A Mexican Summer: Discovering Family, Faith and Futbol
OTF’s Robert Suarez continues his look back at Chicago fútbol life… La Plaza de los Laureles was located in the old historical district of Guadalajara. It sat directly west of “La Catedral de la Asuncion de Maria Santisima” which was of particular interest to my father – El Sifon. He felt the cathedral was the cultural and spiritual heart of the city and he seemed especially proud of this beautiful place and promised it would be a marvel to behold.
Tour guides describe the cathedral’s architecture as an eclectic mix of Gothic, neoclassical and Palladian architecture and as an exquisite example of inspirational public art. El Sifon did not describe it in such terms. My father was not a well educated man but he was well read in history and had an uncanny ability to recall historical events and dates. It was something most people did not know about him but I had noted it as a youngster – most likely because I inherited this same interest.
That day in the plaza El Sifon pointed out the historical significance of the bullet holes that marred the cathedral’s large clock – the details of which have long since faded from my embarrassingly weak memory.
Yet, as I recall, it was shortly after my father’s poignant history lesson that he first noticed the well dressed old man on the nearby park bench in the plaza. Sifon could scarcely contain his excitement as he pointed out the handful of respectful and adoring fans who waited patiently for an autograph or a handshake. My father explained the old man had once been the coach of the Mexican National team. Sifon rattled off some of the old man’s accomplishments as the head coach of “El Tri” and named some of the great players he had led and coached.
Again, I am ashamed to admit my memory fails me and I do not recall the gentleman’s name. Sadly, this is how I recall many of my experiences from the brief, yet magical time I spent in my father’s homeland. The truth of the matter is, despite my love for history, I am not much of a historian. Yet my saving grace may be my tendency to be a bit of a storyteller, and as such I am particularly drawn to the wisdom and wit of popular Hoosier author Philip Gulley, who succinctly notes, “History is about facts; stories are about truth. It is important to know the difference.” Thus it would be better for me to continue from the beginning.
In the middle of the 1960’s my father decided it was time to go home. He needed to return and reconnect with his roots – his old friends, his family and to the town he left behind so many years previously. It was an important and necessary event in my father’s life. It was in many ways a homecoming and a validation for him. He had left as a desperate and poor young man in search of a better life. He would return now as a triumphant middle-aged family man who had fulfilled his dream of a better life, not only for himself, but for his children as well. Yet, in retrospect it was much more than that – it became the lens through which I came to better understand my father. Through it I came to better understand how my family, my faith and futbol were all somehow influenced by my father’s wonderfully warm homeland. It also allowed me to experience his life in a way that would otherwise have been impossible. In the end it magnified, for me, both the tragedies and the triumphs of his life.
When we arrived in my father’s hometown of Juanacatlan in our 1964 Ford Station wagon it was loaded with boxes and bags of used clothing which our family had collected for the poor residents of his hometown. And even though I was a young teen at the time I recall how it touched me when I saw our poor friends and neighbors gathered around us on the sidewalk sorting through the plentiful supply of good clean clothes.
There seemed to be a spiritual dimension to life in Mexico that I found attractive and fulfilling. The people were poor in a material sense but they were not bitter or angry. On the contrary they seemed joyful and grateful for the simple things in life. My faith seemed to come alive in response. It was a spiritual growth which was not so much the result of pious words or sermons; rather my faith began to grow in a deep and profound sense more as a result of merely sharing life with my father’s people. And I was humbled by observing how my father respectfully treated the poor.
Still, the obvious must be stated – “life is not that simple.” Discerning right from wrong or good from evil – are insights seldom laid before man in the contrasting black and white terms we often seek. This is particularly true when dealing with the imperfect people who make up our frail families. So it should not surprise anyone that our Ford station wagon held other surprises for El Sifon’s kinfolk. Thus, as soon as it was prudent to do so, El Sifon promptly dismantled the back seat and pulled out a couple of brand new shotguns. We had smuggled these weapons across the Mexican border, as I understood it, explicitly for the hunting needs of El Sifon’s kin. And yes, smuggling firearms into Mexico was a completely illegal and seditious act which carried serious legal and criminal consequences. But there was more.
