The Little Known-History of How Mormons Brought Football to Mexico

A general view of the field prior to the game between the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders at Estadio Azteca on November 21, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico. Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

For the second year in a row, the NFL will play a regular season game in Mexico City. On November 19, the defending champion New England Patriots will face the Oakland Raiders in the Estadio Azteca, as part of the NFL’s continuing attempt to increase their Hispanic audience—estimated, 4 years ago, at 25 million fans. This is just the number of Hispanic fans within the United States and doesn’t account for the millions more living across Latin America—including over 28 million in Mexico alone. The NFL has celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month for 15 years, has run Spanish-language commercials with English subtitles, and, through ESPN2, simulcast Monday Night Football games in Spanish. Many teams also offer Spanish-language radio broadcasts, including 2 of the most popular NFL teams among Hispanics; the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers.

While the league attempts to attract the growing Hispanic audience, its overall viewership has declined, for a variety of reasons. Former players and recognizable names have noted the dangers of football and their unwillingness to let their children play. With declining participation in youth and high school football, it appears that parents share that same concern. This drop has even affected Texas, whose high school football, the famed Friday night lights, has an almost mythic tradition bordering on religion.

The American and Mexican flags are displayed before the game between the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers at Estadio Azteca on October 2, 2005 in Mexico City, Mexico. Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images
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However, across Texas’s southern border in northern Mexico, the popularity and participation in football—or fútbol Americano, to distinguish it from what we call soccer—increases. Academia Juárez is among the number of Mexican high schools that field a football team. The school is in Colonia Juárez—an American Mormon colonies that’s been in Mexico for over 130 years.

Like many religions, Mormons have a complicated history in the United States—largely due to their polygamous practices, though in reality, the large majority have always been monogamous. Yet, by the mid-19th century, Protestants increasingly considered Mormons less-than white—in terms of race. “By the 1840s, they’re talking about a Mormon race,” explains University of Utah history professor and author of Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, W. Paul Reeve. “By the 1860s they’re talking about the defined set of group physical characteristics [and] that Mormon polygamy is not merely destroying the traditional family, it’s destroying the white race. And that polygamy is producing a degraded, deformed, degenerate body.”

Considering Mormons as less-than white eased the hesitancy around the discriminatory practices of the period. Reeve adds, “How do you justify an extermination order against a group of people that look like you? One of the ways you do so, is to suggest that they’re, in fact, not like you.” As a result, before the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints arrived in Utah—a state they’re usually associated with—they were “repeatedly persecuted and driven from New York to Ohio, to Missouri, and to Illinois.” It was in Illinois where the state governor jailed the leader and founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith. Authorities charged Smith with inciting a riot after he ordered a newspaper and printing press—operated by dissident Mormons, critical of his teachings—destroyed.

Martyrdom of Joseph and Hiram Smith in Carthage jail, June 27th, 1844. Photo: Library of Congress
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On June 27, 1844, a group of 200 men, dressed in disguise with their face blackened, entered the jail and murdered Smith, his brother, and two of their associates. More than a decade of anti-Mormon violence had come to a head. “The death of the modern mahomet will seal the fate of Mormonism,” the New York Herald proclaimed. “They cannot get another Joe Smith. The holy city must tumble into ruins, and the ‘latter-day saints’ have indeed come to the latter day.” But rather than killing the religion, Joseph Smith—already considered a prophet by his followers—became a martyr and Mormonism, led by Brigham Young, continued. Young guided them west and the Great Mormon Migration arrived in the Salt Lake area of Utah in 1847, then, a Mexican territory.

In the late 1850s, debates against Mormonism continued as the Republican party ran on a platform to keep the “twin relics of barbarism” from expanding into the United States’ new territories. The first was slavery. The second was polygamy. 6 years later, in the midst of a Civil War fought over the first relic, congress passed and Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act—an attack on the second relic—to “punish and prevent the practice of polygamy in the territories of the United States.”

Historically, whoever’s controlled Mexico has considered its northern borders a distant land.

