A Primer Concerning the Role of Latinos in US Sport: The 1961 Donna, Texas Redskins and the Texas State Football Championship

by: Jorge Iber, PhD
Texas Tech University

Since this is my first post, it is necessary to provide readers with a sense of the development of this writer’s academic interest in the topic of Latinos and sport.  My undergraduate degree is not in history, but rather in the area of business management.  After a few years in banking, my thoughts turned to teaching, and eventually, graduate school.  Upon arriving at the University of Utah to pursue a doctorate in the history of the American West, I became acquainted with Larry Gerlach and his work on sport.  This was a revelation as athletics was not necessarily an area of possible academic inquiry for me.  Although my program did not allow time to take a class on this topic (my dissertation and first book focused on Mexican Americans and their experiences in Utah[1]), a series of discussions with Professor Gerlach over the years wetted my appetite.  Upon arriving on the campus of Texas Tech University in 1997, a colleague (who taught baseball history) mentioned that there was an individual by the name of Bobby Cavazos who had played football for the Red Raiders in the 1950s and whose story might be an effective blend of my academic interests.  After presenting papers on Cavazos, and publishing articles on his career, it became apparent that his was not the only “story” of this kind and that Texas history most likely held similar tales.  Thus, began my study of the history of Latino athlete that has lasted now for almost two decades, and has generated several publications.[2]

Any reader who undertakes a concerted review of the academic literature of American sports quickly realizes that an examination of the ties between sport and various ethnic and minority groups has been a primary focus of scholars.  Not surprisingly, a crucial concentration of such studies has been the examination of the relationship between African Americans and athletics.  For example, Jules Tygiel’s work on Jackie Robinson, Janet Bruce’s study of the Kansas City Monarchs, Rob Ruck’s study on black Pittsburgh, and Michael Lomax’s study on African American baseball entrepreneurs, are but a few examples of the many fine works done on this group and their sporting experiences in the US.  Likewise, writers such as C. Richard King, John Bloom, and William C. Kashatus have examined the role of sport in the lives of Native Americans. Others have shed light on the role of sport in the lives of Jews, Italian Americans and Asian Americans.[3]  Thus, the magnitude of the relationship between sport and these communities is firmly established and beyond dispute.

This, however, had not been the case with Latinos and athletics, as part of their historical experience had been, until recently, largely overlooked.  One key reason for this gap was, quite simply, because the “times” of the Chicano Movement (say, 1965-1980) and the development of this academic field focused primarily upon other historical aspects: the labor movement, resistance against discrimination, ethnic self-determination, the rise of important civic and community leaders, and similar topics.  Given the political and social context of the times, such themes were certainly worth examining and analyzing.  Still, the overall focus of the research was on social history, and as scholars who have written about the groups noted above have demonstrated, sports history is an effective way to pursue social history.

Among the first individuals who turned the academic gaze upon the role of sports in the daily existence of Latinos were Samuel O. Regalado and Richard Santillan.  Beginning in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, these two scholars began systematic examinations of topics such as Spanish-surnamed players in the majors, the minors, and the development of community leagues.  Two of Regalado’s most important early essays demonstrated first, the importance of barrio-based baseball in Los Angeles; and second, how the Dodgers worked to reach out to this important community upon their arrival in southern California from Brooklyn.  Additionally, Santillan’s studies demonstrated the historical longevity, the social consequence, and pride-sustaining influence of Mexican ligas (leagues) and teams in locales throughout the Midwest.[4]  My research utilized these fine works as models, and eventually led me to the story of the 1961 Donna High School Redskins; the only team from the Rio Grande Valley ever to win a state title in football (otherwise known as Texas’ other religion).

