Americans are willing to give credit to Mexico where it’s due (tamales, street art, and Jarritos come to mind), but we refuse to give up our numero uno status in sports. While there’s more than a few reasons to believe that we’re right, we definitely owe props to our tag-team partners down south. From baseball and soccer to boxing and wrestling, Mexico has played a big role in shaping American sports culture. How big a role, you ask? Well, let’s find out.
It’s a popular story that baseball spread throughout Mexico during the late 1800s, when American railroad workers would relax by playing ball (where they mustered the energy to play is a mystery). Mexico formed its own major league in 1925, but things didn’t get interesting until the 1940s when the league’s most ardent supporter, Jorge Pasquel — a man so rich and vain that he had a haberdashery built into his mansion — tried to lure America’s best ballplayers to play in the Mexican pro league. While he didn’t nab a Ted Williams or Stan Musial, Pasquel did recruit a number of American pros, as well as stars from the Negro leagues. Thanks to Mexico’s efforts, America got to see what integrated baseball would look like in the states, paving the way for racial integration in American baseball. Since then, more than a hundred Mexican ballplayers have joined the American pro ranks, where baseball announcers aren’t required to know Spanish (but it sure helps when reading the rosters).
If there’s one sport Mexicans play from the time they’re able to walk, it’s soccer. When Americans decided to get in on the fútbol action, they recruited some of the biggest stars they could find, including Mexican legends. It makes sense — Mexican soccer at its best is a blast to watch, largely because of its beautiful display of teamwork. The traditional Mexican strategy is to maintain possession of the ball as long as possible, bursting into a quick run at the goal as players use their excellent ball control and dribbling skills to push past defenders. Nowadays, the U.S. and Mexico are so intertwined that both national teams compete for many of the same talented players.
Mexico’s national sport originated with 16th century Spanish conquistadores, whose equestrian mastery eventually became part of charreriá — a giant celebration filled with dancing, singing and, of course, drinking. Mexican horsemen known as charros display their skills by riding bulls, lassoing mares, and getting their horses to spin in circles and walk backwards. Texans saw how awesome the sport was during the 1800s and began adapting the contests. Basically, just about everything that’s the hallmark of the American cowboy — the clothes, the ranching skills and the rodeo — originated in Mexico.
Since the first Mexican won a world title in 1933, Mexican boxers have established a proud history of standing toe-to-toe with any opponent. This, coupled with a willingness to trade punches that often lead to dramatic fights, puts Mexican boxing among the most thrilling of sports to watch. Mexico has produced a plethora of world champions with more than 100 in its history, including one of the all-time greats Julio Cesár Chávez. Chávez holds six world titles and more than 100 professional wins behind his devastating left hook. You do not want to make that man angry.
There’s something distinctly Mexican about masked men flying through the air. The lucha libre tradition began in the 1930s when promoter Salvador Lutteroth placed Texan wrestlers in front of Mexican fans who loved to cheer on the “téchnicos,” or good guys, like El Santo (“The Saint”). The téchnicos’ aerial attacks and technical prowess were a stark contrast to the thuggish brawling generally used by the bad guy, known as “rudos.” Families go to lucha libre matches for a fun night on the town, teaching their children their first swear words to hurl at the rudos — who were never above breaking the rules to win a match. If all that sounds familiar, it’s because American pro wrestling has taken plenty of notes (including the one where wrestlers double as movie stars).
Is all this talk of physical prowess making you feel a bit…parched? Allow Jarritos to quench your thirst.
Matt Marquez writes about geek culture and the arts. Follow him on Twitter at @mattmarquez.