Back in the early 1980s I was, like most baseball fans, caught up in "Fernando Mania."
That was the term used in reference to Mexican-born Fernando Valenzuela, a left-handed Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher who took baseball by storm.
No one had ever broken in quite like Valenzuela did in 1981.
Valenzuela won his first ten major league decisions and was the first rookie to win the Cy Young Award. His eight shutouts (including five in his first seven starts) tied the rookie record in a season shortened by fifty games because of the players' strike.
The secret of Valenzuela's phenomenal success was "Fernando's Fade-away"— a screwball widely regarded as the best since another left-hander, the New York Giants' Carl Hubbell, used the pitch all the way to the Hall of Fame. El Toro, as Valenzuela was frequently called, learned to throw the screwball at two different and baffling speeds.
But Valenzuela was not intentionally emulating Hubbell or even Christy Mathewson, another Giant Hall of Fame hurler whose version of the screwball was simply called the "fade-away."
The youngest of twelve children from a Mexican farm family, Valenzuela who spoke through an interpreter most of his career, had never heard of Hubbell or Mathewson.
Even though he knew nothing of American baseball history, Valenzuela would evoke further comparisons to Hubbell in 1986 when he tied the old master's record five straight All-Star Game strikeouts. Success in the mid-season classic was not new to Valenzuela—he had compiled a 0.00 ERA and nine strikeouts in 7.2 All-Star innings, including 1981 when he became one of a select few rookie pitchers ever named a starter.
Everything about the roly-poly Valenzuela engaged the fans, most particularly his wind-up wherein he looked directly skyward—and not at the batter—before delivering his pitches.
On nights that he pitched, Valenzuela turned Dodger Stadium into a Mexican fiesta. Over the seven years that he reigned as one of baseball's best, I saw many of Valenzuela's starts when I traveled to Los Angeles.
At the time, I lived in Seattle where the dreary Mariners played indoors before 5,000 bored fans in the cavernous Kingdome—the worst place I have ever watched baseball. So it was exciting to catch a Dodger game in the fresh air with the rabid rooters and mariachi music urging their compatriot on.
Like Valenzuela, most of his East Los Angeles supporters were Mexico-born and raised, and non-English speaking.
But two and a half decades ago, "Mexico" and overt displays of Mexican nationalism didn't instill the same emotions in me that it would only ten years later. Valenzuela's career preceded the Immigration Reform and Control Act and also came before the period in my life when I became an immigration reform patriot.
As a banker for the Seattle First National Bank, federal immigration policy was not on my radar screen. And even if it had been, only a small number of Mexicans lived in western Washington State.
So none of it bothered me because, even in Los Angeles, the Valenzuela era occurred prior to the Mexican ethnic identity groups trying to co-opt everything that goes on in California.
In short, my attitude back then was: Valenzuela is a Mexican, a cultural idol, a hero in his home country and to his Los Angeles fans so—okay.
Today, however, I have altogether different feelings about the media's claim that University of Southern California quarterback and third generation American, Mark Sanchez, is one of them.
Sanchez, should you have missed his January 1st Rose Bowl performance, is the budding National Football League star who dazzled his Penn State opponents by passing for 413 yards and four touchdowns.
Unlike Valenzuela, Sanchez was not born in Mexico but in Long Beach. He doesn't speak Spanish but is taking classes so that he can better communicate with the young fans who know only that language.
According to an ESPN report, when he was growing up Sanchez "never thought much about being Mexican." (¡Viva Sanchez! by Jorge Arangure Jr, ESPN Magazine, August 11 2008)
And since Sanchez, his parents and grandparents are all U. S.-born, that's the way it should be.
Studying the Sanchez family tree, as detailed in the ESPN article, reveals a lot about how immigrants can successfully assimilate into American society—although it is not the column's intention.
In 1911, Mark's great-grandfather Nicholas Sanchez moved his people from south Texas to California.
Born in Zacatecas in central Mexico, Nicholas and his wife Isabel were day laborers. They sustained themselves and their six children by picking fruit in California's San Joaquin Valley. In what may have been the first, albeit tentative step toward Americanization, one of their six children named Jorge was born on George Washington's birthday.
At the same time that Nicholas moved to California, Pedro Moreno from Jalisco, on Mexico's central Pacific Coast, immigrated to Bisbee, Arizona.
Eventually, Pedro became a successful real estate investor known for his dapper attire—he wore a hat, coat and tie even during the most intense Arizona heat.
Being well-dressed helped immigrant businessmen emulate their American counterparts in the early 20th Century by conveying an aura of responsibility to their prospective clients
In 1925 the real estate fortune that Pedro, who spoke little English, amassed allowed him to move his wife Rosa and their sixteen children to Los Angeles.
