By Noah Davis
On the afternoon of July 7, Jesus Perez took a brief respite from the party around him to survey the scene at a parking lot outside the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. In a few hours, the Mexican national team would take the field against Panama in each squad's opening game of the 2013 Gold Cup. In the past, Perez, a 21-year-old who was decked out from head to toe in the green, red, and white of El Tricolor, had attended Mexico's matches when they played in Southern California and tailgated beforehand when he could get away from his busy schedule of working and studying business at a university near his house. Hanging out, chanting, eating, and drinking was nothing new for him, but this felt slightly different. There was an air of formality about the proceedings.
Perez serves as the leader of one of the two Los Angeles "battalions" of Pancho Villa's Army, a United States-based supporters group for the Mexican national team. The Gold Cup game was the first time the army gathered together at a match, and the response surprised the first generation Mexican-American. "It went far beyond my expectations. I was expecting 100 people but we probably had 150 at the tailgate and 200-plus in our section at the Rose Bowl," Perez said when I reached him by phone. "It was great, but I think we can get better."
Sergio Tristan, a 31-year-old Texas-born lawyer, founded Pancho Villa's Army in late 2012 after making a key observation about his peers: "There's a generational change from Mexican and Mexican-Americans around my age. We like to consume and watch our sports in English, but there wasn't any organization that could facilitate us getting together and watching Liga MX (the Mexican soccer league) and the Mexican national team."
Tristan, who spent summers in Mexico until the age of 15 and watched the 1986, 1990, and 1998 World Cups south of the border, saw the opportunity to create a network of El Tri fans in the United States similar to what the American Outlaws have done for the Stars and Stripes. Mexico, after all, is the biggest and best-supported soccer team in America. More than twice the number of viewers watched March's U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier on UniMas than on ESPN, an indication of the size of the pro-Mexico audience.
Pancho Villa's Army is small but growing. There eight battalions around the country -- defined as a minimum of 25 paid members with a home "battalion bar" that hosts watch parties for every game -- in cities including Seattle, Houston, and Denver, in addition to the one Tristan leads in Austin and the two in LA. The founder hoped to reach 1,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter combined by the end of the year, but the number is already approaching 4,000. The Army, which is planning a trip to Costa Rica for El Tri's World Cup qualifier in October, is finding a niche.
The name comes from General Pancho Villa, the revolutionary leader who invaded New Mexico in 1916. The name of the town he attacked? Columbus. Tristan saw a nice symmetry between that and Columbus, Ohio, the location of the last two U.S.-based World Cup qualifiers between the two countries and their upcoming match on September 10.
I asked him if he was concerned about the aggressive nature of the name he chose. "I was worried about it, but hoped that through our actions people would see that this was just a name and not a militant organization," he said. "Looking at the USMNT groups there were Sam's Army and American Outlaws, which are both names that do not reflect puppies and cupcakes. I went with Pancho Villa's Army as a parallel to Sam's Army."
He also stressed the nonviolent nature of the group and the outreach they've done to include women and children. The Army's code of conduct requests that its members stay positive, "refrain from derogatory or racial terms," and be respectful.
But, of course, codes of conduct are one thing and reality is another. The soccer rivalry between the United States and Mexico is one of the best in the world, and it's fueled by economic, psychological and sociological factors that extend beyond the field. It's only natural that there would be some bad blood between the two squads. While the teams rarely play each other, the back-and-forth battle is constantly on the minds of soccer fans in the region. "The Mexico-U.S. rivalry is embedded with so many things. For me, the rivalry hasn't gotten to a place where there's a lot of love," says Romeo Guzman, a Columbia University doctoral candidate in Latin American studies whose works focuses on Mexican migration, citizenship and popular culture. "They are both contenders that are in the same place. Neither of them really have a shot at the World Cup. The games between the two mean so much more."
