Can the Dynamo’s Mexican Owner Successfully Tap Into Houston’s Latino Soccer Fans?

Mexican businessman Gabriel Brener is now the majority owner of the Houston Dynamo, Houston Dash, and BBVA Compass Stadium. The exec made a name for himself and carved his spot in the Houston sports world back in 2008, when he bought into the club – a 50% shareholder – alongside boxing champion Oscar De La Hoya. Now, he has procured the 50% controlling share previously owned by Anschutz Entertainment Group.

When asked about changes we might be able to look forward to with Brener as the principal owner, Brener told MLSSoccer that the “No. 1 thing is now there is a true person, some family behind the name of the team.” It’s no longer “just a corporate logo.” He hopes that this new characteristic will “resonate in a very positive way” with the fanbase. The whole fanbase.

The news adds yet another dimension to the fútbol franchise’s often contested multicultural history and identity. Originally created in the aftermath of San Jose Earthquakes’ relocation in December of 2005, the first proposed team name was “Houston 1836.” 1836 is a pivotal year in Texas history for a number of reasons: it’s the year that the Mexican army suffered defeat at the bloody Battle of San Jacinto; the year that Texas gained its independence; and the year that the city of Houston was founded.

“Maybe Anglos find a lot of bravado in 1836. To us, it conjures all this bad history,” said UH Center for Mexican-American Studies director Tatcho Mindiola to Lori Rodriguez in a memorable Houston Chronicle article written back in ‘06. “They could have pulled off the 1836 name years ago, but they sure can’t now. We now have a very significant Mexican-American intellectual class that does its own research and isn’t going to put up with this,” Mindiola added. UH professor Raúl A. Ramos also commented on the subject, expressing that the response signified a continued “litmus test for patriotism. If you say anything other than the way was good and just, then somehow your allegiance is to Mexico and not the United States.”

1836 is clearly a hotly disputed year in history, a “multilayered history” that’s “far from the simplified one drummed into Texas via Hollywood and one-sided textbooks,” remarked Lori Rodriguez. Sylvia Garcia – the first Hispanic commissioner of Harris County in over a century – stated at the time that she understood the ill will towards the team name; it was “a sad time for the people of Mexico and their descendants … in a conflict which sometimes pitted families against their own people.” This is precisely why she chose to confront Philip Anschutz, the owner in 2006: to urge him to reconsider.

With team supporter groups like El Batallón and the Texian Army – the latter of which describes itself as a diverse group that “reflects the variety of backgrounds found in a community as vibrant and international as Houston” – it’s pretty evident that alienating the club’s large Latino fanbase right from the get go would have been a huge mistake.

In the end, the team’s name was in fact changed to Dynamo, a word that Oliver Luck, the club’s first president, described as “symbolic of Houston as an energetic, hard-working, risk-taking kind of town.” Still, there’s room for improvement in relations between the club and Houston’s one million Latinos (nearly half its population). Brener told MLSSoccer that he unsurprisingly feels a strong connection to this part of the fanbase, “Houston, from what I understand, is more diverse in its minority component than even New York City,” he said.  “So I think we have to face the reality and go forward that way.”

We often think about history as an exchange between the past and present, an explanation of change rooted in constant reinterpretation. 1836 provides a particularly demanding case; it demonstrates that facts are not neutral, and that questioning historical veracity is a complex challenge with many competing voices. In this particular case, history as a discourse on change is winning. Here’s to hoping that Brener can provide an even stronger connection that links the Dynamo and Dash to their Latino fans (and bring Houston its first-ever NWSL crown, and/or first MLS Cup since 2007!)