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Sport used as a tool for assimilation into American life

This is an excerpt from Latinos in U.S Sport eBook by Jorge Iber,Samuel O. Regalado,Jose M. Alamillo & Arnoldo De Leon.

In his work on the use of athletics for imperial purposes, The Athletic Crusade: Sport and American Cultural Imperialism, Gerald R. Gems argues that sports such as baseball played a significant role in efforts to assimilate at least some (“better”) elements of the disparate groups that Americans encountered throughout the world during the latter part of the 19th century and the early 20th century. In places such as Cuba, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Hawaii, the “Yanquis” used their sports as a way to impart specific values and character traits they believed necessary for succeeding in a modern capitalistic society. Likewise, on the U.S. mainland, athletic pursuits were also employed as a way to teach positive attributes to Russian and Eastern European Jews, Italian Americans, Asian Americans, and other “foreigners” during the early part of the 20th century.1 This is not to say that the intended students (both in the United States and outside the national borders) in such relationships necessarily drew the correct conclusions about sport. Specifically, as noted by C.L.R. James, many of the “inferiors” became quite adept at playing American and British sports and used success, sometimes against teams composed of colonists, in order to challenge assumptions about racial and ethnic limitations.2

The Spanish-speaking people who lived in the United States during the last decades of the 19th century and the early 20th century confronted similar circumstances as political and academic leaders, worried about the growth of what they perceived as “inferior” people in certain territories, sought to use athletic training in an effort to better this segment of the American population. An example of this effort is documented in David Julian Chavez's 1923 master's thesis from the University of Texas titled “Civic Education of the Spanish American,” which reveals how some in the educational and lawmaking community wished to use sports and other training in order to more fully integrate Spanish-speaking pupils into American society. Chavez's work is a full-length discussion of the steps necessary for improving the lives of people he refers to as Spanish-Americans (but who are more correctly referred to as Mexican Americans) by inculcating in them a sense of the characteristics critical for success in American society. This study covers a broad range of topics, from teaching children how to speak English to instructing them in the notions of self-control, self-reliance, initiative, adaptability, teamwork, cleanliness, and the “acquisition of the requisite mental attitudes: national consciousness . . . historic [American] sense [and proper] civic judgment.”

Not surprisingly, sports were considered a key component of this regimen in turning the wayward Spanish speakers into “real” Americans. Chavez suggests that schools in the Lone Star State maintain a generous stock of sport equipment as part of this program, including baseball bats and gloves, volleyballs and nets, and weights. The purpose for such items was to teach sports so that the pupils could better amalgamate into American society. Chavez contends that enough effort in this area would demonstrate that

. . . if enough time is given to the civic education of the Spanish-American through physical exercise and play in adequately equipped playgrounds and under expert supervision, as is being done in the best school systems of American cities, there is every reason to believe that the Spanish-American will become as efficient a citizen as those of other nationalities. There is much idle talk to the effect that the Spanish-Americans are an inferior stock out of which it is difficult if not impossible to develop American citizens. This is a grave error as anyone who knows Spanish-Americans long enough will testify.

Another critical aspect of this effort was not only to teach the children the values of competition and teamwork but also to instruct the often “dirty” Mexicans on all manner of proper hygiene:

The necessity for establishing the ideal of cleanliness in the average Spanish-American can hardly be exaggerated; this is especially true of those in whom the Mexican or Indian blood preponderates. He should be made to understand that his physical well-being, as well as his social standing, depends to a great extent on this virtue. Uncivilized people are dirty; civilized people are clean. . . .The first step can be developed by showing him that, if his non-Spanish-American associates slight him, it is because he is dirty and must suffer the consequences of ostracism. . . The Spanish-American is very sensitive and so will soon feel this so deeply that he will establish the habit . . . in order to maintain his self-respect and to enjoy the companionship in the upper classes for which his heart yearns.3

Clearly, Chavez would argue, there were many benefits to imparting such knowledge to students in America's classrooms. While recognizing the costs involved, Chavez blithely believed that local school boards, in cooperation with concerned parents, could easily afford and maintain all of the apparatus and materials for the undertaking. Not surprisingly, the history of failures by Texas' schools to properly address both the intellectual and physical needs of Mexican American children counters this cheery assumption.4 The children who played sports at schools throughout Texas (and elsewhere in the Southwest) during the years covered in this chapter not only overcame stereotypes about their character and physical abilities but also surmounted serious economic issues in order to pursue athletic dreams.5

