1 vs 1: Politics and the Complexity of Fandom

For this 1 vs 1, we take a more collaborative approach. Rather than pit fans from opposing national teams, we’ve selected two fans whose writings and scholarship explores  justice and fandom in both a local and global context. Alexander Aviña’s Specters of Revolution: Peasant Guerrillas in the Mexican Countryside chronicles the efforts of the peasant guerrilla groups National Revolutionary Civil Association (CNR) and the Party of the Poor People (PDLP) to enact radical change  In her recent book Mozlandia: Morrissey Fans in the Borderlands, Melissa Mora Hidalgo explores the “subculture of Morrissey and Smiths fandom” in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

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Alexander Aviña:  I am the son of campesino migrants from Michoacán, México and an Associate Professor of History at Arizona State University.  My research generally focuses on revolutionary movements, various political Lefts, state violence and narcotics in post-1940 Mexico.  I’ve been obsessed with playing and watching soccer since the age of seven. I eventually played college soccer at Saint Mary’s College of CA (1998-2002) and with the Central Coast Roadrunners of the USL Premier Development League (1997-2001).   

Viva Mexico MH

Melissa M. Hidalgo: I was born in Montebello, CA. I completed my PhD in Literature at UC San Diego. I recently completed a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Limerick in Ireland, where I learned a lot about soccer and rugby. I teach classes in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at CSU Long Beach and Ethnic Studies at UC San Diego. One of my favorite classes to teach is sports and popular culture, which brought me to the game of soccer/fútbol as a budding fan. I grew up as a baseball fan–Go Dodgers!–but I’m learning to love soccer. Though I’m very new to the game as a fan, I appreciate the global appeal of soccer and look forward to watching Mexico advance in the World Cup.

RG: I know this is true of every World Cup, but it feels like politics and justice have emerged or framed the game in a number of way. First, it’s set in Russia, which is complicated because of Russia’s own domestic policies and the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling into the U.S. elections. Second, as the world watches, I.C.E is splitting up families that enter the United States. And, in a more obvious way there is the “justice” or “injustice” of what happens on the pitch. In short, I’m watching and experiencing the game in this way and wanted to frame our conversation around politics and justice.  

RG: The USMNT’s failure to make it to Russia has brought up conversations about the pay-to-play system. As the children of migrants, how did you gain access to elite soccer?

AA: So many thoughts about the pay-to-play system, all critical and all leading to my conclusion that this system needs to be abolished because it reproduces broader political and socio-economic inequalities and exclusionary structures.  I grew up in San Luis Obispo, a small, largely white and middle class university town in the California Central Coast–the sort of town where the pay-to-play system thrives in because families generally have the sort of disposable income necessary for club soccer.  I gained access to this system for two reasons: my parents sacrificed much and worked multiple jobs and long hours as housekeepers, landscapers and cooks to pay the necessary fees; and I had a longtime coach, Larry Smyth, who understood our struggle and supported us in any way that he could.  I will always appreciate how my parents sacrificed the little rest time they had on the weekends so we could drive long hours to Southern California to play in different competitions. Despite such financial, emotional and physical burdens, my parents never complained and lovingly supported me.  Larry Smyth was my coach for nearly ten years, from recreational AYSO soccer, to club soccer, to the USL Premier Development League. A generation of soccer players from the Central Coast owe much of their success to Larry, myself included.

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Sócrates wearing “México sigue in pie” headband, after Mexico City earthquake, 1986 World Cup

RG: If you had to pick your favorite player based on their politics, who would you pick and why?

AA: Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, also known simply as Sócrates, would be my favorite player.  Growing up, my brother and I endlessly watched a British documentary on the history of the Brazilian national team titled “The Boys from Brazil.”  The documentary focused on the World Cup performances of different iterations of the Brazilian team. We were obsessed with the 1982 team, popularly known as the best World Cup team never to win the title.  Sócrates played on that team and I loved watching his goals, his impossible passes, his elegance, his seemingly effortless creativity as a “10” that moved a ridiculously talented team. Later on in college I discovered Sócrates’ courageous political activism, protesting the military dictatorship in Brazil that ruled the country from 1964-1985 (unlike Pelé who, for instance, criticized Muhammad Ali for resisting the US military draft and downplayed the violence of the dictatorship).  When Sócrates left Brazil in 1984 to play for Fiorentina in Italy–doing so because the Brazilian military remained in power–Italian journalists asked him which Italian player impressed him the most. I absolutely love his response: “Never heard of them. I’m here to read [Antonio] Gramsci in the original language and to study the history of the workers’ movement.”