Since many readers may not be familiar with Lone Star State geography, it is necessary to point out some quick basics about the area that is known to Texans simply as “the Valley.”  This section is located in the deep-south portion of the state and is comprised of Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties.  The locales are overwhelmingly comprised of Latinos (mostly of Mexican descent).  While important players and teams from this region have made their mark in high school football history, the predominant perception among “those in the know” about the sport is that the gridiron quality here (both historically and currently) pales in comparison with other sectors of Texas.[5]  Indeed, one legendary coach who arrived in the early 1960s and spent many years in the region was initially advised to avoid the area, as “the Valley was 80% Mexican American, and everybody knew Mexican Americans were poor football players.”[6]  Another reason for the low regard for Valley football was because many of the players did not have a chance to condition themselves for the upcoming fall over the summer off season; with many having to help families by toiling as migrant workers.  The events of 1961 would challenge many of the assumptions about Mexican American athletes and Valley football.

The story of the Redskins[7] begins with the hiring of Earl Scott to coach the squad in 1960.  Scott was familiar with the “challenges” of leading mostly Mexican American teams, as he had previously coached at Laredo High School with a modicum of success.[8]  While the Redskins were picked as one of the top teams in their district for 1961, they were certainly not perceived as possible challengers for state-wide supremacy in the AA classification.  The team consisted of 18 players, 10 of whom were of Mexican descent.  The season did not start well, as Donna lost its first two (non-district) games.  However, the team recovered to complete a perfect in-district campaign, and earned a spot in the playoffs.  By this time, the Redskins hit their stride and won each game to move on to the state finals against an undefeated team from Quanah.  Before moving on to the title game, a brief note about one of the playoff matchups is necessary.  In a regional game against Sweeny High (won by Donna 32-14), one of the coaches for Sweeny asked Scott “Can these pepper bellies play? I mean, you never hear of any of them in the Southwest Conference.”  Later, as the captains went out for the coin toss, a Sweeny player asked whether the young men representing Donna were actual players or merely team mascots.  In other words, this opponent did not deem the Mexican Americans on the Donna team to be worthy to share the same football field with the white athletes on the Sweeny side.

The title game was thrilling, and the Redskins eventually prevailed 28-21 against an overwhelming favorite.  Some reporters from that era lavished praised on Scott (and deservedly so), but provided but the faintest of praise for the Mexican American athletes who overcame great odds to win a title.  The significance of the victory, however, did not escape the notice of the players, and the mostly Spanish-surnamed community.  One member of the team, Abel Benavides (a running back), summarized the importance of football to these athletes by stating that the sport “gave me a much better outlook on life.  In football we all grew together.  In this town, I went through the front door.”

In later years, other residents of Donna provided further support concerning the importance of the team and what it accomplished.  One example will suffice to make this point.  Another member of the team, Oscar Avila, when interviewed in 2002, stated that during one visit to his hometown an older gentleman approached and inquired as to whether he was a member of the ’61 team.  When he responded affirmatively, the man turned to his wife and said, “Este es uno de los Avilas que jugo en el equipo del ’61 cuando les ensellamos a los gringos que nosotros tambien sabiamos jugar football.” (“This is one of the Avila boys who played for the ’61 team when we showed the gringos that we too knew how to play football”).

Like the better known stories of the 1966 Texas Western Miners and the 1963 Loyola Ramblers, the story of the 1961 Donna Redskins provides an important example of the value of combining both the history of sport and that of an ethnic minority group.[9]  This is the goal of my research in this area.  Part of the power of sport for ethnic and racial minorities in the US has been to challenge assumptions about such groups.  A substantial amount of the spade work for African Americans, Jews, Native Americans and others has been done.  It is time to begin the process of integrating the nation’s largest minority group, the Latino/a population, into this literature.  The story of the 1961 Donna Redskins is but one example of such work.


Notes:

[1] Jorge Iber, Hispanics in the Mormon Zion, 1912-1997 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001).