The first two chapters of this work focus on the sports and diversions that Spanish-speaking people brought to the New World (and the variations that developed therein) during the 16th through the late 19th centuries (roughly between 1519 and 1880). In tune with one of our major themes, the previous sections demonstrate how over the years this population used and enjoyed a variety of competitive events as part of daily existence and expressive culture and how they employed athletic and leisure activities as a way to hold on to important aspects of their customs in what was quickly becoming a dramatically different society beginning with the United States' takeover of what had been northern Mexico in the late 1840s. As a growing number of Americans moved into what is now referred to as the Southwest, they brought sports such as baseball, football, and basketball into the territories captured in 1848.We also witnessed how some Spanish-surnamed people became adept in the new sports of their Anglo neighbors and, through effort and talent, sought to demonstrate their worthiness to fit into and participate more fully and equally in the burgeoning society (our second major theme). Although playing the Americans' game helped to break down some barriers, as the scholar of baseball history Joel S. Franks has noted, the new sports in places such as California more often than not did not eliminate all obstacles but instead provided “service to those erecting and reinforcing barriers to greater social, political, and economic equality.”6

Between the 1880s and 1930, three major historical trends further affected the athletic and pastime endeavors of the
Spanish speakers living in the United States. First, by the latter years of the 19th century and the turn of the 20th century, the Southwest was more fully integrated into the national economy, society, and body politic. As many of the writers who have examined this difficult process and period have noted, the whites who ventured into this area brought with them not only their economic, political, and social practices but also firm assumptions about the intellectual and physical traits and abilities (or lack thereof) of their new neighbors.7 Suffice it to say that many who encountered and interacted with Spanish speakers of the Southwest did not hold the nation's newest citizens in very high regard. Further, the recent arrivals strongly perceived themselves as vastly superior in all manner of intellectual and corporeal undertakings. Over the early years of the 20th century, such notions found expression in an array of magazines, newspapers, journals, and academic research projects; not surprisingly, this trend ultimately had a deleterious impact on the Spanish-surnamed people in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and elsewhere.

Second, beginning in the latter part of the 1800s, U.S. imperial and economic might expanded into other parts of the Spanish-speaking world such as the Caribbean and Central and South America. As the American presence penetrated new regions, the intruders introduced their games to other nationalities. During this time, for example, the United States' national pastime of baseball came to be known as béisbol to millions of aficionados in Cuba and later on in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and elsewhere. Similar to what was happening in the U.S. Southwest, the Americans who helped to establish the plethora of sugar mills, tobacco farms, railroads, factories, and other industrial facilities believed it to be part of their patriotic and religious duty to help “civilize” the various lands. This statement does not imply that the reason for baseball's arrival in these regions was exclusively an American project; as several authors of the history of the sport in Cuba and elsewhere have correctly noted, individuals from these regions who were introduced to the game in the United States actively participated in bringing the new sport to their homelands. Baseball and eventually other games, however, would be part of the effort to modernize the peoples of Latin America and teach them how to think strategically and scientifically as well as to improve the Spanish speakers' less-developed physiques.8

Finally, during the first three decades of the 1900s, the expansion of business interests (especially agribusiness and the railroad) created jobs (mostly unskilled) for laborers throughout all parts of the United States. Many Spanish-surnamed men, women, and children answered the call by employers and, as communities grew in places such as Los Angeles, Chicago, El Paso, Detroit, and the plantations of Hawaii, sports became or remained an integral part of daily ethnic life as well as a vehicle with which to challenge negative and stereotypical assumptions by the majority. In addition, as the children of the thousands of miners, track workers for railroads, sugar beet workers, and other low-wage laborers who came to the United States during the years before 1930 (many to avoid the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1921) began attending American schools (even if only sporadically), they were introduced to or given an opportunity to play and come to appreciate and even love the sports of the United States' majority population.

Chapter 3, therefore, examines how various groups of Latinos became involved, and successful, in playing a variety of sports at a variety of levels in the United States between the 1880s and 1930. The sports include baseball, football, soccer, basketball, boxing, and track. In addition, this chapter discusses the impact of these sports on rural and urban communities in various parts of the nation. However, before beginning to detail the history and accomplishments of specific individuals, teams, and leagues, it is necessary to document another aspect of the athletic history of Spanish speakers in the United States, one that has not received much attention: the perceived physical, moral, and intellectual weaknesses of the Spanish-surnamed people within the boundaries of the United States. In the assessment of some in the nation, the weak and not very bright progeny of conquistadors and native people could never measure up to the standards set by their conquerors and employers (and they certainly would not be able to compete with and defeat the Yankees at their own games).