Gold Cup Final USA vs Mexico: Borders, Burritos and Budweisers

Mexicans aren't crazy about Americans so naturally when I went to watch the Gold Cup Final in the Los Angeles Rose Bowl with Yanks outnumbered 10 to one, I wore my USA kit, stars and stripes cape and went in search of new amigos.
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Welcome to 'America’s Stadium' The Rose Bowl: An imposing, star-spangled sports cathedral at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains in Pasadena, California. Home to the UCLA college football team, it’s as American as Uncle Sam and fried chicken. And on Saturday, it hosted an international ‘soccer’ derby of epic proportions: The CONCACAF Gold Cup Final between home team USA and neighboring Mexico. 93,420 soccer fanatics turned out, filling the stadium to the brim. Yet remarkably less than 10,000 of those fans were supporting America. And I was one of the outnumbered.

My national team, the USA and Mexico have met 57 times. “El Tricolor” as Mexico’s team is known, has never lost to the U.S. on Mexican soil. They’ve won 31 of all clashes, and drawn 11. Yet strangely, in the FIFA rankings, the United States are the 22nd best team in the world and Mexico just 28th (As of June 27). As my rusty Ford Explorer edges into the parking lot that stretches on for an eternity, I overhear an American supporter say casually, “If Mexico ever lost to the U.S. at Estadio Azteca, it would be the end of the world.” But as our own giant stadium creeps nearer, I notice that the Rose Bowl might as well be on Mexican soil. Today it’s absolutely overwhelmed by a sea of green flags and air thick with the smell of tacos.

“U.S. Soccer fans are a minority in their own country,” says Garrett Quinn, a 27-year-old Bostonian I meet on the sizzling tarmac. “That’s not normal anywhere else in the world.” Garrett has traveled 3,000 miles for the match, while for many of the Mexican fans, their journey to California has been altogether more difficult. For Mexicans migrating to the U.S., crossing the border is illegal, dangerous and deadly. In 2009, the U.S. Border Patrol reported 417 deaths at the border, citing heat stroke, dehydration, hyperthermia, and drowning as the leading causes of death. Just weeks ago on June 8th, the US Border Patrol opened fire on a group of suspected illegal immigrants, and an innocent bystander, a 15-year-old boy called Sergio Adrian Hernandez Huereka, was shot dead. The Mexican public was outraged. On Huereka’s casket, was a picture of him in his green soccer uniform. Today, this clash would be about more than just football.

Yet hours before kickoff, and the parking lot is already a fiesta. Dressed in Mexican wrestling masks, headdresses, Aztec warrior suits, and countless Chicharito jerseys, the Mexicans are here for a festival, not a football match. They receive so little American media coverage, but in the words of one El Tri devotee, “We’re going to show the Americans how to fucking party!” This will be my first USA vs. Mexico experience- I’m from East Coast of the States. A Boston native who supports Liverpool. Most of my friends are white, but in my new home of Los Angeles, I’ve come to relish the opportunity to blend with Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans during local ‘pick-up’ games where, like today, I’m outnumbered about ten-to-one. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, of the 32 million Mexicans legally residing in America, 11.5 million live in California. Recent figures also estimate there are 20 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, 500,000 of which are illegal Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles County. These numbers, all on the rise, have led demographers to predict that racial and ethnic minorities will become the U.S. majority by the middle of this century. Judging by this parking lot, it feels like it’ already happened.

In 2009, the U.S. Border Patrol reported 417 deaths at the border, citing heat stroke, dehydration, hyperthermia, and drowning as the leading causes of death.

Can’t beat them? Join them. I jump on a parade of rowdy Mexican fans led by a bass drum, a waving flag, and a “Dale, dale, dale TriColor!” chant. While I thought my green t-shirt would help me blend in, my American accent does not. As I snoop around lanes of parked cars and barbecue tents, I take notice of all the license plates: Colorado, Texas, Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona. Some guys look like they’ve been camped out for days. I chat with Marley Castillo, a heavyset 24-year-old Hispanic dude from Los Angeles, and he tells me, “It’s a hatred. But just a sporting hatred,” he smiles. “You’re white. I’m Mexican. At the end of the match we’re always friends. I’ll hate you for 90 minutes. But after that we’ll go eat together.” He politely points at a grill of delicious looking food, and smiles, “Hey amigo, you want a taco?”

Could today be a big football cuddle, where soccer unites the bitter nations? Next I’m invited over to where Mexicans are mixing happily with Americans. These guys are grilling beef patties and pineapple rings and sharing Budweisers, in an all-American feast. But among them is a young Hispanic man dressed in a full Aztec warrior uniform. Edgar Acosta was born in Juarez, Mexico, but now lives in Las Vegas. He speaks like an American. He is American. Yet he crossed the border as a 12-year-old immigrant, and at age 19, Edgar joined the Air Force to earn his official citizenship. This is a popular choice among Latino immigrants, many of whom saw the War in Afghanistan as a welcome invitation to enlist and become a U.S. citizen. After being stationed at the Royal Air Force base in Croughton, England for 6 years, Acosta, an Arsenal fan, says he’s happy to call America home.