Other members of Sifon’s extended family eked out a living as fishermen on the Rio Santiago. So, way back in the 3rd seat compartment of our Ford station wagon was hidden something for them as well. And I will never forget the smile that broke out across my newly found “uncle’s” face when, from the rear of the station wagon, my father uncovered and unloaded the coup de grace – a brand new outboard motor!
In a stunt that I can scarcely believe we attempted – my old man had smuggled the Johnson outboard motor into Mexico right under the noses of the federal authorities by merely covering it up with blankets and pillows. He then boldly timed our arrival at the border check point for the wee hours – just before dawn. In addition, El Sifon had cleverly coached and choreographed us to play possum and to roll up into a ball of unrecognizable humanity over and across our hidden maritime contraband.
Upon arriving at the border check point I “snored” and drooled on cue. As the federal border agent repeatedly ran his flashlight across our half-naked and strewn bodies I heard the tail gate unexpectedly pop open. I was stunned when I heard El Sifon sincerely offer to “wake” us so the agent could perform a proper inspection of the vehicle. It was a classic El Sifon bluff – one which he executed perfectly! Many years later my old man confirmed my suspicion – he knew the last thing the authorities wanted was a bunch of tired, whiny, underwear-clad kids running around their checkpoint at some God-forsaken hour. Needless-to-say El Sifon’s “sincere” offer was emphatically, but politely, refused. “After all,” El Sifon explained, “I knew those lazy no good, rotten s-o-b’s just wanted to get back to sleep!”
These daring stunts are duly honored in our family lore and are exceeded only by the stunt he pulled on the return trip when he smuggled a kilo or two of high quality pot past the American border agents! On that occasion he did it, not for family, but for futbol – which is a tale better left for another day. For now it should be noted that at the time of our arrival, Juanacatlan, Jalisco was somewhat of a tourist destination partly because it sat on the large and fast flowing Rio Santiago which was a sportsman’s delight. But, more importantly it was a popular destination because the massively impressive, and beautiful, “Mexican Niagara” inescapably dominated the landscape of my father’s hometown.
The town had also been memorialized throughout the nation by the acclaimed Mexican composer “El Maestro” Jeronimo Mendez in the beautiful and classic Mariachi song, “Mi Tierra” – something my father was exceedingly proud to point out. Juanacatlan and it sister village, El Salto formed a picturesque town situated in the foothills, straddling el Rio Santiago, less than 30 miles southeast of the bustling, modern, cosmopolitan, and colonial city of Guadalajara. However, in all reality Juanacatlan was a world away. It seemed a world in a time warp as well. The cobblestone streets offered no sewer system to speak of. There were few cars in the town to share the bumpy ride with the horses or donkey’s laden with supplies or deliveries. Furthermore there was only rudimentary electrical service and virtually no telephone service.
If that wasn’t enough of a culture shock I soon discovered our drinking water was in a well and our milk was in a pot covered with a dish towel – to keep out the ever present flies. To make matters worse the milk was warm and had a layer of disgusting cream on it – yuck! Whatever illusions I had about Mexico quickly faded. And as reality set in so did “Montezuma’s revenge”.
Amazingly a few days later my brothers and I began to recover and I actually began to enjoy myself. I began to look forward to our morning “baths” in which we (my brothers and I along with our newly discovered friends) would hike to the river, just down stream from the thunderous waterfall. There we would skinny dip in a small canal with a bar of unused soap as we goofed around hunting snakes, turtles and frogs. Sometimes we would hike great distances in the course of our daily exploits. We explored jungle-like forests where the ground was covered in fruit – which we freely gathered. Other times we walked to rural ranchos, settlements and even hidden mountain sites miles from civilization where we would drink from cold springs, mountain creeks or occasionally from natural wells or cisterns.
It was truly a place of natural beauty with abundant wildlife. I also broadened my horizons by discovering many new foods and amazingly I learned to appreciate hot sauce on everything. I can even recall wondering how I ever got along without it. Eventually a pattern developed in our daily life. Sundays were special and it was our first priority on those days to enjoy the traditionally large and fulfilling Mexican breakfast! In addition my parents usually planned tourist type activities on the weekends and of course there was futbol!!
