This Love Is Not For Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juarezby Robert Andrew Powell
More than ten people are murdered every day in Ciudad Juárez, a city about the size of Philadelphia. As Mexico has descended into a feudal narco-state-one where cartels, death squads, the army, and local police all fight over billions of dollars in profits from drug and human trafficking-the border city of Juárez has been hit hardest of all. And yet,
More than ten people are murdered every day in Ciudad Juárez, a city about the size of Philadelphia. As Mexico has descended into a feudal narco-state-one where cartels, death squads, the army, and local police all fight over billions of dollars in profits from drug and human trafficking-the border city of Juárez has been hit hardest of all. And yet, more than a million people still live there. They even love their impoverished city, proudly repeating its mantra: "Amor por Juárez."
Nothing exemplifies the spirit and hope of Juarenses more than the Indios, the city's beloved but hard-luck soccer team. Sport may seem a meager distraction, but to many it's a lifeline. It drew charismatic American midfielder Marco Vidal back from Dallas to achieve the athletic dreams of his Mexican father. Team owner Francisco Ibarra and Mayor José Reyes Ferriz both thrive on soccer. So does the dubiously named crew of Indios fans, El Kartel. In this honest, unflinching, and powerful book, Robert Andrew Powell chronicles a season of soccer in this treacherous city just across the Rio Grande, and the moments of pain, longing, and redemption along the way. As he travels across Mexico with the team, Powell reflects on this struggling nation and its watchful neighbor to the north. This story is not just about sports, or even community, but the strength of humanity in a place where chaos reigns.
“[I]n this clear-eyed and humane book Powell has succeeded in introducing his readers to a truth behind the grim and monotonous headlines.” Boston Globe
“Terrific. Fantastic. A hell of a book. In the best tradition of literary journalism, Robert Andrew Powell finds the story we'd missed in our own backyard, using the love of soccer to reveal the humanity that survives in hyper-violent Ciudad Juárez. This is the best sports non-fiction I've read in a long, long time.” Grant Wahl, New York Times bestselling author of The Beckham Experiment
“To call This Love Is Not For Cowards a sports book does it an injustice. Powell tackles a subject that actually should matter to Americans: The bloody breakdown of civic life just over the U.S. border -- and the ways it can corrode even the most detached observer's soul. Daring, honest and wielding a pitch-perfect ear, he uses soccer to chart Juarez's ultra-violent anarchy the way the best correspondents chronicle war. He leaps into the devil's playground -- and reports the hell out of it.” S.L. Price, senior writer, Sports Illustrated
“The most dangerous game is believing in life. Robert Andrew Powell takes us into the most murderous city in the world, where a soccer team and its fans teach us how to live and why. This book will save your life by giving you life.” Charles Bowden, author of Murder City
“Candid . . . Unsentimental and deeply humane.” Kirkus Reviews
“[A]n edgy, anecdotal view of a place where ‘Murder is effectively legal'… Powell captures surreal feelings of beauty and desolation, exuberance and danger. Though the Indios fail and fail big, Powell succeeds brilliantly . . . An eye-opening and unforgettable account of a part of the world that, for all its notoriety, is effectively invisible.” Booklist (starred review)
“Much like the soccer classic The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGinniss, Powell's work explores not only the connection between an athletic team and its fans but also one city and one community's ability to simultaneously face conditions that destroy hope and try to restore faith, and in doing so he has written not only a great sports book but also a powerful treatise on civics and human nature.” Publishers Weekly
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THIS LOVE IS NOT FOR COWARDSSalvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juárez
By ROBERT ANDREW POWELL
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2012 Robert Andrew Powell
All right reserved.
