Individual athletes, even the greatest, never succeed alone. While this is a universal fact, it’s something commonly overlooked, particularly when it is athletes of color sustained and advocated for by communities of color. Consider Tom Flores, famed player and coach of the National Football League’s Oakland Raiders (now the Las Vegas Raiders). After being eligible for 22 years, Flores was finally inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August 2021. Although Flores had been nominated multiple times—and even became a finalist—Hall of Fame recognition had eluded him. Flores is the first Latino quarterback, first Latino head coach, and first Latino president or general manager in the NFL. He won a total of four Super Bowls—two as a head coach, one as an assistant coach, and one as a backup quarterback. He is the first Latino head coach to win a Super Bowl. He is one of only 13 coaches in league history to win two or more championships; nine of those coaches have already been inducted into the Hall of Fame. While the issue of why it took so long has been a central topic of debate, what is perhaps lost in conversation is how Flores got there at all—not by rising alone but alongside, and with the support of, intersecting communities of color.
Tom Flores and his path to the Hall of Fame demonstrate the critical importance of sport for understanding the formation of individual and community Latinx identities. With a critical race analysis, we can see how Flores’s identity as a Mexican American shaped his path to the field, the sidelines, and, eventually, the Hall of Fame. His long absence from the Hall of Fame highlights the ease with which the accomplishments of people of color are ignored. Furthermore, we are reminded that athletes do not exist in silos but are borne from community networks that continue to support them in times of great success. To study sports or figures such as Flores as solely the study of an individual is only part of the story.
That’s because the greatness of Tom Flores also includes his significance for Raiders fans and communities of color more broadly. Flores came from humble beginnings in Central California, laboring in the orchards at the age of five. He worked at an ice plant to put himself through college. After having to take time off to recover from health issues, he fittingly played and then coached the Raiders. The rough-and-tumble Raiders were a team that embraced the image of troublemaking underdogs, who demanded respect by any means possible. The racialization of Black and Brown players on the team bolstered this image. Flores was the quiet, hardworking leader. And one of Flores’s first major accomplishments as the Raiders head coach was to recruit quarterback Jim Plunkett, the first Latino to earn a Heisman Trophy while at Stanford University. After recruiting Plunkett, the Raiders brought an NFL championship to Los Angeles (where the team had moved in 1982).
Amid these achievements, Flores challenged racialized representations that portrayed Latino men as exotic at best and violent at worst. Rather, Flores’s skillful thinking at the helm of the team offered Black and Brown fans a reflection of their own struggles and hope for victory through hard work.
It comes as no surprise, then, that fan and community mobilization made a difference in Flores’s path to the Hall of Fame. A snub to Flores was a slight to the Latinx community and a refusal to recognize his contributions, both to the game of football and to the communities he represented. Leading up to this year’s announcements, fandom groups, Latinx organizations, and majority Latinx cities demanded Flores’s inclusion among the greats. Several city councils put forth resolutions including Los Angeles, Fresno, and Flores’s hometown of Sanger, California. Then the California Latino Legislative Caucus presented a resolution reinforcing support for Flores before the Hall of Fame inductee decisions were made. This resolution was approved with overwhelming support by the California State Assembly.
The tools we have available to us are indebted to the rich scholarship on race and sport in the field of Black studies. From C. L. R. James’s study of cricket, race, and colonialism to the work of Jeffrey Sammons, Harry Edwards, and Ben Carrington, we learn that sport is a crucial field upon which race and race-making is negotiated and contested. For some, it has been tempting to consider leisure and sport as spaces devoid of critical analysis or distractions from urgent social-justice issues. However, to do so is a disservice to those materially affected. Latinx-studies scholars have joined the movement to examine sports as a critical site of race-making.
Rather, a critical analysis of race and sport allows us to treat subjects as whole people who forge new identities, cultivate community, and anchor themselves in spaces that were not created for them.1 This widening scope is a key part of David Trouille’s Fútbol in the Park: Immigrants, Soccer, and the Creation of Social Ties and José M. Alamillo’s Deportes: The Making of a Sporting Mexican Diaspora. Both Trouille’s and Alamillo’s work expand our focus beyond individual athletes of color to the communities and structures that sustain them.
