[Image: Detail of Mexico 1970 World Cup Poster]
By the time we arrived to the game, coach had already laid out our jerseys on the ground. He placed them on top of a plastic tarp so they didn’t touch the yellow grass or dirt patches and arranged them so perfectly that it felt like we were professional players inside a club locker room. We knew that our jerseys were special because we had Zapata on our chest and Zapata said that it was better to die on your feet that to live on your knees, which also sounds like something coach might say. Some dad probably saw us, a bunch of teenage boys wearing Zapata’s face, and told his wife “les pesa mucho la camiseta.” This is the biggest diss in soccer. It can mean that a player lacks respect for their team or the game or they lack dignity or talent or knowledge of fútbol tradition to wear a certain number or jersey.
I don’t remember how I got on the team. But practice was held at Simons Junior High so I might have stumbled upon the team and asked if I could join or my homies might have invited me to come out. It was a neighborhood team so both are equally likely. The coach, myself, and two of my classmates—the Sánchez brothers—lived no more than two blocks from the school. From Town Street, I took the alley and arrived to through the back of the school. The Sánchez brother headed up north from Reservoir and coach and his son carried the equipment down San Antonio Avenue.
Coach had a name, but I can’t remember it. We might have just called him coach. What I do remember is more important than his name though.
Coach had a black mustache, the kind that men of my grandfather’s generation wore. It was thin, with the top half shaved off and the bottom part hugging the top of the lip. Like his mustache, coach was a pretty serious and meticulous person. One day, for example, someone tried to steal his classic white Ford Mustang. They failed, which would have been the end of the story for most people, but not coach. He figured this thief would come back and when they did, he would be ready. So coach came up with a plan. He got himself a thermal filled with coffee, climbed up to the top of his roof, and with his shotgun at his side, patiently waited the entire night. Only after several of these sleepless nights was he convinced that his car was safe.
I don’t know if coach ever played soccer in Mexico, but he must have because he knew a lot about the game, though perhaps not a lot about fourteen-year-old boys.
Either way, coach had a very clear philosophy about the game. “The world,” he said, “played scared and fútbol suffered because of this.” According to coach, the 4-4-2 formation that everyone used was a defensive formation; teams were happy to possess the ball, to hold onto it, even if they never scored. By sticking to the 4-3-3 formation and using 3 forwards instead of 2, we were going to attack our opponents. “We might lose,” coach said, “but we’ll lose by playing to win. We are not going to win or lose by playing to not lose.”
On Zapata, I played on the right side, usually midfield or forward. When I first got on the team, I had to sit on the bench to start the game. But that changed pretty quickly. Right before the start of each game, coach put down the starting line up by arranging 11 credenciales (identification cards with a player’s name, birth, and photo) on the dirt. If you credencial wasn’t on the dirt, it meant you were going with him to the bench.
Regardless of what position you played on Zapata, there was one really important rule to follow. It was wrong, coach told us, to intentionally tackle or hurt a player simply because he dribbled around us. That was, according to coach, an insult to the game. There was an exception though; a pretty big one. If a player beat you and then either came back to beat you again or slowed down so he could beat you again, we had to put a stop to it. “Either the ball passes or the player, but not both,” coach told us as he pointed to the ball I think what he was trying to tell us that it was okay to get beat, but that we should never let anyone try to humiliate us. Maybe this was coach’s line in the sand.
If we weren’t playing well or putting in enough effort, coach did this really weird thing that I’m pretty sure most of us did not understand. He very deliberately put his hands together in the form of a V and pointed that V at all of us. Someone’s mom thought that wasn’t very cool, so one day at practice coach told us to tell our moms that the V was indeed representing the vagina, but not because he was some sort of pervert. With the V he was simply telling us to try as hard to get the ball as we try to get that other thing.
For the most part, the parents liked coach and knew he did a lot for the team, so no one took their kid out over the vagina thing. He took the jerseys home, washed them, and neatly folded each and every single one. At half time and after games, coach gave us this secret drink that tasted like some combination of punch and orange juice. I say it was secret because you couldn’t buy it at the store and I never tasted anything like it before or after I played on his team. I always imagined it was the same drink that Mexico’s professional teams put in those plastic bags and threw to their players during the game. It was like a paisa Gatorade.
One Sunday coach’s face seemed more serious than usual, like he was trying to figure out which way was north. When we saw small black ribbons and clothes pins next to each jersey we knew to put them on our arms and to do so quietly. I don’t remember when coach told us, but he told us that our center forward would no longer be playing with us that he wasn’t here anymore and that someone tried to mess with him and he fought back and it didn’t end well. I remember feeling really sad and thinking about our forward’s older brother, who was really good at soccer but who also was pretty cool. During pick-up games, he would give you enough space to throw a move before taking it away from you. Then after it was over, he might come over and give you some pointers.
I left the team shortly after that. I started playing with Chino Spirit in Chino, a slightly better-off neighborhood north-east of Pomona, and missed practices and one or two games. Coach didn’t like that I had missed practices so after a game he called my dad and me over and said that he really wanted me on the team, but that soccer was like a relationship, like having a girlfriend, “You can’t have two. You have to pick one and when you pick one you have to commit to it.”
I understood and my dad understood and I left the team and I don’t think coach was mad about it. My dad and coach were not friends, but I imagine they were probably really happy and maybe a little sad to find each other at a grupo for parents at Sacred Heart Catholic Church over on Hamilton Street. Coach’s son had messed up. The first day of high school, he showed up in really baggy pants and a crisp white t-shirt and with a new haircut and new friends. I remember being surprised and worried for him and wondered if he would be okay. When someone told me that coach Zapata’s kid was in jail for doing something he wasn’t supposed to, we weren’t surprised, but we were still really bummed about it. I don’t know what my dad and coach talked about just that they found each other there.
If my dad were still here I’d ask him and he would tell us what they talked about. He would remember the coach’s name and maybe even tell us what pueblo coach came from and how coach earned a living. If my dad were still here, he might tell us about how last week he ran into coach while running some errands in Pomona and how coach looked really good and is still coaching and is now a grandfather.
But my dad isn’t here anymore and all we have is me and these faint memories. I know that this is where contemporary me—a historian of migration—should sub in for fourteen-year-old me and use the distance from the past to offer you a neat take-away. I’m supposed to return to the thing about the heavy shirt and offer some pitchy revelation about its relationship to the pitch and growing up in Pomona and the lessons coach was trying to impart on us. But it’s hard and all I can do is speculate. I don’t know why coach named his team Zapata and why he put Zapata’s face on the center of the jersey, but I think he knew that our shirts had to be heavy; that sooner or later we would be confronted by the world around us and that we shouldn’t be scared to lose.
Romeo Guzmán is an assistant professor at Fresno State, where he directs the Valley Public History Initiative. Guzmán is also the co-director of the South El Monte Arts Posse, an arts collective based in South El Monte/El Monte. He lives with Carribean Fragoza, the writer, and their kid Aura.