RG: What about club team?

AA: Not sure I can limit this to one team.  Based on politics, I would pick teams like Argentinos Juniors (first known as Los Mártires de Chicago/The Martyrs of Chicago!) or Chacarita Juniors, clubs founded by workers and based/organized on anarchist politics.  With the current professionalization and commercialization of most soccer clubs that limit any sort of radical potential or expression, I would pick two teams based on the political activism of their supporters’ groups:  St. Pauli FC (Germany) and Celtic FC (Scotland). These fan groups have, using a variety of creative methods, made political positions like anti-racism, anti-fascism, anti-homophobia, anti-colonialism and support for migrants and refugees an important public part of the clubs’ national and international identity.  And there was that short-lived team organized by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Chiapas, Mexico. To be fair, I provided warning that I could not limit myself to one team.
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RG: Your book explores the Cold War in Guerrero, Mexico. There are some many moments in the twentieth century when nation’s used soccer (and sport in general) for political purposes. Is there a particular World Cup or other instance that you especially hate?

AA:  The 1978 World Cup in Argentina.  Two years before the tournament started, the Argentine military had taken power in a coup and would rule the country until 1983 as a “National Reorganization Process.”  Over the course of those 6 years, at least 30,000 people–anyone identified as a “subversive” or “leftist”–were killed and/or disappeared. Hundreds of babies, with their parents kidnapped and disappeared, would be adopted and raised by the torturers and executioners of their parents. This was a dictatorship that employed a clandestine network of torture centers, “death flights” (the dumping of detained persons from airplanes or helicopters into the South Atlantic Ocean), sadistic methods of brutal torture with sexual violence at the core of this methodology, violent anti-Semitism.  Hosting the World Cup in 1978, along with the Argentina national team controversially winning the tournament, gave national and international cover for this brutal ruling military junta. Some prisoners recalled listening to the radio transmission of the Argentina-Netherlands final match sitting in secret torture chambers, recovering from brutal torture sessions. They could also hear the subsequent public celebrations in the streets after the national team’s 3-1 victory. Osvaldo Ardiles, a key player for the Argentina national team in that tournament, later told an Argentine journalist that the players on the squad generally believed the dictatorship’s propaganda.  Only later did he realize, playing professionally abroad in England, “one of our goals gave wind to the dictatorship” (Reuters, 25 April 2013, “Blatter misplaces Argentines’ joy after 1978 World Cup win”).

RG: The game itself–what happens on the pitch–is often devoid of justice. As teams start securing their place in the round of 16, is there a particularly injustice that comes to mind?

AA:  World Cup related injustice? ¡No era penal!  Sorry, I’m still smarting from the Mexico-Netherlands match from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.  The ouster of Senegal from the World Cup due to the FIFA Fair Play rule, thus allowing Japan to advance.  I actually think that the rule–awarding teams with the fewest accumulated yellow and red cards–is a good policy.  The injustice occurred in the previous Senegal-Japan match in which constant, violent Japanese tackles went unpunished–in contrast to the fast yellow cards given to Senegalese players.  Not to excuse careless errors made in that match by the Lions of Teranga, but this was injustice from a soccer perspective that appreciated Senegalese creativity, joy, and skill on the field.  

RG: Is there any player (or players)  that you feel empathy for?

