It’s dark, and I’ve spent the past few hours standing around a loading dock behind Austin’s Q2 Stadium with sixty or so of my closest friends—most of whom I’ve never spoken to. It’s late, and we’re lined up around a six-thousand-square-foot painted canvas that has been stretched out on the concrete.
I’m talking to Ted, who, like so many others, has recently moved here. In a few minutes, Ted and I, along with the rest of us out here in the dark, will carefully fold this massive canvas, lift it onto our shoulders, and walk it into the stadium.
“When’d you move to town?” I ask.
“About six weeks ago,” Ted says. “I’m having a blast. My friends in New York thought it was weird I was moving to Texas, but I don’t have any complaints.”
I smirk. “Oh, well, give it a few months and you’ll be complaining about Austin like a true native.”
Inside the stadium, the field is dark and most of the 20,000 seats are in shadows. Much like a massive cathedral, an empty stadium makes you feel small, like you should whisper.
Later, we’ll attach the canvas to an eleven-rope pulley system, and on game day, in between the national anthem and kickoff, Ted and I will be on rope ten. We’ll pull, pull, pull—all in rhythm with the other rope pullers, so that a sold-out stadium and a national TV audience will see a tifo (a large mural lifted by soccer fans in celebration of their team). It’s taken nearly three hundred people weeks to paint, transport, rig, and raise this tifo. We’ll hold it up for two minutes, praying that it doesn’t catch a gust of wind and turn into a billowing sail that might cause a chain reaction of popped grommets and bring the canvas plummeting down. The tifo, designed by local artist Uloang, shows the goal scorers from our inaugural season, along with a phrase that is a simple, inarguable fact to thousands of fans of an organization that didn’t play an MLS game before April 2021: Greetings From Austin, Fútbol Capital of Texas.
Austin is an easy city to complain about, and no one complains about Austin like Austinites. I moved here in 1998 to attend the University of Texas and soon heard an ancient refrain that shows no signs of weakening. It goes something like this: “Everything was so much better before you got here. Before you and people like you arrived, the rent was cheaper, the people were nicer, and the music was better. Now all the great spots to catch a show or grab a drink are long gone, and [fill-in-the-blank cultural event] just isn’t what it used to be. Oh, and also, traffic was better before you and your dumb car got here.”
If you live in Austin, a significant percentage of your conversations are probably about how gentrification and the rising cost of living is pushing out working-class residents and people of color at an alarming rate. Day after day, throughout Travis County, people shake their heads and say they can’t hold on much longer.
All of which makes it that much more unlikely that I and thousands of others would find ourselves singing Spanish-language love songs to the city every week. I was an Austin FC season-ticket holder from the start. I joined the wait list back in 2019 and pounced on seats as soon as the ticket-buying window opened. Before the club had announced who would be playing, I had already bought merchandise. Occasionally, I would watch the stadium construction cam and dream with my friends about which aging international superstars might consider a move to Texas a few years down the line.
When COVID-19 forced other sports leagues into shortened seasons, bubbles, and the threat of cancellation, we held on to hope that it would all be over by Austin FC’s first match, on April 17, 2021. It didn’t work out that way, but we still benefited from a series of coincidences that led to the creation of one of the most exciting fan cultures in American sports.
From mid-April to mid-June 2021, Austin FC played eight games on the road while McKalla (as fans call Q2, in reference to its street address) was being completed. This long stretch of road games provided Austin FC fans a chance to not only get to know the team but to define what it meant to be a fan.
For the second match, my friends and I began the day at a much-touted watch party at a brewery in the shadow of the stadium. A couple hundred people sat in lawn chairs around a giant screen in the parking lot, but it was all too quiet. A few half-hearted attempts to start chants quickly petered out, and I became nervous that all Austin FC supporters would be more buttoned-up and cool than passionate and loud.
Soccer passion is unlike any other sports fandom, and there had to be something better out there. After striking out at two more spots, I said we should head to Hopsquad, where Los Verdes, an Austin FC supporters group, and La Murga de Austin, the drum and horn band that provides the “heartbeat of Austin FC,” were watching the match.
Confession time: we were so desperate to find a better place to watch that we missed Diego Fagundez scoring the first goal in Austin FC history. But as we approached Hopsquad, we knew we’d found the right place. We could hear the drums from two blocks away. When we walked in, we found bedlam. La Murga’s bass drums, or bombos, were still pounding away, green smoke filled the air, black-and-green flags waved, and everyone was screaming. Someone with a megaphone handed us a printout of the songs and we sang along as best we could.
