Of all the things my father brought with him when he first came to the United States from Mexico, his love of soccer has proven to be the most useful.
It helped him make his first friends in America as a 16-year-old living in Chicago’s north side during the late 1970s. He couldn’t yet speak the language, but he sure could play.
Later, my father’s passion for the beautiful game became a much-needed respite that carried him through the work week. As a child, I would tag along every Sunday to his recreational league games in Reynosa, Mexico, the neighboring border city across the river from Hidalgo, Texas, where he chose to lay our family’s American roots. Nothing else mattered when he’d step on the pitch. The mortgage, bills, supporting a family of five — it’s as if every worry, every bit of economic anxiety, melted away for those 90 minutes. I’d witness the weight of the world temporarily lift from his shoulders every time the referee blew the opening whistle. To this day, I can’t think of another situation where I’ve seen him that at ease.
He’s 56 years old now. Decades of working a refinery job have taken their toll on his body. My old man has been forced to turn in his cleats for a recliner, though he’s no less passionate as a spectator. That’s especially true when it comes to Mexico’s national team. He may have renounced his Mexican citizenship when he was naturalized, but his lifelong love of El Tri remains. He might not realize it, but that devotion has proven useful yet again, at least for his children.
Anyone who’s met Fidel Martinez Sr. will tell you that he’s the embodiment of immigrant stoicism. Like countless others who have immigrated to America, he came to this country to work hard. He’d much rather die than ever be accused of complaining. That’s a luxury reserved for those born here, he would often say.
That doesn’t mean my father is unemotional; quite the contrary. I have seen him run through the gamut of human feelings. I’ve witnessed him shed tears of unadulterated joy and of helpless anger. I have seen him plead with desperation to whatever god would listen to him. It just so happens that the bulk of this emotional display has mostly coincided with Mexico’s games.
There is a certain level of disconnect that exists between immigrant parents and their American-born children. Living in this country is a wholly different experience for both sides. I have never doubted that I belong. My father has, especially in the last couple of years. That incongruity can be alienating if you let it. The way you counter that otherness is by holding on to the ties that bind.
Being a Mexico fan has always felt ancestral. It probably doesn’t hurt that I came of age in the late ’90s, right around the time that Mexico donned a jersey emblazoned with the Aztec calendar for the 1998 World Cup, as if to suggest that Mexicans’ love of soccer long precedes the arrival of the Spanish colonialists.
It has never occurred to me to cheer for another team. Rooting passionately for El Tri always feels like I’m strengthening an unbreakable connection to a motherland left behind for the sake of a brighter future. It has become as integral to my Mexican American experience as speaking Spanish, and it’s one of the best ways I know of celebrating my heritage and the sacrifices of my parents.
Any serious soccer fan who says that Mexico has a legitimate chance of winning the World Cup is straight up lying to you. The bookmakers gave us 100-1 odds before the tournament started. But long shot or not, my father still secretly believes they can win. I do too, and I’m sure millions of other Mexican-born dads and their American-born kids feel the same way. That conviction is rooted in this gut feeling that you can always catch that one lucky break capable of change your fate, that the impossible is achievable despite the odds. In soccer, hope is the last thing to die. Come to think of it, that’s also the case in the real world.
And even if we lose, even if Mexico’s streak of flaming out in the first knockout stage continues, it will still be worth it. My father and I will still have something to bond over. We’ll commiserate much like we did during the last World Cup, where we were eliminated after the Netherlands’ Arjen Robben took a late dive and the referee awarded him an undeserved penalty (#NoEraPenal). They say that misery loves company, and if that’s true, what better companion than my own father?