AA:  Undoubtedly, Mohamed Salah.  The injury he suffered in the Champions League final weeks before the World Cup started unjustly robbed him of the opportunity to begin the tournament in a healthy state.  He was the player I was most excited about watching in the World Cup. His performance this past season with Liverpool was otherworldly, mesmerizing with his ruthless dribbling, finishing ability, and the sort of joyous humility he demonstrated on and off the field.  It was obvious that Salah was not himself, physically and mentally, in the two matches he played versus Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Romelu Lukaku is another player that I’m supporting.  He recently penned a moving autobiographical article in The Players Tribune that describes the travails he faced growing up in Belgium, a son of Congolese migrants.  Lukaku also calls out the sort of racism faced by black players on the Belgian national team:  they are considered Belgian when things go well, but when things go badly, their specific African national roots are emphasized.  [Link: https://www.theplayerstribune.com/en-us/articles/romelu-lukaku-ive-got-some-things-to-say]   

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RG: Let’s end with Mexico. In our first 1 vs 1, Tío Lobo said that Mexico would do really well or really bad. It seems to capture the optimism of a player with the objectivity of a spectator. How would you frame your support for the Mexican national team?

AA: Tío Lobo has a Gramscian approach:   pessimism of the intellect or optimism of the will.  Totally agree, I like it. Rabid with a sense of impending tragedy–that’s how I describe my support for El Tri.  In that sense, as I jokingly tweeted recently, my support for the Mexican national team awkwardly aligns with some of Octavio Paz’s essentialist characterizations of the “Mexican” character or soul in The Labyrinth of Solitude (especially the chapters “Mexican Masks” and “Los hijos de la Malinche”):  his emphasis on stoicism and resignation in the face of assured adversity and all that essentialist Cantinflas-esque discourse that says much and nothing at the same time.  The beginning of this World Cup indicated something different. The victory over Germany dared us to believe, to imagine something grander than simply advancing to the impenetrable Round of 16.  Defeating South Korea in convincing fashion suggested that the dreaming unleashed by the victory of over Die Mannschaft seemed real.  Sweden rudely shattered my idealistic expectations, brought back Paz, and, of course, we have to face Brazil–my second favorite national team.

Rooting for El Tri since I was a kid has always been an intensely personal and familial practice, linked to identity formation and even resistance.  It was a defensive practice, a way of asserting my family’s migrant Mexican identity that increasingly became transnational the longer we stayed and lived in the United States.  El Tri–along with religion, language, cultural practices, family, etc.–became a way to forge and enforce our transplanted Mexicaness in a foreign land, a racist, xenophobic, exploitative land that wanted our labor but not us–an assertion of political and cultural resistance expressed through soccer.  The intensity of such publicly asserted support increased in political moments defined by virulent anti-immigrant sentiment like the mid-1990s in California or today in this time of ascendant fascistic white nationalism. Also, for a long time my parents believed that we would eventually return to live in Mexico (we did once for a couple of years in the mid-1980s).  They just had to keep my siblings and I sufficiently “Mexican” in the United States to facilitate the transition back. Soccer and supporting El Tri formed part of that effort.  And I still feel that emotional intensity supporting the team, all too willing to yell “¡Viva México Cabrones!” after victory, or to weep after yet another tragic loss.  What’s different now is that my two young sons participate in this fanatical support, continually asserting that someday they will play for Mexico.
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RG: I feel like we have to start with Morrissey. I know your entire book is about this, but I thought you might briefly tell us why Chicanx like him so much?

MMH: Yes, my book is about Morrissey fandom, particularly as expressed in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Chicanx, Latinx, and Mexicans in Mexico love Morrissey’s music, both Smiths and solo, and that’s what many fans will say: we love the music. In his music and lyrics, we hear lovelorn laments and melodic melancholy that perhaps remind us of those rancheros and boleros we heard from our parents’ and grandparents’ radios. The Mexican supergroup Mexrrissey, founded by Camilo Lara, plays “Mexified” versions of Morrissey and Smiths songs, many of which lend themselves sonically and lyrically to cumbia, mariachi, and rock en español reimaginings. They tour the UK and do very well with fans there. We might look at broader historical connections between Mexico and Ireland, including the famous San Patricios, who fought on Mexico’s side against the US in the war of 1846-8, the very war that split Mexico in two and drew the border we know today. Catholicism is definitely there as a connection, as Morrissey has sung about the abuses of the Church in several songs both Smiths and solo. But I think it was Morrissey’s move to Los Angeles in the 1990s that really solidified the Chicanx-Mexican borderland fandom. Moz made his solo mark in the early 1990s when he played key shows in LA. He played in Mexico and South America for the first time during his 1999 “Oye, Estéban!” (Steven being Morrissey’s given name) tour. Morrissey then started making concerted efforts to reach his “new Latino hearts” by writing songs about a Chicano gangster named Hector, racism in the “Lone Star State” in his song, “Mexico,” and using images of 1940s era pachucos in concert films and Moz fans in the borderlands started making tee-shirts, posters, graphic art, and tribute show fliers that feature Morrissey as a mariachi, or as a Pendleton-wearing “vato loco,” or even as Frida Kahlo. During a 2007 show at the Hollywood Palladium, Morrissey and his band took the stage in full Chivas de Guadalajara kits as a way to relate to his big fan bases in greater Mexico. (I know plenty of Club América fans of Moz who weren’t too pleased with his choice of kit, but they still appreciated the fact that Moz and his band wore Mexican fútbol team kits on stage.) Moz is right up there with Juan Gabriel, Selena, Chente, Elvis, and la Virgen de Guadalupe as far as Mexican and Chicana/o/x cultural icons go.

