Sergio Tristan had nobody to high-five.
Growing up, he watched soccer with his extensive Mexican-American family. But now he had nobody to watch the Mexican national team face the USA with. He’d gone to a soccer bar in Austin, Texas, where he lived and worked as a lawyer, but as it turned out, it was the bar frequented by the American Outlaws, the fanatical U.S. fan group.
He was the lone speck of green in a sea of red, white and blue, adrift by himself. It was the final of the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup. The Americans went 2-0 ahead, but El Tri would rally and embarrass their hosts 4-2. Every time Mexico scored, Tristan looked around, but there wasn’t anybody to celebrate with.
How could that be? There are likely more committed Mexico fans north of the border than there are U.S. fans. The TV ratings and attendances for games played here certainly bear that out – with Mexico invariably drawing multiples. Ticket sales for this World Cup suggest the same, with 88,000 sold in the United States, considering that the Yanks didn’t qualify and El Tri did.
“I said, there’s got to be people here who are also separated from their families, who also want to watch the game,” Tristan recalls. So he started a Facebook page to see if anybody wanted to watch games with him. He reached out to a few people but it was slow going. When he started aggregating articles about El Tri in Spanish and translating them into English, that garnered a quick following, because there was, at the time, very little English-language coverage of the Mexican national team.
Soon enough, Tristan started Pancho Villa’s Army, a fan group for Mexico in the U.S. He named it for a Mexican general who raided an American border town in 1916 and then successful evaded the pursuing U.S. Army General John J. Pershing. The town it ransacked? Columbus, New Mexico. With the same name, fortuitously, as Columbus, Ohio, the USA’s soccer stronghold where it had beaten Mexico again and again.
Pancho Villa’s Army hoped to raid Columbus again – figuratively, of course. (It would in late 2016, when Mexico finally won there in a World Cup qualifier, the first nail in the Americans’ qualifying coffin.) Its name was also a jab at Sam’s Army, the original USA fan group, before it was usurped by the American Outlaws.
PVA quickly gained traction. Chapters started in Los Angeles and Phoenix, where the first pre-game party for a Mexico was expected to draw 10 people. A hundred showed.
Today, it has 5,000 members and 32 chapters, recently adding two in Lincoln, Nebraska and Arkansas. It also has sponsorships by Nissan and Estrella Jalisco, a beer maker, which help it put on events. The annual fee for members is $50 but it’s optional, in case you can’t afford it. The parties are free and open to non-members, whether they’re Mexico fans or not.
PVA also has a military-style hierarchy, in keeping with its name. Its chapters are battalions – or batallon. New members begin as soldados. The women are adelitas, for the female soldiers in the Mexican Revolution. Batallon leaders are capitans. Tristan is El General.
In real life, Tristan, now 36, was a captain. He served 30 months in Iraq in the U.S. Army. He was an infantryman at the height of the insurgency, leading 120 soldiers in a small outpost. He returned for a second tour as a JAG officer.
Pancho Villa’s Army brings together the two major strands in his life, his childhood watching Mexico play soccer and the brotherhood of the military. And to him, even though he was born in the U.S., rooting for El Tri was never really a decision.
“I was raised that way, like most Mexican kids of my generation from the ‘80s,” says Tristan, whose immigrant parents still took the family back to Mexico several months out of the year, like many families. “The culture that I knew was both Mexican and American.”
When Tristan came of age as a fan, he idolized the Mexican players after the 1986 World Cup there. The U.S. national team still wasn’t really known. “There was no such thing, at least in my community, as a U.S. Soccer team,” he says. “It wasn’t until 1994 that we really kind of learned that there was one because of the World Cup. Rooting for Mexico was just normal. It wasn’t this oddity you see nowadays.”
It was just what you did. Because the Mexican communities in the U.S. largely revolved around church and soccer. After church, the family would barbecue and watch a Mexican game. They were touchstones of a life reluctantly left behind in search of opportunity. For those kids, all grown up, soccer still functions as both childhood sentiment and a link to a heritage. “Now it’s one of the few connections we have left to our culture,” Tristan says.
Tristan’s generation of Mexican-Americans doesn’t go back to Mexico for four months out of the summer and another month during the winter any longer, like many of them used to. So gathering around El Tri games becomes a substitute for that old community. “For four hours, we can connect that little bit of our history and cultural identity back to those times,” says Tristan.
“Culturally, for Mexicans it’s all about family,” says Rich Guel, a 46-year-old Chipotle manager in Phoenix and Tristan’s second-in-command as El Coronel. “We do things together as a family. With Pancho Villa’s Army, we find someone else who has the same passion for El Tri like we do. And now we have something in common that pulls us together. You’ve got an extended family.”
As such, PVA’s fanatical Mexico fandom isn’t a rejection of the U.S. Guel, like Tristan, barely knew the U.S. existed when he pledged his allegiance as a young fan. And he, too, felt compelled to get together with like-minded fans. “There was a void for something to pull everything together,” he says. “That’s our main goal: to unite Mexico fans to support El Tri. That’s it. There’s no hidden agenda.”
“It’s not that I reject the U.S. I’m proud that I was born here,” says Ivan Toribio, a 35-year-old high school teacher and caregiver from Los Angeles. “I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve received here, everything that comes with living in this country.” But he looked up to his Mexican immigrant dad and his dad was an El Tri fan.
Toribio is capitan of the Los Angeles batallon. Their tailgate pulls in at least 200 people whenever Mexico plays in L.A. At the last one, they grilled 70 pounds of meat and had a DJ. Their watch parties for the World Cup are expected to bring together as many as 500 people.
But they do more than that. They’ve organized a canned food drive and are planning a toy drive later this year. And as a group, Pancho Villa’s Army has worked hard to try to banish a homophobic chant that El Tri fans like to bellow in unison when the opposing goalkeeper takes a kick.
The chant, which we won’t dignify by printing it, is defended as a cultural utterance that isn’t meant to offend and should be laughed off. But Tristan doesn’t buy it. “Times change,” he says. “I just think the joke is overplayed now. It does no good. I think we can do something better.”
Progress is slow. The chant is deeply burrowed into El Tri fan culture, after all. But PVA has seen progress, trying to reach a fan at a time. In its own informal polling, it has seen the number of fans who say they’ll do the chant reduced from 70 percent to 60.
Ultimately, Pancho Villa’s Army wants to provide the best possible fan experience. And the coming month, they’ll be pretty much the only American fans who have a team to root for at the World Cup. They welcome all USA fans to join them, several members say sincerely.
But would Tristan have cheered for the U.S., if Mexico hadn’t qualified?
“No,” he says, amused that he’d even be asked. “Would you ask a Red Sox fan to root for the Yankees?”
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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