But with the ongoing Civil War and no funding towards its enforcement, the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act was toothless. In the 1880s, the government enforced laws against bigamy when it passed the Edmunds Act and the Edmunds-Tucker Act. Attempting to avoid persecution, some Mormons headed south to Mexico.

“[Mormons] start looking across international borders as colonies of refuge from the federal crackdown that’s taking place in the United States,” explains Reeve. “Some will establish colonies in northern Mexico.” Mormons had previously gone to Mexico as missionaries, even translating parts the Book of Mormon into Spanish. But they had never attempted to start a colony there. Historically, whoever’s controlled Mexico has considered its northern borders a distant land.

Whether it was the Spanish or Mexican government, in that part of their country, to govern it they first had to populate it; gobernar es poblar, after all. When Mormons sought land, attempting to escape from the United States, the Mexican government quickly sold them about 8,000 acres of what became Colonia Juárez. It remains there today since, as Reeve states, “the colonies…persist to the present because people have established roots there and continue their communities.”

A Mormon temple in Mexico City. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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Today, Colonia Juárez is a picturesque town about three hours south of the much larger Ciudad Juárez and the United States-Mexico border. Its white Mormon temple and greenery contrast against the surrounding desert of northwestern Chihuahua. Its tranquility hides a tumultuous history; from the Mexican Revolution, when most Mormons fled north and fewer returned, up to more recent problems with drug cartels. Part of what unites Colonia Juárez’s population of about 1,000 is football.

“We love football,” answers Lance Romney when asked what the sport means to Colonia Juárez. Romney is the head coach of Academia Juárez Lobos; the private, bilingual high school that opened in 1897, a dozen years after the colony’s founding. For over 6 decades, Academia Juárez has taken part in organized football, of which Romney is among the few to have played beyond high school, as a member of Tec de Monterrey’s team.

Football was first played in Mexico in late December of 1896 through January of 1897, when the University of Missouri faced the University of Texas in a series of exhibition games. “Football has been introduced in this republic,” wrote an El Paso Times reporter, stationed in Mexico. “[The teams] were well received and the president sent a note to the managers of the clubs bidding them welcome.”

Mexican newspapers wrote that football was “rough as well as savage, unpolished, and dangerous.”

As with most things during Porfirio Diaz’s presidency, taking part in football—even as spectators—was aimed towards making Mexico seem modern in the eyes of outsiders, namely the United States and Europe. But although the exhibition games in Mexico City drew thousands, football wasn’t immediately popular.

Mexican newspapers wrote that football was “rough as well as savage, unpolished, and dangerous.” One newspaper described the game as: “The players jumped on the top of one another, charged, bucked, and struggled, forming a human tangle, very disagreeable to behold.” Another newspaper simply wrote of football: “It was a game fit only for cowboys.” The game left such a poor impression that even a year after the exhibition games, a political cartoonist drew a pile of players with “En El Foot-ball (Barbaro juego de pelota yankee)”—at football (a barbarous Yankee ballgame)—as the caption. It took decades before Mexico played football at large-scale.

“My grandpa, Max Spilsbury, he was…the one who started football in northern Mexico, from what I understand,” says Romney, wh,o like other colony residents, traces his roots to its founders. Romney is also a distant cousin of former Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, whose father, George—also a former candidate for the nation’s highest office—was born in the nearby Colonia Dublán; another American Mormon colony about 15 miles away and founded around the same time as Colonia Juárez. In fact, most students in Academia Juárez live in Colonia Dublán, as the 2 are the last remaining original Mormon colonies in northern Mexico. Students from Colonia Dublán get bussed to Academia Juárez daily. That same bussing is an unavoidable part of the sport for the Lobo football team.

Academia Juárez in Colonia Juárez. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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“For the longest time, we’d travel to the U.S. every weekend to play our different games,” says Romney. “We’d travel to Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas—west Texas, mainly. We’ve done that ever since we started.” This meant traveling upwards of 4 hours to play football, and sometimes being forced to stay overnight.

The Lobos and their opponents used to alternate travel—one year they’d play on the road, the next, their opponent would travel to Colonia Juárez. But during the past decade-and-a-half, as violence from the drug wars escalated, teams from the United States refused to play in Mexico. Romney explains, “Once things got crazy with all the cartel problems and violence in the early 2000s, the U.S. teams wouldn’t travel to play us anymore. We continued to still go out there.”

