By David E. Hayes-Bautista and Gregory Rodriguez
0n Saturday, after the Atletico Aztecas had fought to a 1-1 tie with Sporting Cristal, Aztecas coach Enrique Garcia brought out two large pots of pigs' feet that he had cooked and then soaked for three days in water, salt, vinegar and jalapeños. The Aztecas rounded out their weekly game gnawing on the snack, tossing back beers and talking about turbot under a giant sycamore in the corner of soccer field No. 1 at Whittier Narrows Regional Park in South El Monte. The Aztecas' match was one of more than 2,000 organized games played every weekend in parks and fields throughout Los Angeles County.
Thanks to its enormous immigrant population, Southern California has the most and best local soccer in the United States. The number of leagues in L.A. has doubled in the last ten years. La Opini`n, L.A.'s leading Spanish-language daily, covers more than 1,000 matches a week. Four out of five local players are Latino.
Latino immigrants often join teams whose members are from their native pueblo, rancher city or province. Most of the players on Ayutla, one of the leading teams in the Abraham Lincoln Soccer League, are from the town of the same name in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Alianza D. F. of the Mexico League is largely made up of Chilangos, natives of the Mexican capital. For Latino immigrants, soccer is a major link to the past, to each other and to their new home. This is especially true for L.A.'s 250,000 Salvadorans, many of whom had their lives interrupted by a lengthy, ferocious civil war.
"God Himself invented soccer," says Nicholas Orellana, owner of Niky's Sports store, the city's soccer cathedral, which is situated between L.A.ís Little Central America and skid row. "You put a ball in front of a child who has just taken his first steps, and what does he do? Whether he's Chinese, black, Iranian or Anglo-he's going to kick it."
Orellana, a middle-class Salvadoran refugee who fled his country in 1981 after a right-wing death squad attacked his home, is raving about a story in La Prange from San Salvador, in which a local boy made good. He hands the article to his soccer cronies, who stop by throughout the day. The men, mostly Salvadorans, share in the glory. "He flies like an angel," says Mario Barrientos, a janitorial supervisor, pointing to the picture of Warder Guerra, a midfielder for the team from the northern Salvadoran city of Santa Ana. "When Jorge 'the Magician' Gonzalez, the greatest player in our history, retires, Warder will be the best player in El Salvador. And he grew up right here in Los Angeles."
There are around twenty Salvadoran amateur soccer leagues in L.A. County. Thousands more Salvadoran futbolistas play in the pan-Latino leagues, which are mostly Mexican. Guerra once played for the Niky's Sports team in the North Central American League. Orellana not only supplies his team members with handsome blue and white checked jerseys and cleats; he is their sympathetic godfather. He was instrumental in getting his favorite Salvadoran team to sign Guerra. Last year the Salvadoran National Selection Committee, aware of the soccer talent that had departed the country during the twelve-year civil war, asked Orellana to develop a training school in L.A. to send players back to El Salvador. In February Orellana and other ardent soccer fans formed the Angeleno Committee of Salvadoran Selections. In May three of the seven players they sent to San Salvador qualified for the country's national team.
'We're trying to recover something we lost," says Hector Moran, a 28-year-old graduate student in agricultural engineering who volunteers for the group. Moran, who came to the United States when he was 14, says the war destroyed his dream of playing pro soccer. He wants to ensure that younger players get his lost opportunity.
The most important thing in soccer is to put yourself in "The middle of it all, not to sit back and watch," Niky's Sports coach Luis Cruz yells at a dispirited forward during halftime of a match with a neighborhood rival. The players, whose ages range from 17 to 32, huddle against a chain-link fence, gulp water and listen to their coach. Cruz, a 41-year-old refrigeration truck mechanic, is "renovating" his young team of blue-collar workers and community college students. He's trying to squeeze in as much training time as possible before the season is put on hold for the World Cup.
That El Salvador is not fielding a team for this year's Cup-and has done so only twice since 1970-does little to dampen enthusiasm. This year Salvadorans all over the globe will be rooting for the U.S. team. Why? Because midfielder Hugo Perez, the second all-time goal-scorer on the U.S. club, wag born in El Salvador and grew up a few blocks from Niky's Sports.
Earlier this month more than 91,000 spectators filled the Rose Bowl in Pasadena to watch the United States play Mexico in an exhibition match. The vast majority of the fans were Mexican-Americans who came out for the Mexican team. The stands were a sea of red, white and green, the tri-colors of the Mexican flag. The crowd roared its approval when the Mexican squad was announced but cheered only politely for the "home team." The Salvadorans felt a little differently. Orellana sold 1,000 tickets to the game, which the underdog Americans won. Not only has the "Colossus to the North" long been a hated and sometimes envied-older brother to Salvadorans, but Mexico eliminated El Salvador last year in the qualifying rounds. "Did you see how the Mexicans were deliberately hitting Hugo Perez?" a Niky's Sports regular asked incredulously after the match.
"It's very important for us to be in the World Cup, even if it's only one player on another team," says Barrientos. He and his Salvadoran buddy, Oscar Herrera, a chef at the plush Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood, were two of the very few fans at the game to buy American flags. Barrientos gave one to his teenage son to wave in honor of Hugo Perez. Herrera had more complicated reasoning. With a 7-year-old daughter born in L.A. to a Mexican mother, he just figured that red, white and blue was the only logical compromise.
David E. Hayes-Bautista is director of the Alta California Policy Research Center. Gregory Rodriguez is a research associate at the center.