Soccer as Immigration Litmus Test

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on June 27, 2011

I’m a native of Baltimore and a lifelong fan of the Orioles. A few years ago, when the Orioles played a home game against the Red Sox, I had the unpleasant experience of watching and listening as thousands of Red Sox fans proudly, loudly and sometimes obnoxiously cheered for their team. I cracked to a friend, “Now I know what it feels like to live in an occupied country.”

A similar scene unfolded in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, where fans of Mexico’s soccer team filled the Rose Bowl with Mexican flags and nationalistic fervor as their team defeated the U.S. by a score of 4-2.

Wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke: “It was imperfectly odd. It was strangely unsettling. It was uniquely American. On a balmy early Saturday summer evening, the U.S soccer team played for a prestigious championship in a U.S. stadium … and was smothered in boos.”

But Plaschke, while stunned by the scene, was not alarmed. He spoke with Victor Sanchez, a 37-year-old native of Mexico and resident of nearby Monrovia who declared that he loved his adopted country. Sanchez explained that when the crowd lustily booed the American squad, “We’re not booing the country; we’re booing the team.”

In Plaschke’s view, the scene was more reassuring than unsettling. He sees it as a manifestation of a fundamental national strength.

Wrote Plaschke: “It was truly strange but, in the end, it indeed worked, perhaps because there is pride in living in one of the only countries where it could work. How many places are so diverse that (they) could fill football stadiums with folks whose roots are somewhere else? How many places offer such a freedom of speech that someone can display an American flag on their porch one day and cheer against the flag the next? I hated it, but I loved it. I was felt as if I was in a strange place, and yet I felt right at home.”

The late historian Samuel Huntington used a similar situation at a 1998 U.S.-Mexico soccer game in Los Angeles to support a far different conclusion. Huntington worried that immigration from Mexico has reached such proportions that it threatens to unravel previous patterns of immigrant integration and undermine national identity.

In his controversial book, "Who Are We?: The Challenges to American National Identity," Huntington shared the anxiety of a U.S. fan upset at Mexican fans who threw beer and fruit at spectators waving an American flag. “Something is wrong when I can’t even raise and American flag in my own country,” he said.

In a column published two years ago in newspapers across Mexico, prominent Mexican journalist Sergio Sarmiento expressed understanding for indignation at such a display of Mexican nationalism on U.S. soil.

Wrote Sarmiento: “If something similar had happened in our country, if a community of foreign origins had mocked our national anthem and our flag . . . both the communications media and the Mexican politicians would have begun a campaign” to punish the offenders.

Sarmiento expressed understanding for Huntington’s claim that “assimilation is particularly problematic for Mexicans and other Hispanics.”

Wrote Sarmiento: “He was right. The Germans, Irish, Jews and Italians who immigrated to the United States in the past, were proud of their national origins but never ceased to consider themselves Americans and to respect their national symbols.”

Sarmiento concluded with this observation. “At a moment when there are people in Mexico celebrating the booing of the U.S. national anthem at a sports event . . . let’s think about what it would mean for us if a foreign community did that in Azteca Stadium.”

Note to Red Sox Nation in occupied Camden Yards: Sergio Sarmiento is a wise observer of human nature.

Topics: Mexico