“But I’m dressed like this because I’m 60-40 Mexico. That’s where my Mom brought me to life,” he explains. “But due to the better future I’ve made for myself here, I support the U.S. as well.” Few people in the stadium represent the contradictory Mexican/American situation more than the American soldier in front of me wearing the Aztec warrior outfit. He’s fought, literally, to become an American. Yet he’s here to cheer on Mexico.

Deep in Mexico territory, I sheepishly change into my USA kit and an American flag, which I wear as a cape. It feels odd to be in a minority for once. Mexicans are the very heartbeat of the country: the worker bees, the grafters and the laborers. If you’ve ever been to a DIY megastore in America, you’ll have seen legions of Mexican workers outside in the lot, asking Americans for work. Yet here in this parking lot, football is somewhat of a leveler. The traditional USA pre-match ‘tailgate’ party is thrown by the team’s largest supporters group- the ominously titled ‘American Outlaws’. Today, a pack of roughly 300 passionate Americans in bandanas, tank tops, and face paint do their very best to rival the ruckus of the El Tri. On a dirt path the Mexican and United States supporters exchange chants. “Dos-a-cero!” The Americans chant, predicting the score in the tongue of the opponent. “Viva! Viva! Mexico!” El Tri rebuts. Face-to-face, supporters from both sides meet at an imaginary “border” to point fingers and exchange chants. But it’s all in good fun. Fingers turn to handshakes, and chants to jokes.

Afterwards, US Goalkeeper Tim Howard embarrasses himself by saying that the post-game ceremony, conducted in Spanish not English, was “a fucking disgrace.”

But then, this football love-in takes a sudden turn from friendly to hostile. Unaware of the cordial environment on the front line, one unruly, highly inebriated Yank deep in the crowd takes things too far as he foolishly chucks a glass bottle at the Mexican crowd. (Ironically, during the match, I would witness an American fan get hit in the forehead with a glass bottle and require medical attention). It’s a distant act of hatred that, in a way, represents the general misunderstanding of the Mexico-U.S. rivalry. From afar, many people think there is a social rift between the cultures of bitter bordering nations. But at the core, there is a neighborly respect between these two groups of fans that, before and after 90 minutes, is never lost. At the moment, things are tense: pushing, shoving and spitting of every swear word in the Spanglish dictionary. It takes two Pasadena police officers equipped with guns and nightsticks to cool the tension. “We’re all here for a soccer game,” reassures Jeff Sixer, head of the American Outlaws Orange County chapter, “Some people like to politicize it and liken this to a political battle solved on the field. For me, it begins and ends with soccer. It’s not a Northern-Southern Battle. It’s a game, not politics.” For others, the rivalry is definitely more than a game. “This match means everything for a U.S. fan. It’s national pride,” says Jason Gustin of Massachusetts, “I hoped there’d be more U.S. fans here. It doesn’t feel right to have this number of Mexicans at a US-Mexico game.”

I stray away from the politics and follow the sounds of a nearby Mariachi band. Close to 50 Mexico fans surround a tent containing a 5-piece Mexican ensemble. Forgetful of my new attire, I don’t realize why I’m being glared at. Suddenly, I’m surrounded. Eight to ten sweaty El Tri boys smile at me like hyenas over a piece of fresh meat. They start jumping and chanting, “Culero! Culero!” and trying to wrap me in a Mexican flag. Defiant, I wriggle free and hopefully join in the dancing and perform a solo “USA! USA! USA!” chant much to their surprising delight. I’ve won over Mexico! High fives and hugs from every direction. Now, I’m posing for pictures with every El Tri fan in sight. “You’re a celebrity!” one says in broken English. “But why?” I ask. “Because you’re not afraid,” one replies. “Culero!” I respond with appreciation and confusion. Perhaps, for once, an American came to them, while they’ve spent their lives going to America. As the crowd stammers towards the Rose Bowl, in a blended line of Mexicans and Americans I think, “I guess this is America’s Stadium.” Then, a Mexican fan with gold teeth leans over to me and laughs, “Hey amigo, do you have a sister?”

Incidentally, the game ends 4-2 to Mexico, overshadowed for me, by the lessons of the parking lot. Afterwards, US Goalkeeper Tim Howard embarrasses himself by saying that the post-game ceremony, conducted in Spanish not English, was “a f***ing disgrace.” Meanwhile, with only 10,000 American fans turning out to support their nation, at home, in a major Cup Final, people will continue to ask, “when will soccer make it in America?” Well, perhaps it already has. It’s just not painted red, white, and blue. On the way home, I realize the Mexicans really know how to party. And I also find out that “Culero” roughly translates as someone who likes being taken up the Arsenal.

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