How “America’s Team” Became South Texas’s Team
Why Mexican Americans love the Dallas Cowboys.
Last month, before I went home to Brownsville for the holidays, I was told there was something I needed to see while I was there. The Dallas Cowboys have been playing their best season in quite a while; they might even get to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995. The fans in Brownsville were going crazy. An old high school friend recommended I try to check out something called the Southmost Pitada, which he’d been following on Facebook videos from California.
What is a pitada? I didn’t know either, but I used my Spanish to venture a guess. Pito means horn—so, a gathering of horns? An event where you honk your horn? “It’s not just a few trucks honking and cheering,” my friend wrote, “but hundreds, probably a couple thousand people who line the sidewalks as well. It’s like a championship parade after every win.”
This was taking place not in Dallas, the Cowboy’s own city, but 550 miles south, in the predominantly Mexican and Mexican American neighborhood where I grew up, a place populated by families whose high schools have “killer state-winning soccer programs—but they live and die by an American football team’s fate each week.”
Why do Mexican Americans love the Cowboys so much? They are some of the most rabid fans I’ve ever seen, and even though I’m not a sports fan, this has been a question I’ve held in the back of my mind for years. Maybe in Brownsville I could find out.
My third night in town, the night the Cowboys faced the Detroit Lions in the last important game before playoffs, I was staying with a cousin who had parked my car for me. When the game ended, I debated whether to head to Southmost Boulevard. The answer was made for me; my cousin had gone to bed without telling me where he left my keys.
I panicked a little—this might be my only chance to see the pitada—but I fired up my laptop and, lo and behold, one of my uncles was live-streaming from a street corner on Southmost. “To pitada or not to pitada?” another friend who was home for Christmas pondered on Facebook. I sat down with a glass of wine and watched the spectacle unfold.
It was a riot! Traffic along the main artery in the neighborhood slowed to about 15 miles per hour. Drivers never let up on their horns, and their passengers performed for the masses on the sidewalks, who cheered them on. Young women, children and grown men, all in the requisite blue jersey, popped out of sunroofs, hung halfway out of windows, and crowded the beds of pickups, waving Cowboys flags and blankets. The noise—from bullhorns, from high-pitched female “wooos!”, from Mexican matracas—never stopped. Cars revved their engines at stoplights. Fireworks exploded in the air. A pack of young men on motorbikes roared by. (Later, my 27-year-old cousin Daniel Ballí would tell me he had been one of them. “I was on the red bike with the luchador mask with the Cowboys logo, lol,” he texted.) A man in a white SUV parked on the corner where my uncle was and set off four bubble machines he’d strung together on the roof of his car, and kids jumped delightedly and swatted at them.
It was a public performance involving mutual validation—the people on the sidewalks used their smart phones to record the ones in the cars, and the ones in the cars videotaped them back, each making victory signs at the other. A green Ford pickup that was tricked out like a low-rider, its scissor doors opened up to the sky. A small black hatchback with blue Christmas lights strung along its outline. A white double cab Chevy with Santa Claus in a Dak Prescott jersey waving at people as though on a float. Next to him, a boy in a large blue foam cowboy hat banging clumsily on some tri-toms and a base drum.
I messaged my uncle to do a little reporting for me and ask the people around him why they loved the Cowboys. “All of Brownsville likes the Cowboys!” a woman in her fifties said to the camera. Next to her, a woman in her seventies nodded her head and grinned widely. “We like them a lot because this year se aventaron”—they kicked butt—she said in Spanish. “Last year, Romo, he just didn’t cut it. I nicknamed him ‘la galleta,’ ‘the cookie.’
“My daughters asked me, ‘Why do you call him ‘The Cookie,’ Ma?’ ‘Because every time he falls, he breaks!” She let out a delighted laugh.
The first set of reasons why Mexican Americans love the Cowboys is historical, I learned. In the seventies, when the Cowboys, having won two Super Bowls under legendary coach Tom Landry, marketed themselves heavily and became known as “America’s Team,” the commercials reached Mexican Americans, too. Their loyalty was cemented.
Indeed, when I asked Brownsville fans why they loved the boys in blue, the most common answer I got was almost always something like, “They’re America’s favorite team!” Mexican Americans are, first and foremost, Americans and Texans, they seemed to be saying—and this patriotism was in full display at La Pitada, where they waved U.S. flags along with Cowboys ones.
But the team also scored extra points with Mexican Americans when they signed on some of their own. “The Cowboys had the first Mexican American and first Mexican national to play in NFL,” says Joe Nick Patoski, who wrote the 800-page tome, The Dallas Cowboys: The Outrageous History of the Biggest, Loudest, Most Hated, Best Loved Football Team in America. He was referring, first, to Danny Villanueva, the New Mexico native who punted for the Cowboys from 1966 to 1967. (The Los Angeles Rams might take credit for having signed Villanueva first. They unfortunately made him pose for photos with a guitar and a sombrero, and played bullfighting music every time he walked into Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, “which I thought was kind of silly,” Villanueva has said.)
