Photo by Louie Navarro
Lions and Tigers and Xolos
In a dusty field behind a racetrack in Tijuana, the line of cars trying to park snakes into the distance. Once we park, we look around and see that we’re surrounded by coyotes, wolves, llamas, buffalos, and other wild animals. As we walk through the field, we run into ostriches, a couple of camels, and bears. Exotic birds wander around trying to avoid being hit by cars, a peacock drags its colorful feathers on the dry dirt. As we approach the stadium, we marvel at a lion, a tiger, and a leopard, all of them lying down and napping. After all, it’s midday, time for the siesta that all crepuscular animals delight in when the sun is still high.
These animals are not in big cages surrounded by grass and trees, like the flamingos and bears in front of the casino of the Caliente compound. Here the cages are dainty and fragile, simple and not very well kept. I can only wonder why anyone would want to use a parking lot as a zoo. Some kids dressed in red-and-black shirts poke the animals. They even try to wake up the tigers, but they’re rushed along by their parents: “The game’s about to start, you can come back later. Don’t worry, that lion’s not going anywhere.” A man on a horse directs pedestrian and car traffic. For a moment I think it must be fun to be a security guard at the racetrack/private zoo/parking lot. I mean, you even get to ride horses. Yeehaw! ¡Arre, arre!
There’s a long line of futbol fans at the entrance, most of them wear red and black, the colors of the Xoloitzcuintles, the Xolos (pronounced sholos, which sounds a lot like cholos, aka homeboys). Some women are in office suits, heels, and faux silk scarves. They run on the dirt toward one of the doors. Polite ladies inspect our bags and inform us that we either have to drink our bottled water in front of them or throw it away, since no bottles are allowed in the stadium. We find good seats from where we’re able to witness the spectacle before the game. A line of bleached blondes called Xolitas run around the field in skimpy outfits, each one of them walking a leashed Mexican hairless dog. The dogs are the mascots of the Tijuana team, a breed that’s called Xoloitzcuintle in Nahuatl (the word means the dog of Xólotl, the Aztec god of life and death). There’s music and cheering, drums, trumpets, and three rowdy groups of fans that chant and jump and bark throughout the game: La Masakre, Cachorros, and La Perrada.
The game is sold out: 18,000 fans of the Xoloitzcuintles fill the Caliente stadium. They proudly call it the “biggest dog pound in Latin America.” Some of the fans are in suits and look like they just escaped from a desk deep in some government agency. There are also families. There are cute girls in tiny dresses and high heels that look like they went to the game to get a tan (and maybe a boyfriend). Most of the fans are young men, furious and passionate, the kind who has only cried when they’ve felt the grief of a game lost.
The futbol fanbase in Mexico is as impetuous and devoted as it is passionate, faithful, and sometimes shamefully politically incorrect. Let’s not forget that the eternal flame under the Arc de Triomphe was extinguished au naturel by a drunken Mexican fan during France’s ‘98 World Cup. This anecdote is especially important to remember whenever there’s a goal at a futbol match: people will jump, yell, hug, and throw around liquids. One can only wonder if that cool splash was beer, soda, water, or something else. It makes sense to always bring a hat.
Futbol vs. Beisbol
First, a disclaimer. It’s hard for me to get my head around the idea of soccer in Mexico. For me, “soccer” is an American thing. In Mexico, it’s futbol. In the same way, it’s hard for me to think about baseball in Mexico. “Baseball” is American. Beisbol is in Mexico. Soccer is not the same as futbol. Baseball is not the same as beisbol. The border is real.
The Mexican futbol tradition dates from 1904, when the first Mexican team (made up exclusively of Englishmen) was founded in Puebla. Quickly after that, the sport became popular in central Mexico. But it didn’t find the same warm reception in the north of the country. The reasons were many. First of all, there’s the distance: up until the early ‘70s, the main means of travel was by bus. A trip from Tijuana to Guadalajara was at least 34 hours. Planes were small, slow, and not very safe. The same trip by air could be made in about ten hours. The television channels were local or sandieguino, and they only covered baseball. The state of Baja California was not as populated as it is now, so futbol was not a very convenient investment for a team from the south, plus futbol was considered a southern sport. There was one amateur league in Tijuana in the ‘40s and in the next decades the sport got some popularity, but it wasn’t until the ‘70s that futbol was an organized sport in Tijuana. There was even a women’s league (my mother used to be a goalkeeper and a midfielder), but bajacalifornianos were much more interested in baseball. The first organized baseball teams in Tijuana were the Pericos and Colts; they date from the ‘50s.