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Is Moz also a fan of El Tri?

RG: If Morrissey played soccer (maybe he does?), what position would he play? What famous player would he remind us of? Would we like him as a player?

MMH: Moz is on the defensive a lot these days, so maybe a defender? Haha. There’s a great poster my sister had on her wall of a young Morrissey in a blazer and jeans, perfectly quiffed hair, kicking around a soccer ball. As a lad in Manchester, Morrissey grew up a football fan–his Irish-born father played the sport–and supports Man U. I hear Johnny Marr, the Smiths’ guitarist and Man City fan, was the real footballer of the band who aspired to be pro in his youth. If Moz played, he might remind us of his cousin, Robbie Keane, a famous Ireland player who came to play for the LA Galaxy for a spell before retiring.

RG: Morrissey’s controversial positions on a number of issues have shocked and disturbed Chicanx throughout the U.S. Yet, his music is so good. How do fans reconcile their fandom ?

MMH: I’m totally disturbed by Morrissey’s most recent utterances regarding his support of far-right British politicians, his anti-Muslim comments, many things he’s said on his own website. “Truly, truly disappointed,” to quote one of his own lyrics, that the same man who can sing about anti-Mexican “hate in the Lone Star state” and wants to know “who will protect us from the police,” on very recent songs, can then throw his support behind candidates described in the UK as far-right and ultra-nationalist. As far as fandom, there will always be the die-hard fans for whom Moz can do no wrong or say no evil. It’s unconditional fandom, a kind of love. There are fans who insist that Morrissey is just being Morrissey, or that he’s simply expressing his right to ‘free speech,’ or that his politics shouldn’t matter because he’s an entertainer. Some fans simply do not want to think about Moz’s political statements because they love him and his music so much, while other fans call for separating the art from the artist. Many fans, however, have also denounced him and even renounced their fandom. Evidence of increasing fan protest and opposition comes just today (Fri. 6/29), when the NME reported that Morrissey has cancelled his scheduled summer UK and Europe tour dates, which would have included shows in his hometown of Manchester. Yet, he continues to sell tickets and announced new shows in Mexico and South America. Mozlandia alive and well here, though I wonder if there will be any sorts of fan-led protests or other demonstrations of opposition to Moz in Latin America in the way that former fans in Manchester had planned to do on Morrissey’s “homecoming” show next month. The party-in-protest would have featured DJs playing “soul-filled” music promoting solidarity, love, and anti-racism. At this moment, we need critical fandom, too. Refusing to be a fan, refusing to buy tickets, for example, in this particular moment and context, is a form of political protest, not unlike the restaurant manager who refused to serve Sarah Huckabee out of solidarity with her staff. I have a hard time reconciling my opposition to Moz’s latest political statements with my own politics as well as an abiding love for his music. When I hear “This Charming Man” or “First of the Gang to Die,” for example, all I want to do is sing my heart out. It’s the music and songs and words I love. I maintain my critical distance as a scholar, but nostalgia is powerful. I love Smiths and Morrissey music. Fandom is affective, expressive, and intensely personal at the same time it’s public and shared. There is room for lots of things in fandom, including protest and critique. I write in my book that my Moz fandom ebbs and flows. Right now, it ebbs. One day, it may flow again, or I may develop a new relationship to his songs. But that’s fandom: it’s complicated and contradictory and sometimes hard to sustain. It’s subject to our own moods, desires, values, politics, and shifting sensibilities. It endures in some form, whether based on nostalgia or hope or loss. This includes sports fandom.