Our hosts had one of the few televisions in the neighborhood. Therefore most of the neighbors would gather there to watch “las Chivas” play. It was at this time I first saw futbol on television. Interestingly, I consciously noted the lack of commercial breaks during the televised matches. Rather than break away from the match, occasional small commercial banners ran along the bottom of the screen so as to not interrupt the flow of the game. It was a revolutionary concept to me as I had never seen it used in the states. It was cutting edge technology at the time and I began to suspect futbol was much bigger than I could have ever imagined. One Sunday El Sifon took us to see the local team, “El Salto”, play a home match. The club competed in the lower divisions of the Mexican league but the small venue was crowded with the proud and boisterous residents of Juanacatlan, El Salto and other smaller nearby communities. El Sifon proudly recounted the days when, as a young man, he had played for a different (long extinct) home town club – “Rio Grande“. I suspect he saw that we were not particularly impressed. It is one of many memories that pains me to this day – and I would change it if were possible to do so.
But the highlight of most week days was our evening outings to the nearby park for pick-up futbol games. It was the social event of the day and the young people gathered there to meet friends and relax. Despite the fact that I felt, and looked, completely out of place I came to love the evening pick-up games after I overcame my initial hesitancy and shyness.
The games were usually 4v4 or 5v5 matches with goals no more than a foot or so wide. Matches were played barefoot and we usually wore our futbol shorts underneath our clothes. So, as soon as we got a chance we would flip off our huarache sandals, drop our pants and join in. There were usually groups of pretty, young señoritas watching and/or gossiping. As a result the matches would sometimes get intense but not ugly. I struggled to improve my skills and to avoid embarrassing myself but at the same time I was oblivious to the reality – I was getting a priceless futbol education.
With no coach, no parents, no shoes, often shirtless, feeling out of place and surely out of my league … the game began to come alive for me. Pass by pass, touch by touch, hour by fun-filled hour the beautiful game worked its way into my blood. Between matches we would play juggling games and constantly challenged each other in never-ending attempts to accomplish a cherished nutmeg. Many years later I would incorporate all that I learned on the lush green Mexican grass into my own system to teach American kids a better and fun way to learn futbol.
Occasionally unexpected events would disrupt our plans. Like the one special Friday evening my father had us put on our nice clothes because he had arranged for us to visit someone important. We drove to his friend’s house a short distance – just across “el rio” – no more than a mile or so from our quest home. We arrived at a lovely house and it was evident that the Estrada family lived a comfortable lifestyle. Señor Estrada and El Sifon had been teammates and friends since childhood and they greeted each other affectionately with animated hugs and laughter. After socializing for a short while, Señor Estrada sent for his son Luis who was visiting them at the time. It turned out Luis was less than 5 years older than me and I was stunned to learn he was a professional futbol player – and had been since the age of 16!
He played for Club Leon of the Mexican 1st division which happened to be scheduled to play against las Chivas on Saturday night! My father was visibly impressed and honored to meet the younger Estrada and I was intrigued that Luis Estrada seemed almost as honored to “finally meet” my father as well. Their gracious family showed us numerous trophies, photographs, souvenirs, and the many jerseys exchanged with Luis from futbol foes over his career. The evening ended with free premium seat tickets to the Chivas vs Leon match courtesy of Luis Estrada. Now how cool is that?!
The mid to late 1960’s is considered by many to have been the golden era for las Chivas. It is, therefore, my good fortune to be able to say, “I saw las Chivas play at the revered old Estadio Jalisco.” The stadium was a modern and lovely structure at the time – and that night it was filled with 30 to 40 thousand zealous Chivas fanatics.
It was my first professional futbol match and it was a classic Chivas home game – the atmosphere was electric! I know it was electric because my hair stood on end when I first looked on the pristine green turf and recognized the world famous traditional red and white vertically striped jerseys of las Chivas. It was an amazing moment and I have never forgotten it. It was also, by far, the largest futbol crowd I had ever seen in person so I was also a bit unnerved by all of the commotion of getting into the stadium and past security. But I must add I found the experience to be awesome.
