Speedy Gonzales, the famous cartoon star of the fifties and sixties, has been in the news again lately. It seems the image of the “fastest mouse in all Mexico” was evoked recently at the boys’ 5A state soccer championship, pitting the nationally ranked Coppell Cowboys, from North Texas, against the Porter Cowboys, from Brownsville, the southernmost city on the U.S.-Mexico border. In an effort to belittle their opponents, the Coppell fans held up a poster showing Speedy Gonzales about to be squashed by a large shoe. The sign read “Stomp on Brownville!” (And no, that’s not a typo.) When officials forced Coppell to remove the sign, the Porter fans continued cheering for their underdog team with the chant “¡Sí se puede!” (“Yes, we can!”), a call to action recovered from the era of Cesar Chavez’s marches with the United Farm Workers of America. The Coppell fans answered this with their own chant of “USA! USA!” implying that the Porter players and their fans were not citizens of the United States. And when that didn’t work, one of the fans called out, “You suck, you beaner!” In the end, though, their taunts were as effective as Sylvester the Cat’s were on Speedy Gonzales. Porter won 2—1 in overtime.
Interestingly enough, this was all happening while Congress debated an immigration reform bill, including the possibility of a seven-hundred-mile wall along our southern border (one end of which would pass about a mile from Gladys Porter High School, my alma mater), and while hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants and their supporters marched in cities across the U.S., also chanting “¡Sí se puede!” Soon several thousand National Guard troops would be deployed to assist the Border Patrol in certain areas, including South Texas.
What the Coppell fans and the players on the charged soccer field probably didn’t realize was that their reaction toward a group they assumed was not American could hardly be counted as new. One of the most concentrated efforts to rid the country of illegal immigrants occurred in 1954, when the U.S. government officially passed Operation Wetback, a mandate to expel all illegal workers, particularly those from Mexico (as the name may have clued you in to). Led by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and aided by the municipal, county, state, and federal authorities, as well as the military, the operation resulted in a massive sweep of Mexican American neighborhoods and random stops of “Mexican-looking” people.
A year earlier, when these bitter feelings were already escalating, Warner Bros. introduced a new cartoon character named Speedy Gonzales. The original Speedy debuted in a cartoon titled Cat-Tails for Two, where his character looked more like a rat, mean and sleazy and with a gold tooth the animator must have thought would add a touch of realism. Speedy Gonzales then disappeared for a time, only to make a comeback in 1955 in what could be described as a more user-friendly version of the original drawing. Warner Bros. had fixed his teeth, worked on his English, expanded his wardrobe—from an old T-shirt, barely covering his privates, to white campesino pants and shirt, both finely pressed, and a red bandanna he kept neatly wound into what looked like a bow tie—and then added a bit of panache with the sombrero, worn slightly askew, that would soon become his trademark. Later that same year, Warner Bros. won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject with the cartoon Speedy Gonzales .
How strange then that the Coppell fans would choose to taunt their opponents with a poster of a mouse known for running circles around his enemies. What started out as mockery quickly turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the little guy used his speed to even things out against a bigger, more physical competitor. Along the way, the Porter team would prove that the game amounted to more than just some name-calling. Because for all questions of nationality, this actually turns out to be the classic American story: Underdog sports team from a small, remote town defies the odds and earns a bid to play in the championship game, where these players must now face a formidable opponent in a match that forces them to look inward if they hope to win.
Gladys Porter High School is located on International Boulevard, about two miles from the Gateway International Bridge, which crosses into Matamoros. The school is also a block from Southmost, historically one of the poorest areas of town, where at one time it was said that even the cops wouldn’t go after dark. Locally, Porter was known as the school that couldn’t win, in the classroom or on the playing field; it seemed the only people who believed in Porter were from Porter. The school has changed dramatically since I left some twenty years ago—it is now the district’s magnet school for engineering and technology, and in 2003 the football team came close to capturing the district title—and it has gathered an almost cultlike following of fans, collectively known as the Porter Nation.
A few days before the big game, the Porter soccer players loaded their equipment onto the school bus that would take them the 370 miles from the border to Round Rock, just north of Austin, the site of the state championship. Now they just had to wait for the drug-detection dog to inspect the vehicle. The Brownsville Independent School District has a policy of bringing dogs to check any bus that is scheduled to leave the region; according to James Kizer, Porter’s athletic coordinator, the searches are done to prevent any “surprises” later. The argument could be made that the inspections are in the best interest of the team and the school, as a preventive measure, should there be a player who decides to smuggle illegal drugs and run the risk of serious charges. But in a way, the searches are not so different from the ones the players would be subjected to if they were down the street at the bridge,