And there are some who reject the notion that other Americans -- even Americans of Mexican decent or with Mexican parents -- would root for El Tri. "When I started Poncho Villa's Army in L.A., so-called friends of mine stopped talking to me," Perez says. "They were U.S. fans but most of them were Mexican-Americans. They said I should root for the U.S. because of all this country has done for me. They tried using my son against me. I told them he had nothing to do with it."
Tristan experienced negativity as well, although he has noticed a decrease in the racism he and the group face. "At the very beginning, we experienced a lot of it. We tried to make a huge push to inform U.S. fans that we aren't here to do an anti-U.S. campaign," he says. "The racism has gone away as we've tried to maintain a respectful tone on and off the site, but that first month we had a lot of people from different organizations telling us that we needed to go back to our country and stuff like 'wetbacks don't belong [in the U.S.].'"
Tristan cites the founding of Pancho Villa's Army as something that actually helped him learn to appreciate the U.S. squad. While he was a "big time" American supporter during the 1994 World Cup -- a tournament that many Mexican-Americans of a certain age say was the first time they realized the U.S. had a team worth considering -- a bad experience when trying out for the Olympic Development Program soured him on the U.S. Soccer Federation. He began to only root for Mexico. He thought he would find similar attitudes in Pancho Villa's Army, but to his surprise, many members of the group support both countries. Talking to the members about their dual fandom has helped Tristan come around on the American team. He still doesn't root for them, but he's no longer "rabidly anti-U.S."
This confusing duality of fandom is something that is likely to increase as the two inextricably linked teams grow to resemble each other. The American squad is maturing, attempting to develop a style of its own, and that inevitably includes some Mexican flair fueled by the inclusion of young men born in America with parents who grew up south of the border. Players including Michael Orozco Fiscal, Edgar Castillo, Joe Corona, Jose Torres, and Herculez Gomez have started during the Gold Cup. Mexican-American fans see themselves in the Stars and Stripes, and it's becoming easier for them to root for the U.S.
"When I was growing up, it was more common for us to root for the Mexican national team," the 32-year-old Guzman says. "One of the reasons for that was because the likelihood of a Mexican-American team to be on the American national team was very, very low. Now, you look at the U-20 roster and a lot of these kids are Mexican-American."
The truth is that Mexico and the United States -- the bitterest of rivals -- are more similar than players, coaches, or fans would like to admit. On the massive stage of international soccer, the fates of the two best teams in CONCACAF are tied together. Almost always, what's good for one is good for the other. This sporting reality fuels the tension and the animosity on and off the field as much as the political, economic, and sociological differences between the two countries.
Pancho Villa's Army illustrates the strange dichotomy better than any other group. Its members live in the U.S., trying to make a better life, but remain very much tied to Mexico. "I think it's a way for us to stay connected to our Mexican past," Tristan says. "A lot of us still have family in Mexico, too. The Mexican national team is a way to stay connected to them as well."
In September, the Americans play El Tri in Columbus, Ohio. The Army plans to offer a package for people to attend, although they are having difficulty securing a block of reserved tickets. The Mexican Federation, which did not respond to emails requesting comment, would need to help facilitate, and so far they have not. (U.S. Soccer works with the American Outlaws to get tickets for American supporters going to away matches.) Tristan says the federation has been "standoffish," taking a wait and see attitude toward the group. He suspects they are concerned about fan violence, which has been an issue in Mexico recently.
But the Army, bolstered by friends and family, will tailgate and be there in Crew Stadium. Spread out, perhaps, but there in dress and voice. They will support Mexico and, some of them at least, the U.S. as well. They will try to stay positive… but a few negative chants or screams may intrude. That's only natural when bitter rivals play. In moderation, caring too much is better than not caring at all. That's what makes sports sports.
Tristan started his group to find people who shared his view. He found them, and others who ultimately altered how he saw the international sporting landscape. I asked the man who is raising an army a final question: How would he feel if his son wanted to play for the Americans?
"I would love for my son to play for the U.S.," he said. "I would prefer the Mexican team, but if his passion for the game lead him to the U.S., then so long as we can share the game itself I am satisfied."
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