RG: How did you become a fan of El Tri?

MMH: Really, it started with World Cup games, but more recently with the 2006 WC, when I watched games in Ensenada with my aunts, uncles, and cousins. I bought my first replica El Tri jersey at the border crossing on the way home. My fandom grew during the 2014 WC. I watched that infamous match against the Dutch: “NO ERA PENAL!” Terrible call! But that heartbreaking match propelled my fandom for El Tri.  

RG: The chant at goal kick has created a lot of controversy. What are your feelings on this?

MMH: Speaking of complicated fandom. I hate that “p*to” chant, and I also try to understand it. In this case, the offense is coming from fans, not necessarily the team/players (fan-object), so I try to understand the chant as an expression of fandom and nationalism. I realize as a U.S.-born queer, feminist, Chicana academic, new to fútbol and El Tri, my reactions to the chant are both visceral (it makes me cringe) and intellectual (why this term? Why these fans?) and not coming from being a “real” soccer fan from/in Mexico. Fans’ actions don’t stop me from rooting for the Mexican team; if anything, I want to understand the fans’ use of that term on a deeper level. I realize the “p*to” chant is a particular kind of fan practice that’s rooted in particular histories, and fans aren’t quick to dispose of their dear traditions. Yet Mexican fans are not unique in using offensive (racist or homophobic) terms in chants. And soccer is like every other sport in terms of its emphasis on normative masculinity and athleticism, expected on and off the pitch/field/court. So, why this term, and why do these particular fans use it? In some ways, thinking critically about the term’s usage is my way of diffusing my immediate cringing emotions around hearing it at matches.

RG: What will it take to get Mexican fans to stop?

MMH: I don’t know if fans want to stop. Fans seem to hold on stronger to that word when they’re told they can’t say it. FIFA can try to make them stop by fining the team or taking their points or whatever other sanctions they can levy against El Tri. The national team can make public pronouncements and other official statements about why fans should stop using the term. I think the fans will stop when there are real consequences, whatever those look like–playing in an empty stadium? Exorbitant fines?–but fans love their traditions and practices. Saying a term is racist or homophobic and shouldn’t be used, unfortunately, isn’t enough for many fans to stop.   

RG: As much as we criticize the chant, does Men’s soccer in general have a problem with queer players?

MMH: I think the MLS is making strides with embracing “pride” nights and queer players and fans. I started going to LA Galaxy games with my bro-in-law and then in 2013, Robbie Rogers came out. I remember that was a big deal for a male athlete, regardless of sport. My sense is that in general, men’s sports, soccer or otherwise, still has a toxic masculinity problem where homophobia is rooted in misogyny–any perceived weakness or failure to live up to some dominant version of masculinity is chalked up to being a “pussy,” “bitch,” and of course, in Mexican soccer, “p*to,” classic terms used to deride women, femininity, or non-normative masculinity. We see a few more out female athletes in sports like soccer and basketball: Megan Rapinoe of the US women’s soccer team comes to mind, as does Brittney Griner of the WNBA. But that doesn’t mean they don’t face homophobia and sexism as queer women athletes in this world. But I think it’ll be a long time before we see out gay/queer male soccer players on the world’s stage–it doesn’t help that FIFA holds its premiere events in places like Russia and Qatar, where homosexuality is criminalized and illegal.

Author: Romeo Guzman

I am an assistant professor in U.S. and Public History at Fresno State, where I founded and direct the Valley Public History Initiative. I received my Ph.D. in Latin American history at Columbia University. I am the co-director of the South El Monte Arts Posse and its award-winning public history project East of East. I currently reside in the Central Valley (with regular visits to the San Gabriel Valley) with Carribean Fragoza, the writer, and Aura, our sassy and fierce six year old. For more on my writings visit romeoguzman.com

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