“Once,” wrote Oscar Handlin, “I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.” The Harvard professor and Pulitzer Prize winner was referring to his 1951 The Uprooted, perhaps the most well-known and read history book on U.S. immigration. This quote, while overused and a bit cliché, nicely characterizes the history of soccer in California and the United States.
Simply put: the formation of amateur and professional soccer in the United States depended on migrant feet. In the North American Soccer League’s first year (1968), British and European players made up 60 percent of the league’s players. At 17 percent, even Latin American players outnumbered U.S-born professionals. Coaches and managers, not only imported big name players like Pelé, but often did so based on a city’s ethnic and racial make-up. Leonardo Cuellar and Hugo Sanchez, for example, landed on the San Diego Sockers’ roster. While the number of home-grown players improved, U.S. player never made up a majority. Today, despite the expansion of the game into suburbs across the United States, the MLS continues to use foreign players to connect with their fans.
The game, however, is tied to migration in much more intimate ways. A history of the sport, can tell us as much about the game as it can about the migrant experience. Whether in the 1940s Chicago or today’s Sunday Leagues, the game was/is vital to migrants’ arrival, settlement, and adaptation. In his pioneering work on Mexican migrants and soccer, Juan Javier Pescador argues that:
Soccer fields have emerged as crucial spaces in which issues of ethnic identity, social organization, community awareness, cultural transmission, and transnational networks are thought out, displayed, negotiated, and enacted.”
The pitch also emerges as a transnational site, linking players to their parents’ towns and countries as well as pitches, teams, and leagues. For decades, Mexican-American players have looked to Mexico to obtain their futbloreo dreams.
If the game provides migrants opportunities, it’s also a site of exclusion. The U.S. Men and Women’s team does not reflect either the nation’s racial or class-make up and this is connected to larger structural issues, including the pay-to-play system. Jonathan Gonzalez’ recent decision to play for Mexico instead of the United States has reinvigorated conversations about the U.S. Soccer Federation and Mexican-American players.
As the World Cup approaches and Fresno welcomes its first professional soccer team, the Fresno State’s Valley Public History Initiative: Preserving our Stories seeks to document and construct a history of amateur, collegiate, and professional soccer in the valley. Beginning in the Spring semester, faculty, graduate and undergraduate students will conduct local research, scan photographs, interview former and current players, and host a conference and other events. We want to learn about the efforts by migrants in places like Visalia and Madera to found adult leagues, the rise of the game in white suburbs, and the inclusion of this sport on high schools and junior college campuses.
By following the game’s roots and routes, we hope to tell a unique and global history of the San Joaquin Valley: to connects its fields and teams to towns in far-off places like England, Iraq, post-Soviet state, Mexico, and Central America.
Throughout the project we’ll publish essays and updates here on Tropics of Meta. We will also be collaborating with Fresno Football Club to display and disseminate our findings.
In short–come back soon, we have a ton of cool stuff coming up. And there is already a lot of great Tropics coverage of fútbol in the years past.
For now: we’re asking folks to upload photos of soccer players and teams from the San Joaquin Valley using the form below.
 Juan Javier Pascador, “Los Heroes del Domingo: Soccer, Borders, and Social Spaces in Great Lakes Mexican Communities, 1940-1970,” in Mexican Americans and Sports: A Reader on Athletics and Barrio Life, edt. Jorge Iber and Samuel O. Regalado (Texas A&M University Press, 2016).