The Introduction presents fastpitch softball as a sport that has been historically of interest to Mexican Americans, who have used it as a cultural resource to navigate their history and identity in the United States. A tradition of playing softball in Mexican American communities is an example of sport as cultural poetics on the vernacular scale.
This chapter develops the historical frame for fastpitch as part of a long saga of Mexican people's contested belonging in the United States. This history examines the expansion of the United States by military conquest and the attendant racialization of Mexicans for purposes of Anglo domination. It includes over a century of Mexicans making their home in the center of what is now the United States, including Kansas, and effectively creating the region I call mid-América through travel and interaction with the southern borderlands, mainly Texas. Mexican American fastpitch emerged close in time to famous moments in political mobilization for civil rights and equality. Against this backdrop, athletic clubs and tournaments were among the vernacular organizations through which people have negotiated questions of belonging and identity.
This chapter focuses on softball as a national pastime in the early twentieth-century United States and the segregated everyday life of barrio communities as the ground on which Mexican American fastpitch teams and tournaments emerged. Recognizing how fastpitch is deeply embedded in social relationships is key to understanding the enduring interest and commitment to the sport that are evident in Mexican mid-América. Within that social base, I suggest that softball provided Mexican American communities with a source of both competition and camaraderie.
This chapter digs into specific tournaments, playing fields where they took place, and the teams that hosted them in order to represent the process of building a racial tradition of sport. As Mexican American communities did this, they negotiated a shifting balance between tournaments as barrio institutions invested in particular people and relationships and as a staging ground for those interested in bringing their athletic capabilities to a broader field of competition. The relative merits and limitations of remaining identified as a "Mexican tournament" as opposed to "opening up" in different ways remain debatable, even as the boundaries established under segregation crumble and fade. This remains true for the identity of tournaments across changing circumstances, as well as for the people personally and collectively invested in them.
This chapter examines the "ballplayer" identity that playing fastpitch produced in barrio communities. As a kind of discipline of self-making, being a ballplayer provided Mexican Americans with a resource to counter racist constructions of Mexicanness. Part of what made the prospect of being a ballplayer a path to prestige was that it offered a means of performing valorized and legible versions of masculinity. This process produced local legends who distinguished themselves on the field. But many former players maintain that a more important outcome was the camaraderie among ballplayers and their communities, fostering enduring relationships that were ultimately more valuable even than victory in the game.
This chapter further develops the implications of the fact that modern sport is socially gendered, including softball itself in particularly complicated ways. Recognizing that fastpitch has been celebrated as a Mexican American tradition mostly as an activity of men, contrary to the mainstream of fastpitch today, I highlight some of the women who have participated in this tradition and claim it as theirs. As the position of softball in the gender-divided field of sport has changed over the past century, I argue that the social base of Mexican American fastpitch has made it a resource that can be shared across generations.
This chapter draws on scholarship that treats sport as a symbolic or narrative idiom to unpack how softball is articulated with Mexican American experience. I consider the narratives specific to softball and baseball in terms of the appeal they might hold in a Mexican American context. These include enactments of individual-collective relationships, opportunity, and meritocracy that are part of the formal structure of the game. Reading these narrative forms against the ongoing political dynamics of Mexican identity in the United States shows the particular relation of softball to the larger social formation. Despite the fact that softball and baseball have at times played an ideological role to support unequal social relations, sport functions differently for Mexican Americans, when the demarcated space of the playing field takes on utopian meanings in the ways that it contrasts with social life.
The conclusion examines the view expressed by people involved in Mexican American fastpitch that their sport of choice is their "culture," understanding that term to signal a legitimate difference from a mainstream national identity. This discussion underscores that the particular appeal of fastpitch for its devotees is embedded in the ongoing dynamics of Mexican American history and experience. Indeed, maintaining a particular tradition of playing the game is a way to materialize and recognize people's relation to that history. Participants mark this relationship by calling it culture.