Detroit’s Forgotten Soccer History Starts With This Mexican Social Club

A recent opinion piece in The Detroit Free Press – written in light of recent expansion efforts on the part of Major League Soccer – uses the following argument to explain why soccer would not be a good fit for Detroit:

“Detroit isn’t a sports town as much as it is a Detroit sports town. The passion stems from generational legacies as well as long, collective suffering. The wait makes it all worth it – whether it’s 42 years between Red Wings Stanley Cups, only two Tigers World Series titles in the last seven decades or 58 years – and counting – with the Lions.”

Little does the author know, Detroit’s soccer story dates back over half a century, when immigrant populations were looking to construct inclusive ideas of place. It has a history of its own.

It’s common knowledge that by the 1950s, auto companies like GM, Ford, and Chrysler had Detroit booming. The steel city was home to 90 percent of the country’s car sales and an immigrant population that surpassed that of many other Midwestern locales.

While immigrant organization was predominantly European – Lithuanian, Polish, Syrian, Greek – the Mexican community began to create a sense of shared identity and place of its own through a sport they knew and loved: soccer.

The Mexican community began to create a sense of shared identity and place of its own through a sport they knew and loved: soccer.

Back then, the Detroit Soccer League featured one team with Hispanic roots: Hispanos Unidos, a squad run by Spanish nationals that allowed players from Latin America to join the ranks. It was a kind effort towards inclusivity, one which in turn sparked the interest of an innovative and motivated group of Mexican players led by Salvador Rojas and Román Pérez.

In 1958, this group made a Mexican “national” team of sorts in their Midwest home: Club Social y Deportivo México (CSD). The team’s core came from Great Lakes Steel Corporation and the Ford Plant, the latter of which was home to Rojas, hired in 1956 after moving from Jamay, Jalisco, 12 years earlier at age 14.

The Jalisco connection was clear; the team wore a uniform reminiscent of that of Club Guadalajara, an “ethnic affirmation” of sorts for Detroit Mexicans, a way to latch onto traditions and adjust to life in the Great Lakes. Not only this, interethnic competition “provided an opportunity to disprove negative Mexican stereotypes and instead portray the Mexican presence in the Midwest as a success story.”

CSD was quick to convert itself into the inclusive institution that it hoped to be, a symbol of a specific mode of Midwestern life. A voluntary sport association until 1978 (when the franchise was sold to the owner of a local bar), the team brought families together in Patton Park for picnics, domino games, dances, and more. Soccer was just one piece of the pie.

According to Juan Javier Pescador, “centered partly on the athletic performance of its players but more importantly on the family and communal activities before, during, and after the soccer games, soccer clubs generated a sense of place for men, women, and children, in which each subgroup could socialize in its own way.”

Soccer put everyone on equal footing, providing a response to the community’s desire to reside in the U.S. on a permanent basis. There was no political agenda, no greater mission outside of fostering this team and space as a form of communal identity, a new way to claim a spot in the Detroit social sphere.

Who’s to say that a new MLS franchise couldn’t have the same effect today?