Academic journal article Human Organization

Leveling the Field: Soccer, Farmworkers, and Citizenship in the California San Joaquin Valley

Academic journal article Human Organization

Leveling the Field: Soccer, Farmworkers, and Citizenship in the California San Joaquin Valley

Article excerpt

On a cold afternoon, typical of the spring time in the San Joaquin Valley, I was visiting McFarland's Browning Park. It had been just three weeks since the annual soccer tournament had started, and therefore, the playing season was in full swing. That afternoon, the game was between a local squad-one of five teams belonging to the league in this town-and a team coming from the neighboring town of Delano. Following this first encounter, another game was scheduled, this time between two teams also from nearby communities. Located in McFarland's outskirts, the park is one of two recreational spaces in town and the only one with soccer fields. It is one of the league's preferred locations for playing, particularly for night games. Besides its well-kept grass, it is one of the few in the vicinity that has floodlights. This resource is greatly appreciated, particularly during the short days of winter, when players find themselves finishing their workday in the agricultural fields almost at dusk, forcing the games into the evening hours. As soon as the referee called the teams to the field to start the game, one by one, each player handed the referee the identifications that accredited them as good standing members of their teams and the league. Soon after, a long whistle sounded, indicating that the game was officially started. The players yelled to each other, calling out for the ball. The coaches at the sidelines were also yelling, at times giving indications to the players and at others objecting to the referee's decisions. From the stands, the fans cheered the local team, occasionally scorning and complaining about the visitors' rough play. The game ended with a draw between the opponents. Given the thrill that characterized the encounter, the result produced a sense of disappointment among the public. As it was getting late-and the next day most of the people had to wake up early in order to be ready for another day of labor in the fields-the park calmly but rapidly vacated.

Soccer in California's San Joaquin Valley is increasingly becoming a catalyzing vehicle for civic and political engagement through which farmworkers participate in the local public and political spheres of their communities. The research findings suggest that focusing the ethnographic gaze on soccer organizations in farmworker communities renders visible ongoing processes of interaction between local governments and their constituencies, in this case farmworkers, making them both more approachable partners for local development projects beyond playing soccer.

The bulk of data for this article comes from ethnographic fieldwork done in the San Joaquin Valley of California, interviews with representatives of the Central Valley Soccer League and local public officials, and participation observation at all league related events for more than one entire playing season.

Soccer Intersects Citizenship

Scenes like this one at McFarland's Browning Park are, to a great extent, a product of a complex set of processes put in motion by the arrival and settling down of immigrants from south of the border who-attracted by the increasing employment opportunities-make their way to the agricultural fields of California, where farms depend critically on their labor (Aguirre International 2005; Khan, Martin, and Hardiman 2003; Palerm 1991). Organizing themselves into soccer teams has become a vehicle for farmworkers to dialogue with local governments and other public agencies. Most of the time, conversations surround the players' access to public venues for play. Usually, these encounters trigger processes of mutual recognition, bringing farmworkers "out of the shadows" (Chavez 1995), at the same time that they obligate local governments to acknowledge their newer and growing constituencies. Soccer, as it is practiced in the San Joaquin Valley, provides an opportunity to explore one of the routes through which farmworkers strive for inclusion into the social, political, and cultural spheres of the communities where they live throughout California's rural communities. …

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