I just finished reading The Boys From Little Mexico – A Season Chasing the American Dream, by Steve Wilson. It was excellent, and thoroughly enjoyable, and I recommend it.
The book is about a high school soccer team in Woodburn, Oregon, and their quest for the state championship. What makes their story more interesting is the fact that, unlike almost every other team in the state, the team is almost entirely Hispanic.
At first it seemed a little incongruous that there would be a large community of Mexican immigrants in the Pacific Northwest, closer to Canada than Mexico. But the explanation of how that came to be, dating back to the World War II-era Bracero Program, is just the start of the story Wilson has written.
It’s a good example of one of my favorite aspects of this book: Wilson’s ability to zoom out from the details of the story in Woodburn, give a thorough, “big picture” background, and then zoom back in to the the people at the heart of the story. He does this many times, covering everything from historical immigration, to ESL (English as a second language) instruction, to the physics behind “bending it like Beckham”, to Major League Soccer’s evolving relationship to Latino players and fans:
In an interview on ThisIsAmericanSoccer.com[l, Sports Illustrated soccer writer Luis Bueno said that he felt MLS clubs need to work harder to find Mexican American athletes because Latinos tend to play in less-established, less-wealthy leagues.
“I have a cousin who’s pretty good at soccer, I think he’s 15. I’m thinking, “Alright, is he going to have the chance to go to college?” Probably not. I’m just being honest. He plays on club teams right now. They’re not the big club teams that the Sacha Kljestans played for and the Bornsteins and the Benny Feilhabers. Those guys had the opportunities to play on those teams whereas someone like my cousin doesn’t. Maybe he plays high school and then that’s it. There are a lot of players like that, who for financial reasons just can’t afford it.”
Bueno, like other MLS critics, wonders if the coaches of MLS and U.S. national teams realize how much talent may be in their own backyard.
“We don’t know,” he said. “There could be the next Landon [Donovan] out here, the next [Jozy] Altidore. We don’t know since it’s something that’s never really been explored.”
But I don’t mean to say this book is an academic essay at all; far from it. The remarkable thing about these zoom-outs of big picture information is that they’re able to add so much to the story in spite of how brief they are.
For it’s the story, and the people in it, that are central here. This book will introduce you to a rich cast of characters, not just the boys on the team, but also their coaches, teachers and foster parents.
The boys on his team were like the boys in his classroom, who never raised their hands and were reluctant to voice an opinion. They were afraid to fail. They were the first generation, or immigrants themselves, and they were supposed to make everything better. By winning the championship. By learning English. By graduating from high school. By going to college. By making a good living. His guys were supposed to break the pattern, and they knew it and it weighed on them.
One of the these characters is Octavio, whose story is traced from the Mexican village where he was born, to his time with the Club Atlas youth program, to his harrowing journey over the border into the U.S., and of course, to his quest for the Oregon high school soccer championship with Woodburn High. Octavio’s story in particular is one that I won’t soon forget, and that I know will come to mind whenever the subject of immigration in America comes up.
Another aspect of the book that impressed me is the soccer writing itself. Wilson really brings to life the action and excitement of the team’s games. The glory of victory and the crush of defeat both feel as vivid as if you were there — maybe more so, given the omniscient coverage of players, coaches and fans.
Reading this during the month-long World Cup, I was struck by the idea of the power of soccer (or sports in general) to transform people, communities, etc. Whether it’s immigrant high school kids in Oregon having something positive to work and fight for, or an African nation wanting to show that it deserves respect on the world stage, it’s quite a theme. But is it real?
I think the paradox of it is that such a storyline is both true and false. Yes, the chance to be on the Woodburn Bulldogs soccer team (or Los Perros, as it’s now more commonly known) is an important, even crucial, part of those young mens’ lives. But at the same time, it’s not magic fairy dust. The team gives them something to work and fight for, but they still have to do the working and fighting.
This fine book brings it all to vivid life. Pick up a copy, I’m confident you’ll find a lot to enjoy from it.
[Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, but the time I spent reading and reviewing it was my own. I wouldn’t have bothered with either if it wasn’t worth it.]
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