Latinos in “Unexpected” Sports: A Brief Discussion of Spanish-Surnamed Collegiate and Olympic Wrestlers

by Jorge Iber, PhD

Texas Tech University 

In my last post for this blog, I mentioned that the story of Mike Torrez (former MLB pitcher and a native of Topeka) is one that could help shed light on the historical and current role as athletes of Latinos/as both at the local (Midwestern, in this case) level, as well as the national panorama. Given that baseball (at all levels) is an athletic endeavor closely associated with the Spanish-surnamed, certain aspects of the Torrez story may not seem new or surprising to many readers.  However, as noted in my new anthology, More Than Just Peloteros: Sport and US Latino Communities, Spanish-speaking competitors have not just vied for personal and team glory on the baseball diamond.[1]  In fact, such athletes have participated in a wide variety of sports over many decades. Still, there have been some sports that have been almost completely excluded from research on the Latino/a community. The sport of high school, collegiate, and Olympic wrestling is one such overlooked endeavor.  This post is an effort to discuss efforts to remedy these lacunae through other recent research.

About two years ago, Lee Maril of East Carolina State University and I were given the opportunity and privilege to begin work on a project on behalf of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, which is located on the campus of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. The work consisted of using the facility’s archival sources to write about the stories of Latino wrestling national champions and All Americans. All told, we collected materials and did short biographical sketches of around 60 athletes.[2] Some of these men are familiar; such as Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo and the courageous national champion, Anthony Robles. What surprised us was not only the number of athletes, but also the time frame and locales where these individuals competed. This blog post would like to offer four short stories (over five athletes and coaches) that encapsulate the history of the sport, challenges faced and overcome, and argue for the value of such historical narratives. The five individuals are: Manuel Gorriaran, Mike Rodriguez, Morrey Villareal, and (current) coaches, Martin Segovia and David Quirino.

Manuel Gorriaran was one of the earliest supporters of the sport of wrestling in New England (and, specifically, the state of Rhode Island). This Cuban-born engineer made his way to the Ocean State in the mid-1920s, and became involved with the Hook-Fast Company based in Providence.  He eventually purchased the firm, and his family continues to operate the concern. Manuel was familiar with the sport of wrestling from his time on the island, and continued his involvement with local clubs, high schools, universities, and the US Olympic and Pan American Games squads. The Hook-Fast Corporation eventually also became part of the wrestling endeavor, as Gorriaran manufactured pins and other items that became, through trading among competitors and coaches, an important aspect of developing camaraderie among athletes throughout the US and across the world. Gorriaran also used his business acumen to raise money for the US teams that competed internationally. He even established an award that is the wrestling equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. In summary, Manuel was a man who loved the sport of wrestling and used his economic wherewithal and entrepreneurial success to spread the endeavor throughout the nation and the world. He was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1985 and died in 1990.[3]

Mike Rodriguez’s story has a more humble beginning, as his parents immigrated to Michigan in 1929. The couple had initially intended to go all the way to Detroit, but could not afford the fare all the way to the Motor City. The conductor “politely” kicked the Rodriguezes off at Ann Arbor. There, the family met another Mexican clan and decided to remain. Mike was born in Ann Arbor in 1932. Through an enormous financial effort the family paid for their son to attend a prep school in Pittsburgh, where he won a national high school title in wrestling. This success earned Rodriguez a scholarship to attend his hometown university. Between 1955 and 1957, Mike was a Big Ten champion and All American (finishing second in the country at the NCAA Championships). He was also an alternate for the 1960 US Olympic team. While very successful on the mat, Rodriguez made his mark as a coach, guiding Detroit Central Catholic to seven state titles in a career that spanned forty years. Though now retired, he continues to teach the sport to inner-city youths near the DCC campus in the (appropriately named) Mike Rodriguez Wrestling Complex through a program named Beat the Streets.[4]

Morey Villareal’s family hailed from Mexico and Spain and his parents ran a grocery store in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. As a child, Morey and his clan witnessed some of the most horrific riots in US history in May of 1921. As a teenager, Morey both wrestled and played football for Central High School, even though he was often reminded by his white teammates/classmates that “Mexicans were not supposed to go out for sports.” Even with such barriers, he won a state title in 1933 and earned an athletic scholarship at Central Oklahoma. He earned All-American honors in 1935 and 1936. Villareal then served his country as a Chief Training Officer in the Navy during World War II. After his time in the military, he earned an MA in Education Administration and went on to become a teacher and coach at Rogers High School in his hometown. He eventually led his charges to a state title in 1959 and was named coach of the year in the wrestling-mad state twice (1959 and 1969) and also served as president of the Oklahoma Wrestling Association on four occasions. He was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1998 and passed away in 2006.[5]

Martin Segovia (Garden City, KS High School) and David Quirino (Randall, TX High School) are current coaches/administrators who continue to build on the legacies of men such as Gorriaran, Rodriguez, and Villareal. These two men, who became friends while wrestling collegiately at Nebraska-Kearney, have established a tradition of excellence at both of their schools. Segovia was an All American at UNK in the mid-1990s and after graduation went back to his hometown and led the Buffaloes to several state titles in wrestling. He now serves his alma mater as Athletic Director. Quirino grew up in Amarillo and won a state title for Tascosa High School. After a stint in the Marines, he returned to the panhandle of Texas and established himself as one of the finest and most successful high school wrestling coaches in the Lone Star State. Only Dallas Highland, which draws from a much larger population base than does Randall, has a better record in the sport than do Quirino’s Rebels. In 2012, David was inducted into the Texas Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame.[6]

The value of such stories of entrepreneurs, athletes, and coaches is to recount the challenges surmounted and the success modeled for their charges. More interestingly, the stories of these individuals highlight a trend that is becoming more and more significant at the present time; the dispersal of Latinos into areas/states where there used to be few Spanish-surnamed men and women. Gorriaran helped tie Cuba to Rhode Island, Rodriguez, Mexico to Michigan, Villareal, Mexico and Spain to Oklahoma, and Segovia and Quirino, Mexican Americans to Nebraska. As the 21st century unfurls, more and more Latino/a athletes are carrying the banner of athletics for small-town (and Midwest) America. It is the stories of athletes and coaches such as the men noted above, who have helped lay the groundwork for the opportunities that today’s youngsters enjoy. As noted in another recent work,  these athletes are important pioneers in helping to gain greater acceptance of the demographic changes that have taken place in many parts of small-town America because they “will play for community teams, and help to shatter stereotypes and concerns held by often-nervous whites who fear the dramatic transformation that has taken place.”[7]  Sport is a potent mechanism with which to challenge stereotypical assumptions, and these stories (and many more in wrestling and other sports) are proof of this power.

Jorge Iber is Associate Dean in the Student Division and Professor of History at Texas Tech University. He can be reached at jorge.iber@ttu.edu.


Notes:

[1] Jorge Iber, ed., More Than Just Peloteros: Sport and US Latino Communities (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2014).

[2] Jorge Iber and Lee Maril, Latino American Wrestling Experience: Over 100 Years of Wrestling Heritage in the United States (e-book, National Wrestling Hall of Fame, 2014).  This book can be downloaded for free here: http://nwhof.org/latinowrestling/.

[3] Ibid., 23.

[4] Ibid., 43.

[5] Ibid., 59.

[6] Ibid., 60.

[7] Jorge Iber, Samuel O. Regalado, Jose M. Alamillo, and Arnoldo De Leon, Latinos in U.S. Sport: A History of Isolation, Cultural Identity, and Acceptance (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2011), 233.

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