One evening, their daughter Juanita Moreno brought Jorge Sanchez home for dinner. Juanita and Jorge married soon after and started a family.
Jorge, a World War II veteran, and Juanita raised four kids in Los Angeles' projects before moving to a house in South Central, a mostly black community. The Sanchez's were middle class, living modestly but comfortably on Jorge's aeronautics technician salary.
Juanita and Jorge's youngest child, Nick, eventually became an Orange County Fire Authority captain. With his second wife Mandy, the Sanchez's had three children: Nick, Jr., Brandon and Mark.
Nick, Jr. went to Yale and is now a lawyer. Brandon attended DePauw. Both played on the football teams. And Mark is the big man on the USC campus, on the verge of signing a multimillion-dollar contract with the pros.
Each Sanchez generation became more assimilated than the previous one. Ties to Mexico became distant and tenuous.
The Sanchez Mexican roots have little if anything to do with the family's success.
In fact, every single good fortune that came to them happened in America and because of America.
Nearly 100 years ago, Nicholas got a job. Even though it was a tough, demanding job in the field, it allowed him to support his family, something he apparently could not do in Mexico.
Pedro became an Arizona multimillionaire real estate tycoon.
Jorge lived in relative middle class comfort from his wages as aeronautics technician.
Nick is a fire captain.
Nick, Jr. attended Yale and is a lawyer.
In 1997, Brandon graduated from De Pauw.
And for Mark, the sky is the limit.
The Sanchez family deserves a ton of credit for overcoming poverty and raising a good bunch of kids in rough and tumble South Central Los Angeles. None of them could have accomplished what they did without hard work.
When I watch Sanchez interviewed, I see a clean-cut, altogether decent young man. According to the ESPN report, Sanchez is apolitical. He has no opinion on immigration or presidential politics.
Arangure, the author of the ESPN piece and a Trojan alum, provided a revealing footnote. [Mark Sanchez: Behind the Feature, by Jorge Arangure, ESPN Magazine]
Writing about the relationship between Mexicans and Americans in Los Angeles, Arangure's correct but disappointing view is that:
"These issues of Mexican identity are heated in Southern California, where Mexicans either love or hate Oscar de la Hoya because he wasn't born in Mexico and because he twice beat up Julio Cesar Chavez, a Mexican icon."
When Arangure first met Sanchez, he didn't "initially take" to him because Mark went to high school at the predominantly white Mission Viejo High School.
But once during a game against Notre Dame, Sanchez wore the red, white and green Mexican flag colors on a protective mouthpiece. That apparently convinced Arangure that Sanchez was sufficiently aware of his Mexican heritage to warrant a feature story. (Sanchez explains the mouthpiece incident as "an innocent gesture" and he no longer wears it.)
Arangure further writes that:
"The story of the Sanchez clan is the story of Los Angeles and the story of America. In truth, it will be the story of my family. Most of us were born in Mexico, but we are now entrenched in America."
That might be the case with the Sanchez family. But I wonder if Arangure really believes it.
Here's his conclusion:
"At first I hesitated diving into this story. As a Latino sportswriter I've always feared being typecast as the Latino beat guy. I wanted to write about American athletes as much as I wanted to write about Latino ones. A well-respected colleague changed my mind. 'Write about your people,' he said. 'If you don't, no one else will.'
"He was right. So consider the Sanchez piece Part 1 of a career-long project about the story of my people."
Arangure's reference himself as a "Latino sportswriter" and to "my people"—meaning Mexicans— is a problem—especially in Los Angeles where the goal should be unity and not separatism.
Moreover, Arangure's conviction that, if he doesn't write about his "people", nobody else will is absurd.
Anyone who reads the sport page knows that the achievements of foreign-born athletes from all over the world are trumpeted daily.
Just like with the Sanchez family, the best things that have happened to Arangure are thanks to the United States—not Mexico. He graduated (possibly with help of an American taxpayer funded grant or scholarship) from USC where tuition is in the $40,000 range, then took a job as a Washington Post staff writer covering the Baltimore Orioles before moving to ESPN
What makes Arangure's career track so successful are great American schools, great American jobs and hard work on his part. None of it has anything to do with his Mexican roots.
The Sanchez and Arangure story—and the story of all flourishing immigrants— should be about how blessed they are to live in America, the land that gave they the opportunities not available to them in Mexico.
In nearly a quarter of a decade of trying to understand Mexicans who live in America, the question I have never been able to answer is why do almost all of them have such a blind devotion to Mexico?
In their lifetime, Mexico has not done one single thing for them.
Maybe Arangure can explain it. Contact him here.Joe Guzzardi [email him] is a California native who recently fled the state because of over-immigration, over-population and a rapidly deteriorating quality of life. He has moved to Pittsburgh, PA where the air is clean and the growth rate stable. A long-time instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, Guzzardi has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.