Marco Vidal is short. He's barely five foot five, and light, just 125 pounds. Coaches tend to frown on Marco's size, but in soccer his stature is not necessarily bad news; taller players have been known to envy Marco's low center of gravity. His torso is one solid brick, all power. Wide shoulders taper to forearms that can easily swat a baseball over a fence. His slightly bowed legs bulge with the muscle of a man who paid for his house with his footwork. I've watched him practice for a couple weeks now, always enjoying the experience. He's talkative on the field. Pass it. You have time. Forward. Back. He acts like a quarterback of sorts, a field leader. Most notably, he's calm when he gets the ball. That's the admirable aspect of his game. He collects and distributes passes without appearing stressed. His cool lowers the temperature.
It's cold already. Winter. I'd charted the weather before my move, so I knew what to expect in January Juárez, a desert settlement more than a half mile above sea level. It's another thing to actually stand outside as an arctic wind rushes across the practice field. Arctic? Antarctic? Where is this cold wind coming from? Snow dusts the squat and cinnamon Juárez Mountains. For the past two hours I've watched Marco and his teammates swoosh around in padded parkas. They wear spandex tights under their shorts. Ears warm beneath half-finished knit hats some players pull down to cover their necks. Marco roams the midfield, specifically the defensive midfield. He rarely pushes forward on the attack. In his three-year career with the Indios, Marco has scored exactly zero goals. Scoring is not in his job description. He's more of a courier, the link between the defense and the offense. I like to think of him as a circuit breaker. What he does, very well, is slow the pace, drop the drama. After chilling everybody out, he moves the ball up ahead, usually to Edwin Santibáñez, a midfielder with a more offensive mind-set. Edwin then leads an assault on goal, or tries to. There's no flash in Marco's game, certainly no glamour. He doesn't seem to do a whole lot out there, actually. I've watched enough soccer to appreciate that Marco's role is subtle, and difficult. He happens to make it look easy.
That apparent ease is why he is often underestimated as a player, I believe. Throughout his career, whenever his teams have switched head coaches, Marco has tended to fall out of the lineup. Do we not have someone taller than this guy? Yet after a few weeks of play, after an injury or poor performance by whoever surpassed him on the depth chart, Marco is given a chance. He usually makes the most of it. That the Indios have just hired a new coach, Pepe Treviño, and that the new coach isn't yet sold on his undersize midfielder, is just Marco's lot in life. Treviño played Marco for less than half of last week's exhibition victory over old nemesis León. There's a final preseason game coming up this Sunday afternoon. After watching several intrasquad scrimmages and after talking to journalists hanging out at practice with me, I'm wondering if the American will even see the field.
"You ready?" Marco asks. Practice is over. He's wondering if I'm up for lunch, the next agenda item on the routine we've fallen into. The Indios' workday starts around ten in the morning, ending about thirty minutes after noon. Marco showers, gels his black hair into a fauxhawk, and pulls on his civilian uniform of Dolce & Gabbana jeans and white Gucci sneakers, the labels large and visible. He perches Armani sunglasses at his hairline and straps a big white Diesel watch around his wrist. Hugging his chest, almost always, is an Ed Hardy T-shirt. Marco wears Ed Hardy nearly every day, reflexively, as if for his own protection. I want to tell him the Ed Hardy trend is sooooooo played out, but I've already learned that Mexico is where American fads go for an encore. People still use the yellow pages down here. The Blockbuster Video near my apartment remains crowded. The other reporters at practice often wear those khaki "I'm a reporter" safari vests I haven't seen on Anderson Cooper in years. And Marco is not alone in his Ed Hardy love. All the Indios dress alike, as if incapable of individual action. ("I can tell they're soccer players even before I know they're soccer players," says Marco's young wife, Dany.) Wearing his gaudy T-shirts with pride, Marco might share a taco or two with an Armani Exchange'd teammate while they watch Europe an soccer on the clubhouse television. Soon enough, he'll grab his jacket and a winter hat, and he and I will go for a proper lunch.
