- When Mexicans Could Play Ball: Basketball, Race, and Identity in San Antonio, 1928–1945 by Ignacio M. García
Until the late 1960s, Anglo Americans dominated Texas high school basketball, which was controlled by the University Interscholastic League. Most African Americans, during this time of segregated schools, played in districts managed by the Prairie View Interscholastic League. Also making an impact, but usually overlooked, even dismissed, were Mexican Americans. Ignacio M. García’s When Mexicans Could Play Ball reveals the discrimination behind that oversight while examining the community around San Antonio’s Sidney Lanier High School during the years of the Great Depression and World War II. At its core, it is a typical sport’s story: underdog overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds to win a state championship, not once but twice. But García’s thoroughly researched examination is much more. By intertwining stories of daily life, school, and sports during the 1930s and 1940s, then comparing them with his own experiences as a Lanier student in the 1960s, García reveals how a supportive community helped many [End Page 333] young Mexican Americans deal with bigotry and achieve success. And, although García notes that the Lanier story is unique to the time and place, it is a story with universal appeal.
When Mexicans Could Play Ball has its heroes, none greater than William Carson “Nemo” Herrera, whose time at Lanier (1928–1945) defines the era. García credits Herrera with developing the school’s athletic program, even though the school had success prior to and after Herrera’s tenure. But Herrera’s more lasting impact was that of a mentor whose strict discipline and high ideals helped many of his players “claim a college education, a winning record, and respect from Anglo players, teachers, coaches, and sport writers” (201).
While the basketball story centers on “Nemo,” García also explores Lanier High School’s effect on its students. Discrimination is part of that story also. “Sidney Lanier both limited and lifted its students, preparing them to participate in Americanism while holding them separate from full inclusion” (4). Anglo teachers and administrators directed students into vocational classes, preparing them for the blue collar jobs that offered them the best chance of becoming part of the American success story. Few, according to García, seriously dreamed of college, making the impact of Herrera even more notable.
Sometimes García might seem to overstate the anti-Mexican bias, basing his argument on a rival’s trash talk, the actions of a few fans or even an individual. But he tempers these claims with examples of respect from rival coaches and local sportswriters. While García may dismiss the larger scope of the Lanier experience, many graduates from small schools who, regardless of race, have felt the rebuke of lesser discrimination may relate to some of the Lanier experience.
It is a story with hundreds of variations, not unlike David Anspaugh’s Hoosiers (1986), but with the added issue of ethnicity. When Mexicans Could Play Ball provides important insights into twentieth-century Mexican American communities. It also adds to the minimal works on Mexican Americans and sport as well as the limited knowledge of early basketball in Texas.