Cheering for Mexico in the U.S. is a co-sign for hope in increasingly troubled times
by TuAnh Dam
You might have thought Mexico had won the World Cup with how hard their fans were celebrating. Despite winning its first two games, El Tri was nearly eliminated from the tournament as Sweden went ahead 3-0 in their final group stage match. If Germany had beaten South Korea, Mexico would be going home on goal differential. Instead, Korea scored two goals in extra time to eliminate Germany and help Mexico advance to the knockout round.
Mexican jerseys flooded the streets of Russia after South Korea’s decision, thanking any Korean fan they could find with shouts of ¡Viva Corea!
I could not hold in my cheers for Mexico. Not eight years ago when I was in Mexico City watching crowds of people cheer as their team scored, and not on Wednesday when El Tri advanced to the knock-out stages.
It isn’t hard to celebrate when you’ve grown up in Southern California’s Little Saigon, a predominantly Vietnamese neighborhood in Orange County where Mexican immigrants have also carved a place for themselves.
Asian Mexican fusion restaurants play hip hop music down the street from the old school pho joints with the plastic stools. Rapid fire Spanish mixes in with splashes of Vietnamese at the local grocery store, and inside the mix of enthusiastic cheers at the start of the World Cup has been a welcome change from the feeling of uncertainty that has marked the lives of these deeply intertwined immigrant communities.
Mexican immigrants here have been thrown in with murderous gang members, and threatened with calls to ICE, an agency that seems hell bent on tearing apart the lives that immigrants have created here in the U.S. They watched as families with the same dreams and aspirations of coming to this country, are separated at the border. It’s been a seemingly endless ordeal that may only get worse.
The World Cup serves as a reminder that obstacles are neither endless nor hopeless. My mother, a Vietnamese-American immigrant, is living proof.
As a teenager, she worked at a roadside stand in post-war Vietnam, trying to scrounge up enough money to support her seven siblings, her parents and grandparents. She peddled clothes, food, various knickknacks, anything she could to make a living.
When she came home bone-tired, but she never missed a World Cup match. Huddled around a grainy black and white TV, she and her seven siblings would wake up at 2, 3 and 4 A.M. to watch the greats–Pele, Eusébio, and Johan Cruyff–step onto the pitch for their respective teams. There were muffled high fives and cheers all around.
My mother and her siblings mimicked their idols when they hit the streets with a threadbare soccer ball, sometimes playing shoeless in the muggy Saigon heat. She had dreams that maybe one day there’d be enough to leave her stall behind that there would be more to celebrate. Until then, that ball on the colorless screen were one of her few reprieves, from the meals that needed to be cooked, the clothes that needed to be washed, and the siblings that needed care.
Fifty years later, the soccer balls on TV are sharp, flying across a lush green pitch, peppered with brightly colored jerseys. The high fives are still abundant, now exchanged in the medical clinic where she will work as she watches Mexico takes the field in Russia against Brazil today.
The World Cup may give our Mexican-American neighbors that same feeling she had from across the Pacific Ocean. It’s a reason to take pride in your culture and your accomplishments, even if others might devalue these contributions. The group stage celebrations were a moment to relish being a Mexican–and a Korean.
It must have been a similar feeling for Houston Astros fans when they won the World Series in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, and for the Japanese Women’s national soccer team, winning the World Cup after a devastating earthquake in 2011. These are all teams playing for more than a trophy. To anyone with great obstacles ahead, may these use the inspiration of the World Cup the way my parents did. Soccer wasn’t their ticket to America, but without it they might have lost hope completely.
Here in Little Saigon, Mexico’s fans, and those who understand that the World Cup can be about much more than soccer, we will be ready to celebrate. A win against Brazil won’t just be a win for the Mexico or anyone who supports El Tri. It will be a win for those who are trying to maintain hope for what may be more troubling times ahead.