[2] Among some of the works I have published, please see: “Mexican Americans of South Texas Football: The Athletic and Coaching Careers of E.C. Lerma and Bobby Cavazos, 1932-1965,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 55 (April 2002): 616-633; (co-edited with Samuel O. Regalado) Mexican Americans and Sport: A Reader on Athletics and Barrio Life (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007); (co-authored with Jose Alamillo, Arnoldo De Leon and Samuel O. Regalado) Latinos in U.S. Sport: A History of Isolation, Cultural Identity, and Acceptance (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2011); More than Just Peloteros: Sport and U.S. Latino Communities (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2014-forthcoming); and (co-authored with Lee Maril) Latino American Wrestling Experience: Over 100 Years of Wrestling Heritage in the United States (Stillwater, OK: National Wrestling Hall of Fame, e-book, 2014).

[3]  This list is but a sample of the works in this area, and is not exhaustive.  Rob Ruck, Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993); Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983); Janet Bruce, The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985);  Michael E. Lomax, Black Baseball Entrepreneurs, 1860-1901: Operating by Any Means Necessary (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003); C. Richard King, Native Athletes in Sport and Society: A Reader (Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 2006); John Bloom, To Show What An Indian Can Do: Sports at Native American Boarding Schools (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005); William C. Kashatus, Money Pitcher: Chief Bender and the Tragedy of Indian Assimilation (College Park: Penn State University Press, 2006);  Peter Levine, Ellis Island to Ebbets Field: Sport and the American Jewish Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Gary Ross Mormino, “The Playing Fields of St. Louis: Italian Immigrants and Sports, 1925-1941,” Journal of Sports History 9 (Summer 1982): 5-19 and Joel S. Franks, Crossing Sidelines, Crossing Cultures: Sport and Asian Pacific American Cultural Citizenship (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000).

[4] Samuel O. Regalado, Viva Baseball!: Latin Major Leaguers and Their Special Hunger (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998); “Baseball in the Barrios: The Scene in East Los Angeles since World War II,” Baseball History 1 (Summer 1996): 47-59; and “Dodgers Beisbol Is on the Air: The Development and Impact of Dodgers’ Spanish-language Broadcasts, 1958-1994,” California History (Fall 1995): 282-289.  Richard Santillan, “Mexican Baseball Teams in the Midwest: The Politics of Cultural Survival and Civil Rights,” Perspectives in Mexican American Studies 7 (2000): 131-152.   Another major contributor to the history of Latino participation in baseball is Adrian Burgos.  Please see: Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007) and Cuban Star: How One Negro-League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011).

[5]  Greg Selber, Border Ball: The History of High School Football in the Rio Grande Valley (Deer Park, NY: Linus Publications, 2009) and Cathy Harasta, “Grande Memories: ’61 Donna Team Remains Valley’s Only State Champs,” Dallas Morning News, October 27, 1999, 44-48.

[6] Charlie Williams, “South Texas Football,” Texas Coach (April 1979): 37 and 60.

[7] While there is much controversy surrounding this term at the moment, I felt it imperative to use it in this article so as to provide proper historical context.  The folks in Donna still proudly proclaim themselves to be “Redskins” and I believe it would have been disrespectful on my part to challenge them concerning the use of this term for this story.

[8] All of the following materials are from: Jorge Iber, “On Field Foes and Racial Misperceptions: The 1961 Donna Redskins and Their Drive to the Texas State Football Championship,” in Jorge Iber and Samuel O. Regalado,   Mexican Americans and Sport: A Reader on Athletics and Barrio Life (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007): 121-144.

[9] See: Frank Fitzpatrick, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999) and Lew Freedman, Becoming Iron Men: The Story of the 1963 Loyola Ramblers (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2014).

One thought on “A Primer Concerning the Role of Latinos in US Sport: The 1961 Donna, Texas Redskins and the Texas State Football Championship

  1. Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    The role of Latinos in sports have often been minimized. While Jackie Robinson is role in integrating baseball is well-known, Latinos have not had any single figure who galvanized the Latino community the same way as Robinson. Jorge Iber’s post at Sport in American History on the 1961 Texas State High School Football Champions Donna Redskins explores the racism experienced by a predominately Mexican American football team. In 1961, Mexicans were viewed as incapable of being quality football players. The Donna High School team shattered that myth by winning the state title against predominately white schools.

    Like

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