Something I don't do enough of here on FBF is blend my love of books with my love of soccer. In the interest of addressing that oversight, it's my pleasure to present an interview I conducted with Steve Wilson, whose book, The Boys From Little Mexico, hits the shelves on June 1.
The Boys From Little Mexico examines the intersection of soccer, youth, immigration, education, and culture through the lens of a mostly-immigrant high school soccer team from Oregon and their pursuit of playoff glory. More information about the book can be found on the website. So, without further ado, let's kick off the first half of this two-part interview with the author, Steve Wilson...
FBF: Can you give us a brief biographical sketch of yourself and your connection to soccer prior to writing this book? Are you a fan of any particular team?
Wilson: I grew up in the SF Bay Area and moved to Portland, OR in 1998. Most of my 20s were spent backpack, traveling in inexpensive countries, hiking, and kayaking. I also began writing newspaper and magazine articles and travel essays in my 20s. I'm 43 now.
I played Little League baseball as a kid and had no interest in soccer until I discovered Woodburn. Now I am a big soccer fan. I follow my local team, The Timbers (usl), the Sounders in MLS (until next year when they will become our biggest rival), and I like Racing Santander because I spent a summer there studying Spanish.
FBF: What got you interested in the story of the Woodburn Bulldogs? Why did you want to write this book?
Wilson: I read a newspaper article that described a playoff game between the Bulldogs and a team from Lake Oswego, Portland's most elite (and white) suburb. The article described the game from the perspective of the Lake Oswego team, and implied that going to Woodburn was like going to a dangerous and exotic country.
I thought that in a very white state like Oregon (80% Anglo) a more interesting story would be to flip that perspective, and write about the kids from Woodburn, who would experience the same cultural shift anytime they left home.
Because of my history traveling, I had an interest in the stories of outsiders and cultural conflict. I saw those themes in that newspaper article, represented by the two groups in America who love soccer: educated Anglos and working-class immigrants.
FBF: How long did you spend researching this book, and was it difficult to win the trust of the kids you were writing about and their families?
Wilson: I spent about six months hanging out with the kids from Woodburn, beginning in the summer of 2005. I went to all the games, most of the practices, and bought a lot of food for hungry teenagers at Luis's Taqueria. After the season ended I did lengthy sit-down interviews with everybody involved with the team, then, after deciding who my primary characters were going to be, spent more time interviewing and hanging out with them.
Being a 35 year-old white man hanging out with 16 and 17 year-old Mexican-Americans was a little awkward at first, although looking back, I think that I probably created much of the awkwardness myself. For the most part, the guys on the team were very open and excited that somebody wanted to write about them. At one of our first meetings several of the guys began discussing who should play them in the movie version.
I was very concerned about not revealing the immigration status of the kids and after a little while felt very protective of the kids. Teenage boys are not media savvy and they sometimes told me things that they probably shouldn't have.
As far as families go, I met some fathers and girlfriends, but I didn't meet everybody's family. The one family that I write about in detail I spent a lot of time with, and as the father of a young child at the time, even looked to the father (Omar) as a parenting role model. I really admire Omar and his wife, Pat.
FBF: Do the players harbor any ambitions of playing soccer beyond high school? Is college even a realistic option for them? Are they aware of MLS and its Sueño MLS programs?
Wilson: Many of the players had unrealistic dreams of playing professionally, and a couple had experience with Mexican developmental squads. I say unrealistic because just like in any other high school, most of the kids just weren't good enough to play professionally. Also, most of the Bulldogs came from families without much money, often with single parents, and they weren't involved in the club programs that get players noticed in America.
About a quarter of the 2005 team did not have documents to be in the U.S. For these guys, going to a four-year college was out of the question, since they would be charged non-resident tuition, which is substantially higher than resident tuition. However, even undocumented students can usually afford community colleges, and several of the Bulldogs went on to play for the local community college team.
As of right now, all the players I followed have graduated. Five are at four-year schools, three of those playing collegiate soccer. Another six or maybe eight are at a community college, almost all of them on the soccer team. At least two of the young men at the community college are transferring to four-year schools, and I know at least one of the guys who wasn't in college is going to start in September. On the whole, the Bulldogs have achieved more academically than most young Latino men. That's not really surprising, since these were the best 20 soccer players out of 100 who wanted to play (the school has four teams) and typically good athletes are academic high-achievers, despite our dumb jock stereotype.
For the most part, the Bulldogs wanted to play for Mexican teams, but the MLS was on their radar. They did not think they would get noticed, playing high school soccer. A few of the Bulldogs and their older brothers tried out for Sueno MLS. Most of them didn't know about it.
FBF: Are the players fans of professional or international soccer? If so, what leagues or teams do they follow?
Wilson: They followed Mexican teams. Most were Chivas fans, with a couple America fans, Atlas, and Pumas. There was also support for Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Manchester United. Only a couple of them paid attention to MLS, and that was only if nothing else was on TV.
Stay tuned for Part II of my interview with Steve Wilson [edit: available here], author of The Boys From Little Mexico.