We had great seats near the pitch and were separated from the unwashed masses by both distance and heavy gauge chicken wire. I did not really appreciate the need for the chicken wire until the second half when, for some long-forgotten reason, the crowd became agitated and I saw the chicken wire stop numerous beer bottles which had been hurled in our general direction. Earlier in the evening we had excitedly searched the pitch for our friend Luis Estrada and I was in awe when we finally spotted him wearing the number 8 in the crisp green and white colors of Club Leon. That memorable night we proudly, and loudly, cheered for las Chivas but we also cheered silently for Luis Estrada. It was a thrill to see him play midfield for Club Leon – which had just become my second favorite Mexican club.
Luis Estrada would go on to represent his nation in the 1967 Pan American games and tallied a goal in the 1968 Olympics to help Mexico achieve a fourth place finish. He also went on to enjoy a long and distinguished career in the Mexican 1st Division. He would play on championship teams in the 1970’s and would even win the league scoring title in the 68′-69′ futbol campaign. Eventually he would gain fame nationally as “El Chino” Estrada and would earn a place on Mexico’s National team 24 times while tallying 7 goals for “El Tri”.
He retired from the game in 1978 after five seasons with Cruz Azul but remains active coaching in the 2nd and 3rd divisions of the Mexican professional league to the present day.
As for us – the night at Estadio Jalisco ended and eventually so did our Mexican summer. We soon returned home in our 1964 Ford station wagon and resumed our sanitized American lives in which bland food and cold homogenized milk would soon seem normal again. In time the warm memories of Mexico, unable to withstand Chicago’s long, frigid winters, slowly withered away.
I have never returned to my father’s homeland and I suspect I never will. Juanacatlan is no longer a picturesque village. Urban sprawl and modern travel have changed the landscape and Juanacatlan now suffers from many of the social problems so common in today’s poor urban areas. The glorious and thunderous “Mexican Niagara” no longer exists either. It was extinguished and silenced in the 1970’s by short-sighted and corrupt bureaucrats, corporate greed and government malfeasance.
Today it’s barren and sheer cliffs rise skyward from the filthy and polluted river bed as a grim reminder of how easily an ecosystem can be destroyed when left in the care of greedy and arrogant businessmen and corrupt government officials. Even sadder has been the fate of el Rio Santiago which is now an ecological disaster – on a global scale. Raw sewage and industrial wastes including benzene, chromium, cobalt, lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury and sulfuric acid have poisoned the river to the point it is often referred to as an open industrial sewer. With it’s demise the surrounding ecosystems, which depended on the river for sustenance, also collapsed. The river where we once bathed, swam, fished and played is now listed as one of most polluted waterways in the world by Greenpeace.
Yet there is a glimmer of hope as the genesis of a local environmental movement has begun to demand government action and accountability. Their struggle will be a long and difficult one considering the heavy-handed policies of the Mexican government as well as the political power of the international corporations that exploited the natural resources of el Rio Santiago. Yet, I pray that these young environmentalists succeed so subsequent generations may one day again enjoy the natural beauty that once existed in that beautiful place.
No, I may never again return to my father’s homeland. I may never again experience the natural beauty of el Rio Santiago nor “las cascadas” known as the Mexican Niagara. But all is not lost – for despite these tragic and sad developments I can still rejoice in the knowledge that directly east of the Plaza de los Laureles, in the old historical district of Guadalajara, one can still find the spiritual and cultural heart of a beautiful city – la Catedral de la Asuncion de Maria Santisima. For it remains there as I last saw it those many years ago and it remains … a wonder to behold – just as my father had promised.
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OTF contributor Robert Suarez is older than dirt, but slightly smarter. Coach Bob mans his “Bobservation Post” high above a rural Indiana corn field, from where he proudly dispatches missives of fútbol insight, experience and opinions via his telegraph (with enhanced morse code, version 2.5). Follow Bob (if he lets you) @rxs225.