The U.S. influence in the border region is remarkable. We are much closer to California than we are to Mexico City; thus, the only chance to see a major sporting event for a tijuanense sports fan was to go across the border and see a Padres game. The Padres’ advertising people exploited the geographical proximity to Tijuana by marketing the team to tijuanenses as a Tijuana–San Diego team. We embraced the idea. It made us feel like a part of American baseball. The triumphs of Sonora-born Fernando Valenzuela in the ‘80s made him a cult figure among fans throughout all of northern Mexico. He was worshipped during his big days with the Dodgers; he made baseball contagious, tangible, close, and a little Mexican. But beisbol wasn’t consolidated in Tijuana until the Potros were established in 1977. Their stadium was (and still is) the only professional baseball stadium in Tijuana. The Potros achieved a couple of victories (champions of the Liga Mexicana del PacÌfico in ‘87–’88 and ‘90–’91), but due to many political and economic problems, they are long gone. There have been other teams, such as the Toros and lately the Cimarrones, but it seems like the golden era of Tijuana beisbol has ended. From the mid ‘90s up until the mid 2000s, Esteban Loaiza was an important figure for Tijuana’s baseball fanbase because he’s a local. Nowadays, the popular figures are Adrián and Edgar González, sons of the former owner of the Potros team, but even with these players’ success stories in U.S. baseball, it’s a fact that, historically, the investment (from state or private sources) in Tijuana sports and athletes has been poor and inconsistent.
A National Fever
It wasn’t until Mexico’s World Cup in 1986 that the north of Mexico caught futbol fever. We got to watch the figures, their moves, and skills. We learned that Hugo Sánchez displayed incredible acrobatic feats because his sister was an Olympic gymnast who trained him in her sport. We also got to see Argentine Diego Armando Maradona, a powerful player who was always in control of the ball. We learned disappointment after the game against Germany. (It’s the only day that I’ve seen my mother fall on her knees and cry.) We lost that game, but we were happy that the cup stayed in Latin America; Argentina won. It was during the summer of 1986 that futbol took off in the north. People just started to play futbol; kids in the colonias would use two rocks as goalposts and would play on the dirt till the sun went down. futbol fever was incredibly important for Tijuana. This was when a larger number of leagues first started to organize.
Tijuana had many minor-league futbol teams before the Xolos. There was Inter, Dorados, Trotamundos, Chivas Tijuana, Stars, Nacional. All of them were put together by promoters from the south of Mexico, but none of them lasted. A futbol team was a big investment that didn’t always pay off. Tijuana’s a city of migrants who came to live in beisbol territory. The new residents remained loyal to their home teams, such as the Chivas, América, Cruz Azul, Atlas, Pumas, Tigres, León, Necaxa, Pachuca, among many others. There was a marked division: old tijuanenses stayed with beisbol, while newcomers preferred futbol.
In 2004, something weird happened. After a long period of not participating in politics and a very long list of scandals, the eccentric billionaire and animal collector Jorge Hank Rhon was elected mayor of Tijuana after waging an original and racy campaign; it was the only way the PRI was able to win back Tijuana after 15 years of rule by the PAN party. It was during his days in office that he decided that Tijuana needed a futbol team, and so he formed the Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente. The team belongs to his son Jorge Alberto. It’s a private enterprise and an obvious but smart political move that would make him popular in a city thirsty for unity and identity. Despite his shortcomings and scandalous reputation, no politician or futbol promoter before him was smart enough or had enough funds to give Tijuana a good team. The initial team was formed with players drafted from central Mexico, plus a couple of players from Argentina and Brazil. The club trained young local kids who now play for the team, such as Antonio Madueña and Jorge Martínez from Mexicali, Ismael Fierro from Ensenada, Carlos Bermudez from San Felipe, Mauricio Beltrán and Daniel Farfán from Tijuana. There is also one Mexican-American player: Joe Corona, who left the Aztecs to play with the Xolos because of money and tuition problems at SDSU, plus the fact that his personal style wasn’t improving with the Aztecs. In general, U.S. soccer is a very physical game, but Mexican futbol focuses on controlled speed, skill, the ability to fool the opponent, to make him dance along. They are very different styles.
Eric Rosales, media coordinator of the Xoloitzcuintles says, “Baja California’s talent is starting to bloom. Corona is the first Mexican-American to play with the Xolos. He’s been a remarkable player in the third-division team and had a great debut with the main team. Before him, Bruno Piceno was the first tijuanense to play with us. He’s very talented, a creative midfielder who makes lots of goals.” However, the unreached goal for the Xoloitzcuintles is to make it to the Mexican first-division league, a task they were close to reaching during the last season when they lost in the semifinals against Necaxa.
Expectations are high for the next season, but the team is still too young, a quality that is appreciated, but it’s not the ideal. As in so many things in life, strength and speed may decrease, but the moves will only improve with time, practice, and experience. The Xoloitzcuintles’ main goal is to enter the Mexican first division and be able to play against the Chivas, Pumas, Tigres, and Águilas, but until then, they will have to be content with sharing a parking lot with lions and tigers and bears.
You can read the Spanish version of this article here.