There is perhaps nothing more viscerally American than blue-collar sport: small-town pride writ large, desire, hope, brief denials of reality and death. This is of course the defining theme of TV’s Friday Night Lights (mercifully now resurrected for a fourth season), in which a Texas town’s dreams of football glory become a window into a broader vision of a crabbed and often stymied, always deeply felt life.
A much different America—though no less American—is chronicled in Steve Wilson’s The Boys From Little Mexico: A Season Chasing the American Dream (Beacon, 225 pages, $24.95). Here it is fútbol, not football, at the center, and the team in question is the nearly all-Latino players of the Woodburn High School Bulldogs—“Los Perros,” unofficially—who have qualified for the Oregon state soccer playoffs every year since 1986 (a state record, in any sport) without ever winning the title.
Wilson followed Los Perros through their 2005 season as they chased the prize, chronicling not only the games but the people in them, from Mike Flannigan, the Woodburn legacy coach, to Octavio, a talented, broodingly intense, unfortunately undocumented player (and 3.5-GPA student) whose college hopes are stymied by the fact his father didn’t follow through on Reagan’s immigration amnesty offer. Young Octavio’s anticlimactic coyote run across the border—his first suspicious taste of hamburger and awed gaping at Walmart’s obscene bounty—is one of the highlights of the book, but also underlines the fact that for many illegal immigrants, their status was chosen when they were too young to truly choose.
What also emerges in Wilson’s book is the insane importance of these soccer games for the students, and how unequipped they are for losing—or, how resigned they can be to the world being stacked against them. After a losing game they sob like characters in a bad soap. Still most of the players have bitten into that American apple-pie notion of meritocratic opportunity, even if they may feel partly excluded from it. Team member Cheo knows that English is the key to success, but the language comes hard to him; he sits blankly through his classes and begs the help of fellow Latino kids. Carlos lost out on his hoped-for soccer scholarships (and then partied too much, implausibly, at George Fox). Octavio worries about his citizenship—and is still worried, though now married to a citizen. Many—maybe most, including these three—are doing just fine.
Amid a lot of lobotomized flap about immigrants—in Arizona in particular—what this book offers is an actual human face on immigration and the people affected by it. Woodburn here isn’t so much “Little Mexico,” but a study in what it means to be American.
READ: Steve Wilson reads from The Boys From Little Mexico at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Wednesday, June 9. Free.