomized globalization – both in terms of labor importation and cultural exportation- like Los Angeles and Southern California.

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Witness the rise of “transnational suburbs” in places like Chicago, New York and L.A. argues Mike Davis. Northern California’s Redwood City, SoCal’s San Fernando Valley, and entire city blocks of Los Angeles encapsulate this process. These spaces and populations fuel American economic growth while remitting earnings back to family in Mexico. The thousands of Oaxaca immigrants that have settled in L.A. have brought not only their labor but also culture and politics. They carry with them “their traditional local saints and [M]adonnas northward [but] also [transplant] their traditional village governments en bloc to specific inner city parishes.”[11]

Not everyone sees this as a positive. In the era of culture wars and economic worries, for some observers (Samuel Huntington anyone?) these examples serve as a source of consternation. To critics, elites benefitted unscrupulously from immigrant labor, particularly that of Mexican workers, and likewise embraced a sport that seemed at odds with American sporting traditions.

This summer when World Cup matches flicker across screens in watering holes and restaurants across Los Angeles, cosmopolitanism and nationalism will undoubtedly pull fans in a multitude of directions. Few major sports, outside of the NBA, import labor like soccer – even in the World Cup. With both Mexico and the U.S. competing, there might be more than a couple moments of wariness between supporters. As a symbolic American center for U.S. – Mexican relations, the transnational flow of capital and peoples, and American and Mexican American soccer dreams, let’s hope that the World Cup brings out the best from both parties. We have come a long way from the 1990s, though judging from the rhetoric around recent immigration reform not far enough.


[1] David G. Guitierrez, “Migration, Emergent Ethnicity, and the “Third Space”: The Shifting Politics of Nationalism in Greater Mexico” in the Journal of American History (September 1999) pg. 481; Kevin Starr, California: A History, (New York: Modern Library, 2007) pg. 311-12.

[2] Kevin Starr, California: A History, (New York: Modern Library, 2007) pg. 311-12.

[3] David G. Guitierrez, “Migration, Emergent Ethnicity, and the “Third Space”: The Shifting Politics of Nationalism in Greater Mexico” in the Journal of American History (September 1999) pg. 482.

[4] Kevin Starr, California: A History, page. 312.

[5] Grahame L. Jones, “Mexico is Right at Home in Win,” Los Angeles Times, Feb 16, 1998, pg. C1 in David G. Guitierrez, “Migration, Emergent Ethnicity, and the “Third Space”: The Shifting Politics of Nationalism in Greater Mexico” in the Journal of American History (September 1999) pg. 482.

[6] Grahame L. Jones, “This is Much Worse than Trash Talking,”  Los Angeles Times, Feb 16, 1998, pg. C1 in David G. Guitierrez, “Migration, Emergent Ethnicity, and the “Third Space”: The Shifting Politics of Nationalism in Greater Mexico” in the Journal of American History (September 1999) pg. 483.

[7] Ernesto Galaraza, Merchants of Labor: The Mexican Bracero Story (San Jose, CA: Rosicrucian Press, 1964)

[8] David G. Gutierrez, Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995).

[9] Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, (New York: Harper, 2006), pg. 241.

[10] Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, (New York: Harper, 2006), pg. 248.

[11] Mike Davis, Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. City, (New York: Verso, 2000) pgs. 85-89.

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