It didn’t feel like Austin. This was pride and passion. It was loud. It felt like being somewhere. It also felt dangerous, and not because of the flares and the smoke grenades. I’d only been vaccinated for a few weeks; no one had been vaccinated for long back in April 2021, and this was the largest crowd I’d been part of for more than a year. For those first few months of road matches, the crowds at the Los Verdes watch parties were as joyous, friendly, and hopeful as anything I’d ever experienced. Maybe this would be our post-pandemic reality. Maybe we’d emerge from a year of isolation ready to face this new world together, singing as one, where all were welcome—as long as you believed in the verde and black.
When I looked at the crowd, I saw an Austin I thought was dying out. Everywhere around me were the types of people leaving the city every day: creatives, musicians, and lots and lots of Latinos.
Austin FC crowds, whether at Los Verdes watch parties or in the stadium itself, are consistently among the most heavily Latino crowds I’m part of in Austin. Which, of course, isn’t to say you never see brown people in Austin. But if you go to a happening at the Mexican American Cultural Center or a Día de los Muertos event, then you’re there specifically to celebrate Latino culture. If you go to a grocery store on the East Side, a restaurant on Rundberg, or a flea market outside of town, you’ll be surrounded by a higher percentage of Latinos. But you’re drawn to those places by your heritage, the forces of segregation and gentrification, or tradition. If you go to an Austin FC match, you’re drawn there by your love of the team, and, strangely enough, considering how much we complain about it, you’re drawn there by Austin itself.
In Austin, Latinos rarely make up the majority—or even a noticeable plurality—in white spaces. Latinos make up a smaller share of the city’s population than in San Antonio, Dallas, or Houston. Even more significant, Austin is the only one of these places where the share of Latinos in the city has declined since 2010. It feels like a small miracle to look around a new brewery in north Austin that sells $18 six-packs, or a $260 million stadium that sells $18 pints of beer, and see so many people who look like me.
As a Latino in Austin, I feel the segregation around me every day. When I take my daughter to the park near our house, just three miles from the stadium, we’re more likely to hear French, Taiwanese, or even Russian than Spanish. While Austin’s Latino population is large and active, most of our cultural and political power has remained on the city’s east side and is now being pushed further out to Del Valle, Pflugerville, Manor, Elgin, and so on.
Latinos are a driving force in soccer’s rapid U.S. expansion, but they’re not the only factor, and Austin FC’s fan culture had to work toward being so inclusive. The members of the three main fan groups, Los Verdes, Austin Anthem, and La Murga de Austin, spent more than a year writing songs and chants. Making sure those songs reflected the team’s potential audience was a fight, and some group members left because they didn’t think it made sense for Austin FC songs to be in Spanish. The existence of Los Verdes itself, which split from Austin Anthem, is partly the result of this culture clash. But it was worth the fight, and the end result is one of Austin’s few celebrations of Latinidad, not for any reason besides the fact that we love this team and this city.
Of the seventeen songs and chants on La Murga de Austin’s “Cánticos de Austin FC,” twelve are written completely in Spanish or in Spanglish. One of the songs completely in English is Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You in the End,” which is sung after every match and nearly makes me cry every time.
So what actually is Austin? Are we Elon Musk and Joe Rogan’s playground? A refuge for tech workers from California? Are we rising property taxes and people forced to move to Hutto, Taylor, and Lockhart? Are we musicians hanging on by performing at night while working two or three day jobs? Are we a walking tour of African American or Latino history that passes buildings where people once made history but now make $20 appetizers? I suppose we’re all these things, but we’re also a community full of people who care about each other and who can come together, for a few hours at least, to celebrate this city.
This past Sunday, Austin FC lost 1–0 to the LA Galaxy. However, this match was more than a battle between two of the top three teams in MLS’s Western Conference. In the game’s tenth minute, the La Murga de Austin musicians did something unthinkable—they stopped playing. Just a few days earlier, the MLS had reinstated Austin FC midfielder Cecilio Domínguez after the league’s investigation cleared him of misconduct charges based on an April report of a domestic dispute with his partner. The moment of silence was observed in support of victims of domestic violence. Los Verdes also launched an online fundraising campaign, which has raised more than $5,000 for the SAFE Alliance, a local organization that supports survivors of abuse. That’s the Austin so many of us want to cling to: supportive, diverse, inclusive, accessible, fun. It feels a little bit like a last stand, but it also feels like if we keep singing, louder and louder, then the tide might turn and our Austin could prevail.
My daughter is two and a half, and she’ll sometimes sing Austin FC songs to herself in bed. I don’t know if this will always be her city, but right now it is.