Monday, April 30, 2012

Book Review: This Love is Not for Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juarez, by Robert Andrew Powell

A book review by contributor Paul Demko

As a book about professional sports, This Love is Not for Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juarez is pretty much a dud. Veteran U.S. journalist Robert Andrew Powell shows up in the beleaguered border town midway through the 2009-10 season. The Primera club that Powell begins following, Los Indios de Juarez, has muddled through the first half of the campaign without a single victory.

It's not surprising that Los Indios are struggling to remain in the Mexican top division. Recruiting talent is undoubtedly difficult when your players are routinely threatened with kidnapping and the daily body count in the city regularly hits double digits.

Powell attempts to pump some drama into the squad's relegation battle. But as Los Indios proceed to set a Primera Division record for consecutive matches without a victory, it's pretty darn clear that their days in the top flight are numbered. Powell does gets some yuks from coming up with different creative ways to describe the incompetence of Cameroonian striker Alain N'Kong. (Colorado Rapids fans, in particular, should find this exercise resonant.)

Powell's narrative task is further complicated by his choice of chief protagonist: American-born midfielder Marco Vidal. Vidal offers an intriguing personal story. After washing out with Chivas and Tigres by the age of 20, he was working at a Dallas radio station when Los Indios came calling. The diminutive, perpetually overlooked defensive midfielder becomes a vital cog in the squad's unlikely rise to the Mexican top flight. 

But as a character Vidal is a dullard. He doesn't seem to have a single interesting insight into what it's like to play professional futbol in a city under siege by warring drug cartels. Powell is reduced to dwelling repeatedly on Vidal's preference for Ed Hardy shirts and hats to illuminate … something.

Powell doesn't explain why he chose to focus on Vidal while virtually ignoring the rest of the squad off the pitch. But I suspect language -- specifically Vidal's fluidity in English -- was a significant factor. It's unclear how proficient the author is in Spanish, but he does mention briefly taking language lessons in Juarez. Regardless of the reason, we're stuck with Vidal and his deep reservoir of sports cliches. "The whole team is together, with one mission," he reassures us at the start of the season.

Luckily Powell doesn't attempt to hinge the entire book on Vidal and his hapless teammates. Instead he uses Los Indios as a jumping off point to explore the troubled city of Juarez and its resilient residents. Powell's keen eye uncovers some unexpected consequences of the cartel wars. Prior to the dramatic rise in murders -- a staggering 3,000-plus during 2010 alone -- Juarez was a frequent destination for U.S. citizens seeking affordable dental care. In the wake of the violence, many of those clinics have been shuttered.

Powell talks with Sergio Bueno (his son works in the media department of Los Indios) about his struggling dental practice. Bueno's clinic was robbed at gunpoint by men who may well have been police officers. He's considered relocating across the border to El Paso, but the difficulty of getting licensed to practice in the U.S. has caused him to remain in Juarez.

Bueno's faith sustains him. "I know with certainty that God does not want me to die," Bueno tells Powell, after the armed robbery. "God does not want me to leave my family or to leave my city. I felt closer to God than ever."

Powell also does a nice job of depicting the way most Juarenses grasp on to normalcy amidst the violence and how their lives bounce back and force across the border -- both literally and figuratively. Take Weecho a rabid Los Indios fan who grew up primarily in Texas. His tattoos include tributes to both the American metal band Tool and his Mexican heritage. He is a luchador, but most of his professional wrestling matches take place in Texas.

"Weecho is an American who literally fights to promote his Mexican heritage," Powell writes. "When he talks, his words slip from English to Spanish, probably without his even realizing it. He loves premium American coffee and he also follows a Mexican soccer team with a  losing record. His feet straddle two cultures, like so may people living along the border. Cultures that are often violently divided. Which is why I love the intentionally misspelled name he currently wrestles under: Fussion."

Powell's attempts to humanize a place that's too often depicted in the media simply as a battleground for drug smugglers is certainly admirable. But he tries a little too hard -- and not very successfully -- to convince readers that he's fallen deeply in love with his troubled adopted city.

"Lorenzo tells me that I'm Juarense, that I quality by now," Powell writes near the end of the book. "Everyone in Juarez is from somewhere else, he says, and I've put in more than enough time. This makes me feel surprisingly happy. It took me more than ten years to define myself as a Miamian. Here in Juarez, I'm already in. And not just nominally in, but in, really in. I do feel like I belong here. That I am not only in Juarez, but of it. I love this city, totally."

Of course, as expected, seven pages later Powell is saying adios to Juarez. There's no shame in this. The season is over. Los Indios have been relegated. Powell's reporting assignment is done. Time to move back to the U.S. and on to the next story. So why pretend otherwise? It's disingenuous and irritating.


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