- When Mexicans Could Play Ball: Basketball, Race, and Identity in San Antonio, 1928-1945 by Ignacio M. Garcia
Toward the end of When Mexicans Could Play Ball: Basketball, Race, and Identity in San Antonio, 1928-1945, Ignacio Garcia recounts an incident at an early 1940s tournament in San Marcos, where Coach Nemo Herrera and others from Lanier High confronted a shotgun-toting bigot who asked why some “goddamn Mexicans” were attempting to enter a gym. When Herrera responded that this was one of the teams, the extremist replied that there had to be another motive (nefarious, most likely) because “everyone knew” that “Mexicans don’t play basketball.” Given the economic and educational circumstances in Texas in the 1940s, it was not inconceivable for many whites to doubt the possibility of Mexican Americans playing competitive athletics. Just like for the racist, the story of Mexican-American high school athletes and their significance has been almost inconceivable for academics to ponder. Fortunately, that gaping lacuna is being addressed, and Garcia’s offering proffers a roadmap for scholars of the potential for this area of study.
For several decades researchers of sport history have mined stories of African Americans, Jews, Native Americans, and others to glean nuggets of social and historical consequences. [End Page 123] Latinos/as, however, had not garnered much attention. Garcia’s work provides the first full-length tome examining how one school and coach challenged racial, social, and athletic assumptions about Mexican Americans. While some journal articles have chronicled such accounts, Garcia’s access to Lanier alumni, plus his ties to the neighborhood (he is an alumni), granted him entrée into a community that reveled in the success of the Lanier teams from the era covered in this work. Here was a way to challenge the perspectives of many in the majority by succeeding in athletic competitions: something of great significance to many in Texas society.
The work chronicles the story of the development of the school, plus the expectations (at best paternalistic) by many of the Anglo teachers and administrators of the institution. The principal goal, Garcia notes, was to make it possible for the mostly Mexicano population at Lanier to gain competency with which to fit into the purview allotted them by society. While that was the goal, the community (particularly for those of the Mexican-American generation—starting in the late 1920s through the end of World War II) perceived something different and greater: an opportunity for Spanish-speakers to prove their capabilities, given the chance. While such hopes focused on academic pursuits, sports also fueled these aspirations.
One of the most valuable insights Garcia provides in this work is how Herrera developed talent and confidence not only in his players but also in the broader community. Teaching players basketball skills was but a beginning. The athletic program at Lanier provided youths with a sense of purpose, dignity, and success without giving up their ethnic and racial identity. Here, as has been demonstrated by scholars of the athletic history of other racial and ethnic groups, is the value of competition for the oppressed.
By the time Herrera completed his time at Lanier, the entire state of Texas knew that “Mexicans could play” hoops, and do so successfully. While the bigot noted earlier may have been unaware, the Voks’ successes challenged assumptions and provided an opportunity for players on Herrera’s squads to glimpse greater possibilities both inside and outside of their barrio. If they could triumph over whites in basketball, what else could a Lanierite accomplish? In many ways, Garcia argues, the victories on the court, and the attitudinal changes they engendered, made is possible to more effectively challenge the discriminatory practices extant in Texas (and elsewhere) in the years after the conflict.
In summary, Ignacio Garcia is to be commended for bringing to light in its totality a Mexican American version of the “coach and team who made us proud” story; a Latino Hoosiers in...