I need the ride more than the food. I didn't bring my car with me to Juárez. I wanted to settle in the city before importing what is easily my most valuable possession. In my car's absence, I'd hoped to get around on ruteras, the cheap and privately owned school buses found in many Mexican cities. Yet on the day I signed a lease on an apartment, the driver of a Juárez rutera was shot dead, along with three passengers. One day after that, the driver of another bus was murdered. Extortions, it was explained to me. Ladrones have started demanding payments from pharmacies and restaurants and even from mom-and-pop bus drivers. ("There's a new class of criminal taking advantage of the crisis. They know the cops can't stop them or catch them or do anything at all to deter them.") Better to hitch a ride to practice from someone in the Indios' front office, and to catch a ride home from Marco.
"I had an Audi with these great rims that I bought after we made it to the Primera," he says as we slip out of the training complex. He's explaining why my car, which isn't actually all that nice, might still be too nice for Juárez. The Indios' traveling secretary, Gabino Amparán, had his car stolen out of the parking lot of the stadium where the Indios play their home games. Team attorney Mario Boisselier downgraded to a Ford Taurus after his BMW was carjacked, then downgraded further to a dented Toyota with a cracked windshield after the Ford was stolen from him, also at gunpoint. Then it was Marco's turn. "I was stopped at a light, in traffic you know, when this car sped up and boxed me in on the right," Marco says. "A gunman was leaning out the window. Before I could react, there was a gunman on my left, too. The guy on my left barked at me to get out. His gun poked me in the chest. I grabbed my phone with my wallet, like I always do, and the guy said, 'Un-uh, drop everything.' So I dropped everything and they took off in my car."
When he bought the Audi, Marco also gifted Dany a BMW for her daily border crossing to school. Within a week of his carjacking he'd sold her car. Now, like a lot of too-prosperous-to-be-safe-anymore people in Juárez, Marco and Dany both drive the junkiest beaters they can somehow get to start. No exaggeration. The white Mercury we're riding in is at least twelve years old. It is dented in several places. The paint is weathered, the black plastic molding bubbled from too many summers of hot desert sun. A crack spiderwebs across the windshield. Finally: the body, the rims, and the bald tires are covered with so much brown dust, the car looks furry. It's a fronterizo, a special and cheaper class of vehicle Marco's allowed to drive only in Juárez; if he tries to take it more than 28 kilometers south of the border, the Mexican government will issue him a steep fine. I ride shotgun as we head to the city's newest shopping mall.
I can tell Marco's an athlete just by watching him drive. He reclines so far back in his seat that a hygienist could clean his teeth. His right hand grazes the wheel with the lightest touch as he navigates city traffic, appearing to barely look at the road. It's not hard to drive a car, of course, but it's clear watching Marco that his relationship with the physical world is more graceful than mine. Sitting close to him, I really notice his strength, too; he could crush me in a fight. (I've also noticed he's so much the metrosexual he shaves his forearms.) His ears jut out enough to be his defining trait. His face—his whole head—is perfectly round and is accented by thick black eyebrows arching into sharp points. I never say it aloud, but sometimes when I look at him I'm reminded of the Count, a character on the television show Sesame Street. Marco is twenty-three years old.
We pull onto Mexico 2, a newer beltway encircling the city. The Indios' training complex—two full-size professional fields and a modest clubhouse—hides between a construction depot and one of the many automobile graveyards found on the far southern fringe of the city. We're practically in the Chihuahuan Desert. The rusting cars lurk among endless acres of pale sand dotted with mounds of concrete blocks, mounds of old tires, mounds of spent plastic bottles, and mounds of old clothes, all the mounds spaced out in semi-uniform little ziggurats that remind me of moguls on a ski hill. Thick black telephone lines and electrical cables strap down the city like cargo netting. Occasionally, randomly, we pass subdivisions of the tiniest little concrete homes, the developments fenced in with cinder blocks and topped with rusty loops of barbed wire. More barren desert, more trash, and then a boxy maquiladora where underpaid migrants sew seat belts for nominally American cars. There's Delphi, maker of shock absorbers, brake discs, and diesel engine powertrains. Up ahead is Epson, cranking out computer printers. I feel like a lunar explorer as we roll past these factories to what is becoming the new public center of Juárez. Marco never goes to El Centro, the old, traditional downtown that has grown too dangerous for him to feel safe. I have yet to return there since my first full day on the Mexican side.