Villanueva was followed in the seventies by Efren Herrera, a Guadalajara, Mexico, native who had moved to the States when he was fifteen, and was a kicker on the 1978 Super Bowl-winning team. Following a contract dispute, the Cowboys replaced Herrera with perhaps their most famous Mexican kicker, Rafael Septién. Septién’s father played professional soccer in Mexico, where, in fact, since the forties, American-style football had been on the rise and was becoming a hugely popular sport—maybe even more so than soccer. Septién went to college in Louisiana and then signed with the Rams. The next year, the Cowboys brought him on, and he became the highest scorer for the team the nine years he was with them. (His career ended when he pleaded guilty in 1987 to indecency with a child.)
Septién held huge marketing value for the Cowboys and the NFL in Mexico, Patoski writes. He filmed thirty commercials in his home country. By then, too, Spanish television had begun transmitting the team’s games in Spanish, using some of the country’s best commentators of all time. Mexican nationals remember this vividly today. “The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders was a huge thing when I was a kid,” said Paris Mendoza, a Mexico City native who is now an attorney in Houston. “They were almost seen as alien goddesses.”
Back in the States, meanwhile, the love for the Cowboys among Mexican Americans had spread beyond Texas, as it had for the larger population. Many of the team’s die-hard Tejano followers dispersed to other states as migrant farmworkers in the seventies and eighties, and they took their fandom with them. On the West Coast, Spanish-language television viewers knew Danny Villanueva, the former kicker, as one of the founders of what became Univision. So, even California, which had its own professional football teams, bred staunch fans of the Cowboys. “They are beloved in Los Angeles and throughout major American cities where Mexicans and Mexican Americans live,” said Jesus Ortiz, a sports columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who grew up in L.A. with mostly Cowboys loyalists in his family.
“They and the Raiders are beloved by Mexicans, as was evident when the Raiders played in Mexico earlier this year. The Raiders had the first Mexican American coach to win a Super Bowl. They also had a Mexican American quarterback win a Super Bowl.”
But history and crafty cross-border marketing alone don’t fully explain the fever with which Mexican Americans in many places celebrate the Cowboys. Or why that fever has endured across generations. Culture, I found, is a powerful thing. The story of the Cowboys can’t be separated from where and how Mexican Americans watch their games—how they live and perform their fandom in their communities.
In Brownsville, the team is remembered directly in relation to treasured family stories and rituals, usually involving at least three generations. There are the grandfathers who made the kids watch the games each week, the grandmothers who followed just as fervently. “I’m a fan because my grandmother is a fan,” said Brooks Hamilton, a Brownsville transplant in Austin, about his mother’s mother, Amalia Cisneros. “She loved her Cowboys dearly. If they were kicking during a tied game, there would be a prayer. If they were behind or close, she would leave the room and pace in the hallway.”
For UTSA education professor Patricia Sanchez, it wasn’t just that family and community were rooting together; through American sports, she sensed as a child, Mexican Americans were seeking to integrate into the larger society. “When I was growing up in El Paso the daughter of Mexican immigrants, we were acclimated right away that the two teams you root for were los Cowboys y los Dodgers. Most of this socialization happened at the pulgas on Sundays, game day,” she recalled. “We want to see ourselves and our people on America’s biggest stage—sports arenas—because maybe then this country will accept us. At least, that’s what I thought as a kid watching Fernando Valenzuela pitch for the Dodgers.”
There’s actually a doctoral dissertation that argues this very thing. In “Red, Brown, and Blue: A History and Cultural Poetics of High School Football in Mexican America,” Joel Huerta, a University of Texas American Studies graduate who now teaches Latino Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, looks at how high school athletics programs in south Texas first reinforced racial segregation—and then, with time, tested its limits. For example, in the Rio Grande Valley (where Huerta is from), schools and communities integrated in the fifties and sixties, and directly along with that, Mexican Americans developed their own rich expressive culture around high school football, complete with bilingual jests and Mexican corridos glorifying hometown teams. A similar thing, he said, happened with the Cowboys:
The Cowboys’ most important and storied coach, Tom Landry, from Mission, Texas, comes out of this same age and milieu. High school football mints masses of Mexican American football fans who, with the rise of televised and radio broadcast sports, find themselves consuming Cowboys football games.
Huerta recalled his own family in Edinburg, Texas:
My mother caught the football bug when I was in junior high. Fall Sundays in our house meant the din of the Cowboys football game and if we were lucky, a big pot of menudo or stew to go with it. For years, mom would serve the big Thanksgiving meal in the late morning on paper plates and with plasticware. Why? So the matriarch could get these holiday formalities out of the way before the Cowboys vs. Detroit Lions game in the afternoon.
It turned out I’d get one more chance to catch a Southmost Pitada, albeit a smaller one. On New Year’s Day, the Cowboys faced the Philadelphia Eagles in a match that, fans kept assuring me, didn’t matter: the Cowboys were already in the playoffs, and even had home-field advantage as the number-one seed. The team was not going to use their top players that day and risk an injury. Maybe Romo would play, some wondered. As the team’s quarterback for more than ten years, Romo, whose grandfather is from the neighboring state of Coahuila, Mexico, had further helped rally Mexican American fans, and they remained firmly devoted to him. But they also wanted their team to win.