Soccer for Intellectuals
There is a group of predominantly immigrant men, mostly from Mexico and Central America, who play midday pickup soccer games at Mar Vista Recreation Center in an affluent Los Angeles neighborhood. Some of these men work in the local neighborhood, while others live nearby in the west side of Los Angeles. In his ethnography Fútbol in the Park, Trouille chronicles the ways in which race shapes the experiences of these men: a demographic who are often written about in the context of labor, criminal justice, and immigration studies, and their access to public space through fencing and permits. Local residents’ efforts to curb their access to public space meant that their use of the park was shaped by precarity. What Trouille shows is that sport, and the spaces people create in pursuing their love of sport, are critical to navigating, surviving, and thriving in the struggles of living in the city.
Trouille documents the community the men have created, the complexity of social relations among them, and how they navigate the challenges they encounter. He asks about the specificity of the public park and the creation of social ties that are meaningful, and offer support in men’s everyday lives. What results is an in-depth analysis of a soccer-based community life at the Mar Vista Recreation Center, including an analysis of public space and the ways in which it is not free and open.
Fútbol in the Park counters popular narratives of the “Latino threat” and “bad hombres.” For Trouille, ignoring a framework from which to understand the few spaces of leisure for these men is to ignore the ways these men survive, and even thrive, at different moments. Soccer is not frivolous play but rather a critical site of meaning for its participants where they are offered not only relationships but connections and exchanges of resources necessary for survival. Park soccer became a space from which migrants could actively produce social ties, including “the dynamic, daily construction of connections.”
Trouille begins by documenting the extent to which the midday games are organized and rely on regulars to sustain the game. Next, he examines the sociality that emerges during the games, both on the field and from the sidelines.
Then Trouille widens his scope to consider the park as a crucial place for the men to socialize over beers. He shows how the park offers both opportunities and limitations that set it apart from other places like the bar or their homes. Trouille shows that community building is not always seamless at the park, as evidenced by fights that periodically broke out among them. For Trouille, fights were not only sources of discord but also part of a larger fabric of trust and conflict resolution.
Ultimately, Trouille leaves the park to join some of the men in their construction jobs. In so doing, he explores the ways social ties created on the field proved essential to their ability to find work.
What Trouille documents for his readers is the contradiction of the soccer players’ reality. The predominantly white residents of the neighborhoods were not only uncomfortable with the group of men playing at the park but showed their discomfort in ways that reflected the precarity of Latino men’s survival at the park and beyond. When Trouille discusses beer drinking at the park, the overarching tension is a sense that the park is a space of freedom where men can drink cheaply and in communion with one another. However, drinking publicly also put them at risk for arrest and provided more fodder for residents to rally against them. As demonstrated by Trouille, the specter of surveillance is always part of leisure time and space for these men and only mirrors the broader challenges they encounter elsewhere.
In the final chapter, “Working Connections,” Trouille highlights one of the most glaring contradictions, as a neighborhood campaign against the players’ use of the park gained steam. The immigrants that he had talked with were welcomed by the neighborhood as workers but not as players.
Without an understanding of how Latinx identity is shaped by and has shaped the world of sports, we are left with only part of the story.
Trouille offers a contemporary look at the role of sports in urban life and collective identities. Meanwhile, historian José M. Alamillo demonstrates how sports were central to the making of individual and collective Latina/o identity, community, and civil rights.
Alamillo’s Deportes offers a hemispheric approach, spanning the end of the 19th century to the years following World War II. The book documents the creation and evolution of a “sporting Mexican diaspora” for Mexicans, Mexican immigrants to the United States, and Mexican Americans. Alamillo traces the “imaginary and material interactions between athletes, team managers, and coaches across national borders as they organize, promote, and compete in sports-related activities.”
In essence, Alamillo offers us a counterhistory of sports, using sources from government archives to oral histories with too-often-forgotten local sports figures demonstrating the power of communities not defined by the nation-state. He begins with the dual rise of sport in both Mexico and “México de afuera” communities in Southern California. Alamillo demonstrates why one cannot divorce the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which the United States annexed one-third of Mexico’s territories, and its colonial consequences from the rise of a Mexican nationalist project to instill a “muscular Christianity” ideology among its middle class and the role of mutual-aid organizations in promoting sports among Mexican immigrants in the United States. In his next chapter, Alamillo looks to boxing, one of the most popular sports in Greater Mexico to this day. Through an analysis of US immigration policy and shifting views toward the boxing industry, he shows why Mexican prizefighters sought to recruit male boxing talent from Mexico for larger audiences and higher profits. Sport was a terrain upon which athletes contested racialized notions of inferiority. Prizefighters used their networks, mobility, and visibility to make a living and represent their community positively.