I'd flown into El Paso from Miami, where I'm from and where I'd ended up returning after three nomadic years in Colorado, Idaho, and, of all places, Jenesano, Boyacá, Colombia. I'd only been crashing at a friend's in Miami, a friend who was running out of patience with the setup. It was the day after Christmas when I arrived on the border, cold and so late the sun had already set. I went up to my room at an El Paso hotel, stepped onto my little balcony, and stared out at the Juárez Valley. All I could see was Mexico. Even in the gloom I could make out the flat roofs of concrete shacks, squat shoeboxes strung into neighborhoods rising and falling over gentle hills. Streetlights undulated in hazy yellow waves. I tracked a boy bouncing a soccer ball. Down the valley, maybe a half mile farther south, the swirling red-and-white lights of an ambulance crossed an intersection. I couldn't hear a siren, which made the scene seem sterile or unreal, as if the ambulance were a plastic toy gliding along a scale-model landscape.
"I haven't been over to Juárez all year," said the owner of a bodega near the border. I'd forgotten to pack toothpaste, and I wanted to buy a couple cans of beer if I could find any. The bodega was the only place open. "I have friends over there. I used to visit them maybe every month. But not anymore. It's too dangerous."
I entered Juárez the next morning. I took the Stanton Street Bridge, usually fifty cents but free because I got there before nine a.m. I strolled up a gentle incline, the bridge arcing over a dry canal that, to my surprise, was the Rio Grande. That's the big river? No one asked for my passport when I descended. No one inspected my backpack, either. I didn't even need to fill out paperwork, because the 28 kilometers in which Marco can legally drive his fronterizo are also a special visa-free zone. Knowing that last part already, I didn't expect to see much difference between the two cities. My El Paso hotel had been staffed by Juarenses. Everyone in El Paso speaks Spanish. Yet there was an immediate disparity when I crossed, something more than customs disinterest.
It was the architecture, the way paint peeled off hundred-year-old storefronts in a manner that recalled old Havana. It was the street vendors selling fried pork rinds drenched in orange "Valentina" hot sauce. It was the police state: It didn't take two minutes for me to see my first convoy of troops, thirty soldiers parading atop three green GMC trucks, every soldier armed with an assault rifle, half the soldiers wearing face masks against the chill or perhaps to protect their identities. El Centro is compact, easy to cover on foot. I stepped into the Juárez Cathedral, crossing myself and blatantly praying for my protection. Back on the street, I haggled down the price of a nativity set a friend in Miami had asked me to find. I was pleased with the purchase; the manger and wood figurines didn't seem like a cheap tourist novelty. There weren't any tourists around anyway, aside from me. Off-duty soldiers at El Paso's Fort Bliss are forbidden to cross the bridges. For the first time in de cades of printing vacation maps, El Paso businesses no longer acknowledge Juárez's existence; below the river on their most recent map lies nothing but blank white space. Boosters of Stanford and Oklahoma were invading El Paso for the Sun Bowl football game, the second-oldest bowl game, after the Rose Bowl. Side trips into Juárez have long been the Sun Bowl's primary appeal. Yet I didn't see one college sweatshirt the entire time I walked around.
I saw dental clinics, though many of them were closed. I saw a tuxedo shop. I passed a bar where, I'd read, eight people had been murdered a few months earlier. The Juárez history museum was not open, and looked as if it had been looted. It wasn't the only empty edifice. More than a quarter of the stores in El Centro—maybe half the stores in El Centro—appeared to have been abandoned. By city decree, the Mariscal red light district, four blocks of bars and brothels just off Juárez Avenue near the Santa Fe Bridge, has been leveled clean, the owners reinvesting their compensation on the El Paso side of the river. Everywhere I went, puffs of exhaust stung the air, sometimes making my eyes water.
