Latino Studies Sports and Community Building in California
Joel Franks
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0143


Alta California had been claimed by the Spanish Empire since the 16th century. However, Spain professed little interest in the region until the second half of the 18th century when North American holdings seemed threatened by European rivals. Thus, it dispatched contingents of soldiers and Franciscan missionaries into what is now the state of California in order to establish a viable presence in the region mainly by persuading indigenous Californians, through intimidation and spiritual proselytizing, to become loyal Spanish subjects. When California Indians proved difficult to convert, the Spanish established pueblos—civilian and secular municipalities in San José, Los Angeles, and Branciforté, which is now embraced by Santa Cruz. Subsequently, well-connected Spanish subjects received enormous grants of land largely in the central coast of California—grants of land that would be transformed into ranchos generally concentrating on cattle raising. When an independent Mexico took control of California in the early 1800s, the missions were secularized, the pueblos stagnated, and the ranchos relatively prospered, fueled by the labor of indigenous and mestizo/a people. Mexico’s reign in California lasted but a generation or so before the US–Mexican War ushered in American rule, soon accompanied by the Gold Rush and eventual statehood in 1850. While recognized as white by the US government, Mexican Californians quickly encountered racialized forms of political/legal discrimination, cultural oppression, and labor exploitation. Nevertheless, Mexican communities persisted in the Golden State—communities reinforced by migrants from Mexico but ever vigilant to the suspicion, hostility, and legal repression surrounding them. By the end of the 20th century, Mexican Americans in California often shared neighborhoods with migrants from Central and South America pushed from their countries of birth by poverty and political oppression. In California, as elsewhere, Latino/as have worked hard to establish and maintain community bonds. One of the more interesting and underappreciated ways they have done so is through play; that is, the formation of ethnic-based sports teams and leagues. In the process, they have cheered on individual Latino/s athletes who have garnered neighborhood, regional, national, and international fame, while maintaining sometimes tense relationships with local professional sport franchises such as the Los Angeles Dodgers and the at present Oakland Raiders.

General Works

It is only in the last generation or so that scholars have accorded Latino/a experiences in sport with the respect they deserve. While sport history and studies gained academic respectability in the 1970s and 1980s, it suffered from Eurocentrism and an excessive focus on sports played on the East Coast of North America. This meant, for instance, that while scholars of American sport scarcely ignored the experiences of aggrieved people, they focused on the racial divide between blacks and whites, as well as the struggles of East Coast ethnic groups such as Irish and Jewish Americans. Tygiel 1983 and Levine 1993 offer excellent examples of such sport history. The experiences of Mexican Americans in the southwest and on the Pacific Coast, as well as Native Americans and Asian Pacific people living west of the Mississippi and Oceana were generally marginalized. Inspired by the wider struggle for racial democracy in America during the last third of the 20th-century scholars, Latino/a scholarship blossomed. Moreover, much of this needed work focused on Mexican American history in California. While covering a wide variety of topics, these historical studies tended to shy away from the role of sports in Mexican American communities. Significant exceptions include Pitt 1966 Camarillo 1979, Ruiz 1987, Monroy 1990, 1999. Gonzales 1994. Sanchez 1994. Moreover, Pérez, Jr. 1999 glances at the experiences of Cuban Americans and sport.

  • Camarillo, Albert. Chicanos in a Changing Society: From Mexican Pueblos to American Barrios in Santa Barbara and Southern California, 1848–1930. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1979.

    An early example of “history from the bottom up” as applied to Mexican Americans in Santa Barbara and Southern California, this book attends to the Anglo-American attack on Mexican American recreational pursuits such as horse racing after the US takeover of California.

  • Gonzales, Gilbert G. Labor and Community: Mexican Citrus Workers in a Southern California County, 1900–1950. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

    A fine social and cultural history of Mexican workers in Orange County during the first half of the 20th century, this book delves into how baseball reflected and reinforced the kind of communities Mexican Americans in the county were attempting to forge.

  • Levine, Peter. From Ellis Island to Ebbets Field: Sport and the American Jewish Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    This book provides a rich survey of Jewish American sporting experiences, while providing a good example of how sport historians should approach ethnicity and community.

  • Monroy, Douglas. Thrown Among Strangers: The Making of Mexican Culture in Frontier California. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.

    An eloquent analysis of the development of Mexican culture in California prior to the US-Mexican War, this study underscores the importance of recreational activities as Mexicans in California forged their early communities.

  • Monroy, Douglas. Rebirth: Mexican Los Angeles from the Great Migration to the Great Depression. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520920774

    This book focuses on the experiences of Mexican Americans in Los Angeles during the early decades of the 20th century. One of its many useful features is an examination of baseball and community in Mexican Los Angeles.

  • Pérez, Louis, Jr. On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

    This book provides a long-needed overview of Cuban American history, while examining the role of sport in that history.

  • Pitt, Leonard. The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish Speaking Californians, 1846–1900. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966.

    A pioneering social history of what happened to Mexican Californians after the US-Mexican War, this book introduces readers to the sporting culture of Californios in the mid-19th century and what happened as Anglos gained hegemony in the new state.

  • Ruiz, Vicki. Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930–1950. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987.

    A trailblazing social and cultural history of gender, ethnicity, and race, this book glances at the discrimination Mexican Americans faced in mid-20th-century California in terms of recreational activities such as swimming.

  • Sanchez, George. Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    This book covers many facets of Mexican American life in Los Angeles during the first half of the 20th century. In the process, it examines the recreational activities of the emerging Mexican American community in the city.

  • Tygiel, Jules. Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

    While stressing the experiences of Jackie Robinson, this book breaks ground in terms of placing the racial integration of organized baseball in historical context.

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