Alamillo chronicles the “sporting Mexican diaspora” in action through five dimensions that demonstrate how sport shapes and is shaped by political, economic, sociohistorical, and transnational processes: displacement, a transnational political network, a racial project, a gendered experience, and a diasporic consciousness. The first acknowledges the “physical, political, and economic displacement” of the Mexican diaspora; this began with the annexation of Mexican territory through the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and continued with immigration legislation and the 1933 Good Neighbor Policy to the present day.
The second dimension recognizes a transnational sporting network that developed among players, coaches, managers, promoters, and fans across the United States and Mexico, largely ignored by the US sports industry. In some cases, these networks shaped political activism and functioned as hometown associations, and, in others, resulted in the establishment of grassroots activist organizations.
The third and fourth dimensions recognize sport as a racial project and site for the formation of narratives about masculinity and femininity and the gendered identities that result. Throughout Deportes, Alamillo shows the ways in which racial and gender identities play out and are negotiated, challenged, and transformed by Mexicans in the diaspora.
Last, he surveys the hybrid identities of Mexican athletes in the United States and of Mexican American athletes. These identities, he shows, are formed as athletes navigate racial formations, even while embracing their cultural heritage.
When Alamillo turns to baseball during the 1920s and 1930s, he examines how men forged transnational connections to the Mexican nation to overcome barriers while in the United States. The stars here are the women who found ways to become part of the national pastime as peloteras; in doing so, they defied gendered expectations and took advantage of Americanization resources while resisting the ideology that defined it.
Some early women’s softball teams emerged from political organizations like the Los Angeles chapter of the Partido Liberal Mexicano, an anarcho-syndicalist organization supporting the Mexican Revolution. In the 1930s, teams like the Mexican Señoritas joined integrated women’s softball leagues where they played against Black teams and multiracial teams at White Sox Park. As peloteras challenged the discourses of gender, the 1932 Olympic Games and the efforts of the Mexican Athletic Association of Southern California became key opportunities to develop organizational skills that could be used in political movements for social justice. Mostly male athletes adopted a Mexican national identity outside Mexico; others, a Mexican American identity that connected them more closely with Southern California and US society in general. Ultimately, they created a hybrid sporting identity. Finally, Alamillo uses a hemispheric approach to show the ways this deeper history results in shifts to the international arena to examine US-Mexico relations during and after WWII.
Alamillo’s work represents both the outcome of extensive archival efforts and a call for Latinx-studies scholars to take seriously the role of sports in shaping Latinx identity. He covers an era of sports characterized most by exclusion and demonstrates how to dig deeper. His critical insights demonstrate the ways in which members of the Mexican diaspora utilized sport to create meaningful lives and, in doing so, challenged political, economic, and gendered boundaries.
We are currently at the intersection of two conversations. Within Latinx studies, the study of sport remains an underutilized opportunity. Within sports studies, the critical study of race informed by the long tradition of ethnic studies is too often sidestepped.
Today, the way race and gender shape athlete experiences and activism against social injustice is often discussed on platforms that have previously avoided such conversations. Major sports-news outlets have more recently covered the role of race in Tom Flores’s long, windy path to the Hall of Fame. They also now address social injustice and the deadly effects of racism and sexism in more depth, since Colin Kaepernick took a knee. Even so, while people have generally begun to recognize that sports and politics are not distinctly separate, it is abundantly clear we have a long way to go before fully understanding the ways that white supremacy has shaped the world of sports as we know it and how race-making in sports continues to impact the world beyond the fields, courts, and arenas.
It is not enough to celebrate the accomplishments or analyze the struggles of Latinx athletes, on the basis of their identity, while taking that very same identity for granted. Rather, without an understanding of how Latinx identity is shaped by and has shaped the world of sports, we are left with only part of the story.
This article was commissioned by Frank Andre Guridy.
- In recent years, a number of sports-studies scholars have highlighted the ways in which sports shape identity, particularly racial and gender identities. A number of works have addressed the role of individual achievements of athletes of color and their struggle for racial equality. However, recently more scholarship is widening the scope to include the importance of sport to communities of color from the neighborhood park to the professional leagues. ↩