The day was warm and humid at noon, when I headed out to Buffalo Wild Wings, where I was told a lot of fans would be watching the game. Yes, they were. In one corner of the dimly lit sports bar with thirty-plus televisions, one group of more than a dozen fans sipped beer and gawked at a gigantic screen on the wall before them. Two hours before the game, the organizer of the group, 51-year-old Ruben Treviño, had arrived as he does every week, hauling a bunch of equipment that included several enormous team flags. “They call me Cowboy Treviño,” he said, shaking my hand. He had pushed two round tables together and covered them with blue-and-silver plastic table covers, then decorated them with all the Cowboys paraphernalia his wife had made for him, like a wedding or quinceañera, only football-themed.
When I asked where their love for the team originated, the conversations started much the same as others:
“They’re America’s team!”
“I was born as a Cowboys fan…”
“I’ve been a Cowboys fan since I was five…”
“I was 13 years old when . . .”
“. . . my dad would put on the TV and I would see Don Meredith and Craig Morton.”
A woman named Sandy Lopez, who worked as a secretary at Southmost Elementary School, who wore her jersey with a jean skirt and stylish brown leather boots, pulled out her cell phone and showed me a picture of a smiling girl with eighties-style bangs swept to the sides. “This is my sister when she was eight. I used to dress her up. And she’s a fan now, thank God.” She confessed she’d named her only child after Tony Dorsett. “I’m bad.”
For this group, life was marked and remembered by games and teams played. They showed off snapshots of themselves at AT&T Stadium, hugging family members with ecstatic faces. Friendship, commonality, and a sense of purpose had emerged around shared space and a Sunday ritual. “Little by little, we came together and became a Cowboys family,” Sal Martinez told me. “We’re from all walks of life, all ages.”
After a relatively unexciting first two quarters, I headed over to “La Southmost,” as some residents refer to the neighborhood, which is really more a of a city-within-a-city. (There is a satirically hilarious and quite politically-incorrect Facebook page that’s run by this name. That’s where La Pitada videos are transmitted, and where a local business called Ma$ Dinero Income Tax offers to do your taxes and gift you a t-shirt that reads “Puro Pinche Cowboys” or a Mexican veladora with an image of Troy Aikman, aka “San Troyito.”)
The Bentancourts, one of the most fanatic families there, had invited me to join their backyard barbecue, and when I arrived, after I parked in the back alley as instructed, I found some twenty adults and children on blue lawn chairs gathered around a very large flatscreen that had been hauled outside, cables and remotes and all. At the grill, one of the Betancourt brothers, named Victor, flipped and poked at sizzling beef patties and sausages and fajitas. The beers of choice were Miller Lite and Michelob Ultra. The food was served in platters shaped like footballs, and a big, inflatable Cowboys player looked grim as he bobbed in the wind.
Sylvia Yzaguirre, another of the siblings, greeted me. She was visiting from Florida, and she introduced me to her 11-year-old son, Dallas (yes, as in that Dallas), who wore a Dak Prescott t-shirt, and her thirteen-year-old daughter Alyssa, who told me she was filming a documentary about La Pitada and Cowboys fans in Brownsville with her smartphone. “That’s my mom. She’s gangster,” Sylvia said playfully, nodding towards Inez Betancourt, the quietly smiling matriarch. They said there had only been three homes in Southmost when the family arrived—now there were more than 30,000 residents. “Typical story,” Silvia said, “Dad would put us in his lap and make us watch the game with him.”
The conversation was interrupted by a move on the screen that apparently went very badly. People groaned and grabbed their heads in frustration. The Cowboys were trailing the Eagles. “That was dumb!” Sylvia yelled at the television. “Why? Why?! Just throw the ball! Hijuesu!”
The pitadas had started in the nineties, they thought, “when the Cowboys were winning Super Bowl after Super Bowl.” For the next hour as the game wound down, the family stories continued. Another sister who was present, named Jennifer, had met her husband while both were watching a game at Chili’s and high-fived after a touchdown. Sylvia’s own wedding had a Cowboys theme. The ‘Boys would not win that day—they lost 27 to 13—but the Pitada, albeit a smaller one, happened anyway. The motorcycle crew was back, and the man with the bubble machines. Sylvia got one of her relatives to drive her while blasting the horn, and she hung out the window wearing goofy blue plastic sunglasses shaped like stars, and waving a Cowboys banner.
Why do Mexican Americans love the Cowboys? Certainly it was complex—and, many of them would say, beautiful.
I remembered how Jesse Sanchez, another Mexican American sportswriter, from North Texas, had nicely summed it all up:
I think maybe there might be something here that allows some Mexican Americans to identify with both sides of the border, both cultures and customs. There’s the family element with food, drinks and parties. Coming together. Rooting for the same team with your grandfather and close friends at your tia’s house or abuelito’s home.
And what’s more American than rooting for America’s team and America’s sweethearts? What’s more American than eating carne asada and cheering on the Cowboys on a Sunday after or before church?
Be a Cowboys fan and you can be both Mexican and American.
Also, who doesn’t like winners?
A Cowboys Fan