If you follow fútbol—or soccer as it’s known up here—you know that fans, coaches, and players on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border are in complete agreement about one thing: Jonathan Gonzalez’s recent decision to play for the Mexican, instead of the U.S. national team is a huge loss for the U.S. and a significant victory for “El Tricolor,” the nickname of Mexico’s national team. In English and Spanish, on the television, the radio airwaves, and on Twitter aficionados and sports commentators have narrated and dissected how this happened and speculated about its significance.
These conversations reveal as much about the 18 year-old born in Santa Rosa, California as they do about the place of Mexican-Americans in the United States. The U.S. Soccer Federation does not value Mexicans’ contributions and lacks an adequate structure to take advantage of their particular skillsets. It behooves the game, and the nation, to integrate and embrace migrant communities.
Let’s start with the basic facts. Gonzalez’s parents migrated to the United States from Mexico. It was here that they raised their children and supported the athletic growth and aspirations of their young son. Jonathan played for Atletico Santa Rosa, a local club team based in Santa Rosa, and got his big break at the Powerade Sueño Alianza tournament, which was created in 2004 to scout Latino/a players and to connect working-class Latino communities to competitive youth and professional teams. In 2013, at the young age of 14, Jonathan was selected as the top player and offered contracts from thirteen professional soccer teams, all from Liga MX. He decided to join Monterrey and since then he worked his way through the youth team and onto the first team.
By all accounts, this, his first year on the first team was a resounding success. Throughout his trajectory and development, the Mexican-American played for U.S. youth national teams ranging from U14 to U20. A few days ago, he used his one-time transfers to join Mexico’s national team.
In discussing this move, and in the wake of U.S.’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, American commentators have focused on placing blame and explaining how it happened. In many of the narratives, the U.S. Soccer Federation did not show him enough love and then made the mistake of not calling him up for a friendly against Portugal.
Perhaps, fans and commentators argue, it’s just simply about getting into the World Cup: the U.S. did not qualify, Mexico did. Others, like Tab Ramos, the current coach for the U.S. Men’s U20, have used this moment to draw a line: “If we have players in this country who feel Mexican and want to play for Mexico, I think they should play for Mexico. If we have players here who feel American, who want to fight for the U.S. and represent America, they should play for us. I think it’s as simple as that.” The extent of the loss is difficult to measure, but its weight is likely enhanced by the national team’s current failures and turmoil and Jonathan’s promise and age.
The most interesting thing about this conversation is not the individual player—there have been and will be more Mexican-American players with dual nationality—but the failure to use this as a moment to understand how his decision is part of Mexican-Americans’ place with the United States, both in the present and historically. Not surprisingly, the most astute commentary has come from Hercules Gomez, a former U.S. national team player who played in both the Major League Soccer (MLS) and Liga MX, and the co-founder of Alianza, Brad Rothenberg. For the Mexican-American Gomez, this loss reflects the simple fact that the U.S. Soccer Federation does not value players like Jonathan Gonzalez (ie Mexican-Americans) and is “a systematic error.”
More to the point, the U.S. national team—as a result of the pay-play to system and minimal number of scouts—does not reflect the nation’s current demographics. Rothenberg, in a recent interview with Soccer America, described the U.S.’s Head Scout Thomas Rongen as “ill-suited to connect with the millions of Latinos born and raised here” and noted that the MLS and the Federation have not been interested in Alianza. Mexican coaches, Rothenberg argues, value Mexican-Americans’ style of play and appreciate the way in which the migrant experience informs their character and desire to succeed. They see, he states, “a certain level of fierceness.”
For historians, like myself, it’s important to place Gonzalez within a larger social, political, and, yes, historical context. Doing so, helps us to make sense of both Gomez and Rothenberg’s criticism and to appreciate Mexican-Americans’ unique position and relationship to both Mexico and the United States.
Gonzalez and his family are part of a long history of migration, settlement, and movement across the U.S.-Mexico border. Pinpointing a starting date for the history of “Mexican-Americans” or Mexicans in the United States is challenging. Some Chicano/a scholars would begin with the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, while perhaps a more common starting point might be Spanish Empire and Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, which resulted in Mexico losing more than half of its territory and the placement of a colonized people in a new territory.
Perhaps, for our purposes, it is more useful to select a few key moments that signal how Mexican and Mexican-Americans’ place in the United States is one defined by a constant struggle for cultural, political, and legal rights. Scholars such as Mae Ngai, Kelly Little Hernandez, and others have demonstrated how the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act (which set numerical quotas for Eastern and Southern immigrants and extended its ban on migration from Asiatic countries) and the creation of the U.S.-Mexico border associated Mexicans with “illegality.” While the U.S. did not set any numerical restrictions on migration from the Western Hemisphere, the creation of a border and a border patrol criminalized Mexican migration and Mexican communities. The bi-national Bracero Program (1942 to 1964), provided a temporary solution to the nation’s contradictory relationship with Mexican labor. Through this program, the U.S. benefited from Mexican labor without having to incorporate Mexican men, or their transnational families, into the United States.
The place of children of Mexican migrants, whether born in the United States or in Mexico, in the United States has historically been very precarious. During the Great Depression, U.S. citizenship did not protect U.S.-born Mexicans from deportation (whether voluntary or coerced). In fact, as I demonstrate in my own work, U.S. citizens who returned to Mexico with their families had a difficult time proving their citizenship and returning to the United States. And, of course, like other ethnic groups, Mexican students were segregated from their American counterparts for much of the twentieth century.
In his scholarship on Mexican-Americans and Mexican migrants, José Alamillo carefully constructs the precarious position of both in the U.S. sporting scene. For example, the first generation of migrant children of the twentieth century found sporting opportunities by connecting with teams and organizations in Mexico. In fact, Mexican-Americans from Los Angeles found their way onto Mexico’s Olympic team and competed in the 1932 Olympics (which were ironically housed in Los Angeles).
Like Mexican-Americans, migrant athletes crossed the border in search of sporting opportunities. During the mid-twentieth century, American boxing promoters arranged fights between Mexican and American boxers, but on drastically unequal terms. Not only did they make Mexican boxers fight without much rest between matches, but often matched up young and inexperienced Mexicans with more veteran American fighters. Just like the present, the history of Mexicans and sport in the U.S. provides a window to understand things like racism, class, and gender. For Mexican-Americans and migrants sport emerges as a place of opportunity as well as a place of struggle.
As migrant parents are deported and split from their children, as DACA recipients eagerly wait for Congress to provide them as sense of security, it is not surprising to find that Latinos are underrepresented in the U.S. Soccer Federation’s coaching staff and on the pitch. It is not surprising to see American commentators lament Jonathan Gonzalez’s decision to play for the Mexican national team, while lacking the ability to understand the migrant and Mexican-American experience and our precarious place in the U.S. nation.