Football’s growth in Mexico continues, despite the increasing concern over the sport’s safety within the United States.

In recent years, the level of participation and competition in northern Mexico has risen, so that the Lobos are no longer forced to play solely in the United States. They now compete in a Chihuahua state league but, due to their location—the closest “large” city is Nuevo Casas Grandes, which has a population of less than 60,000—travel hasn’t drastically reduced. And yet, if football keeps growing in Mexico, that too, may change.

Football’s growth in Mexico continues, despite the increasing concern over the sport’s safety within the United States. That’s not to say football, south of the border, isn’t concerned with safety. The Chihuahua state league plays according to NCAA rules that prohibits leading with the helmet and punishes excessive physical play. In Mexico, increased safety also means playing with new, state-of-the-art equipment. Gone are the days when teams played with old, outdated helmets and pads that teams from the United States gave away.

They also know of the safety concerns, though as Romney acknowledges, their level of awareness is not the same as in the United States. Still, as he points out, the sport continues to grow, despite whatever safety concerns there are. “Now we have high school teams, varsity teams, JV teams, all the way to Pop Warner leagues. They are starting younger and younger so I don’t think it’s slowing it down. If anything, [participation] is continuing to increase here in the state or in Mexico, in general…Mexico loves football. Loves American football.”

Sports became a path to “re-masculinize Mormon men” after the demise of polygamy.

Football, more than any other sport with possible exception of boxing, has historically been a measure of masculinity. But unlike boxing, whose participants mostly come from lower social classes, football cuts across class divides. This wide spectrum of participation becomes clear when considering that, for the first 44 years of college football, the national champions were all Ivy League teams.

Not incidentally, the rise of football’s popularity coincides with Muscular Christianity, a religious movement that originated in Britain then came to the United States and emerged, from the late 19th century and into the early 20th, as a way of reaffirming masculinity during the Victorian culture.

American Protestants worried their religion and churches had grown effeminate, and since relative peace eliminated serious wars—the usual method of affirming masculinity—sports were a way out of society’s perceived over-feminization. Like Protestantism, but for different reasons, Mormonism also faced its own questions of masculinity.

In the late 1800s, Wilford Woodruff, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, pushed for social respectability while officially renouncing polygamy, even excommunicating anyone with more than one wife. Sports became a path to “re-masculinize Mormon men” after the demise of polygamy. Inspired by its Protestant counterpart, this movement was later called Muscular Mormonism, and football was among the sports to “save” manhood.

In the discussion over safety in football, it’s easy to find those arguing the sport’s supposed demise signals something grave about manhood, and even the country. Some concept of manhood will seemingly always need saving. Despite all the prophesized end of football, we’ll likely never see the sport fully disappear—even if its rules don’t drastically change. We underestimate what being a man means across various cultures, and the lengths some men will go through to prove that label. This is a different argument than the future of the NFL. This is about football as a sport and questions of identity.

What it means to be Mormon, or white, or a Latino Mormon, or a football fan, or a man are all answered at a personal level.

How we identify ourselves, gets complicated the more layers we add. What it means to be Mormon, or white, or a Latino Mormon—the fastest growing membership demographic—or a football fan, or a man are all answered at a personal level.

I asked Lance Romney how he identified. He is, after all, a member of a religion with a complicated history both in the United States and in Mexico. In the United States, a full understanding of his religion is hampered by myths. In Mexico, Romney speaks fluent English and Spanish, has fair skin, light-colored hair and eyes which stand out from his community. He, like other members born and raised in the community, essentially sees himself as a Mexican-American living on the southern side of the United States-Mexico border.

“I’ve been raised to love both cultures, to love both traditions,” Romney said. “American Christmases and Mexican Christmases, we still celebrate the American holidays and we celebrate the Mexican holidays…We take the best of both worlds and combine them.”

This combining of two worlds has led Romney to not just play but coach football; a sport whose popularity rises in one of his worlds while it declines in another. And like with many things in a browning society, football’s future in North American may rest with Latinos.