But I also saw women carrying babies in their arms. You have to believe in the future to have a baby, right? I lunched on a burrito con chile colorado and a bottle of Mexican Coca-Cola purchased from a storefront no wider than a closet. I talked to people, and they were nice. A man suggested the best neighborhoods to live in. A woman shared general guidelines: "Just don't do anything stupid and you'll be fine. Don't honk your car horn. Don't go to bars or clubs. Stay in at night." I spied another baby, then another one, and still one more. The longer I hung out, the more I relaxed. This place isn't so bad. I knew people were being slaughtered here, and that more than a few of the murders had occurred right in El Centro. Yet it wasn't as if life had stopped. The city seemed kind of normal, actually, in a Mexican way. It obviously wasn't paradise, but I've long felt paradise is overrated.
I walked around Juárez for most of the day, meandering up Calle Otumba and down Avenida 16 de Septiembre. When I finally started back to El Paso, I carried with me the nativity set and two bottles of Victoria beer, the light brown cousin of cerveza Corona. I like the energy in Juárez, I concluded. I could live here, for sure. I took the Santa Fe Bridge back, waiting for half an hour in a long line of Mexicans, not realizing until we got closer to customs that there is a special line just for U.S. citizens. I switched to the proper line (is it a line if no one is standing in it?), showed my passport, and declared my purchases.
"What was the purpose of your visit to Juárez?" I was asked. The agent seemed amazed I'd even been there.
"I just wanted to check it out," I replied. "I find it attractive."
"The whole team is together, with one mission," Marco is telling me. We've made it, appropriately, to Las Misiones, the brand-new shopping center Marco tells me is a demilitarized zone of sorts, considered off-limits for drug violence. It looks like a typical mall. Two stories, glass railings, skylights. Walking on polished marble floors, we pass clothing stores and shoe stores. Major retail outlets include a Sears and a Liverpool, Mexico's Macy's equivalent. There's a fancy health club where Indios players work out for free, and there's the attraction that drives the mall, a twelve-screen IMAX movie theater. The true anchor is the new United States consulate across the parking lot, less than a block away. The consulate is the only place in Mexico to obtain immigrant visas, the first step toward permanent legal residence in the United States. Applicants from as far south as Chiapas must wait six to eight weeks or longer for their paperwork to clear. They must apply in person, too, so they often stay at one of a dozen new hotels in the consulate district, the new El Centro. Brand-new restaurants serve the area, along with nightclubs patronized mostly by local teenagers. In the shopping-mall food court, Marco waves at three Indios loitering at a table. ("They don't have wives, so they have nowhere else to go.") I tuck into a gordita: chicken, cheese, and green salsa folded into a thick flour tortilla and fried. Marco, the athlete, spoons a cocktail of fresh fruit.
Excerpted from THIS LOVE IS NOT FOR COWARDS by ROBERT ANDREW POWELL Copyright © 2012 by Robert Andrew Powell. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Robert Andrew Powell is the author of "We Own This Game" (Grove/Atlantic, 2003), a story of race, politics and football in Miami. The book was excerpted in Sports Illustrated; the magazine later named it one of the Best Books of 2003. His journalism has appeared in the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, Play, Slate, Mother Jones, Inc., 5280, Sports Illustrated, Runner's World, the Kansas City Star, on public radio's "This American Life with Ira Glass," and in the "Best American Sports Writing" anthology. He also produced a documentary film, "Year of the Bull," which first aired on Showtime. He has won a James Beard Award for his food writing and twice been a finalist for the Livingston Award. He lives in Miami.
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Great insight to LIVING in the worlds most dangerous city and the passion the city has for its soccer team.
Just finished This Love is Not For Cowards, Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juarez. For anyone who has ever followed a sports team through a season, it has insights into the grueling ups and downs of professional sport, and adds the stunning twist of doing this in a city contemporaneously plagued by horrific drug gang killings.
A year in the life of an American living in Juarez Mexico, murderous border town. Incredible insight into a world we only hear about in grisly headlines. Written in a narrative/memoir style.