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Spring 2011

Exploring Uncharted Territory: An Introduction to the History of Sport Among U.S. Latinos

Professor Jorge Iber co-authors a book detailing the influence of sport and recreation on the lives of Latinos/as.

by Danielle Dunn

Latinos in U.S. Sports: A History of Isolation, Cultural Identity, and Acceptance

"My advisor in graduate school always told me that you should 'Hit 'em where they ain't,' meaning that a researcher should always look for gaps in historical literature."

That is exactly what Texas Tech University's Jorge Iber, history professor and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (Student Division), tells his undergraduate and graduate students in regard to research topics for course papers.

Iber follows his mentor's advice as well, as he has recently co-authored a book detailing the influence of sport and recreation on the lives of Latinos/as titled, "Latinos in U.S. Sports: A History of Isolation, Cultural Identity, and Acceptance." The book details the most complete effort of research on this topic to date.

Along with Iber, three other historians worked on the book, including Samuel O. Regalado, Jose Alamillo and Arnoldo De Leon. The book will be released in April 2011.

The Journey to Completing this Project

A Cuban native, Iber received his doctorate in history from the University of Utah and credits a professor from graduate school for helping spark his interest in the field of sport history. During his time in graduate school, this mentor helped Iber dive into literature concerning the role of sport in the lives of various minority groups in the U.S. including African Americans, Jews and Native Americans.

As Iber plowed through these works, the lack of information pertaining to the historical role of sport in the lives of Mexican Americans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans and other Spanish-speakers in the U.S. soon became evident. Also, he noticed that much of the research that did exist, written primarily by academics in the field of health education, contained very negative and stereotypical notions about the Hispanic population's physical and intellectual capabilities.

"I specifically think that it's very necessary to think about what physical education instructors and educators were saying about the capabilities and limitations of individual groups in the 1920s," Iber said.

For example, Iber discovered a variety of theses and dissertations by 1920s educators, who argued that Mexican-Americans could not be high school football coaches because they lacked the intellectual capability to manage abstract constructs.

Roughly four years ago, an editor from Human Kinetics, a leading publisher of books about sport and kinesiology, approached Iber about writing a text on the subject of sport and Latinos/as during a conference of the North American Society for Sports History held at Texas Tech.

Iber agreed to take on the project and soon began working alongside his three colleagues in this undertaking. The book covers a period of more than 500 years, beginning in the early 16th century through 2010. Each chapter chronicles a different aspect of the influence of sport on the lives and societies of Spanish-speakers in Spain, Mexico and later on in the United States.

The first two chapters focus on the history of the blending of sport and culture in Spain and Mexico from 1500 to the late 1800s. These chapters examine games, sports and entertainment activities that were important during this time period. Later chapters document the early participation of Latinos/as in American sport and recreation and the impact of athletic pursuits on daily life in the barrios of the U.S. during the years of the Great Depression and World War II. The book then continues with an examination of the significance of athletic success and participation during the years of the Chicano Movement and on to the present time.

Iber's book profiles key Latino/a athletes including tennis player Pancho Gonzalez, baseball legend Roberto Clemente, and professional golfers Nancy Lopez and Chi Chi Rodriguez. These athletes were chosen not only because of their success at the professional level, but also because of the significance of their activities away from the court, baseball diamond and golf course. The book also details the early participation of U.S. Latinos/as in international athletic competitions such as the Olympics and Pan-American Games.

Impacting Future Generations

Iber said he believes it is very important to document and record the history of sport in the lives of U.S.-based Latinos/as because it is a rarely explored facet of this group's individual and community existence.

"It's a big deal, and I'll tell you why. For the longest time, many historians argued that there was no need to write about Mexican-Americans or other Hispanic groups because their story was not really important," Iber said. "That debate was settled by the late 1960s and early 1970s, and people came to realization that yes, this is a viable, vibrant and important field."

The history of sport in other cultures has been critically examined in the past, and Iber firmly believes that it is just as important to examine that aspect among Hispanics. He said historians have researched a variety of aspects that pertain to the Hispanic history, but it is time to expand their research to a new topic.

"For many years historians have written about the labor, political and religious history of such ethnic groups. Now it is time for the historical literature to encompass a new topic: sports," he said. "If it is critical to examine this history for other populations, why should its role be ignored when writing the history of Latinos?"

As a professor of various history courses at Texas Tech, Iber argued that the inclusion of sport helps students gain an understanding of serious topics such as racial and gender discrimination, but within a framework that most young people are already interested in.

"One of the things that I've come to realize, especially when teaching sports history classes here at Texas Tech, is that I can get across a lot of the themes dealing with race, class and gender issues that students might not be particularly thrilled about in a regular history class," Iber said. "I can get those themes across using sport as the topic, and the kids really eat it up."

Jorge Iber

Jorge Iber has an immigrant's love for the United States. His persona clearly reflects the personality of his native Cuba: casual in manner, sporting a colorful purple shirt and acting like he has all the time in the world for a friendly chat.

But Iber has another serious side: that of a scholar who has applied the thinking of a historian not just to his work but also to his life. He was only 6-years-old when his family left Cuba. Both of his parents worked in factories in Miami, while Iber worked hard at becoming a Hispanic version of Horatio Alger. "The reason I drive myself is because I'm an immigrant," he said. "I'm a very motivated individual... I have no qualms about competing."

For Iber and his wife, America is a land full of possibilities. Showing off a framed photo of his son, an adopted 9-year-old Korean boy, he notes: "Imagine a Korean living with two Cuban Americans in West Texas. In no other country could you have done this."

Iber's work focuses on Mexican American and Latino history, as well as Southwest and U.S. sports history. He is still interested in all of these research areas, but finds himself increasingly drawn to "individuals who come from humble backgrounds... but who through luck and pluck achieve great things."

He is currently conducting research on the career and social significance of E.C. Lerma, one of the first Mexican American high school football coaches in the state of Texas.

When asked about his teaching philosophy, Iber said he tries to give students "opportunity and possibility," and to teach them to "never sell themselves short."

"Don't ever let anyone tell you that because your last name ends with a 'z' you're not as good as anyone else," he said.

Danielle Dunn is an intern for the Office of Academic and Research Communications. She is an undergraduate student in the College of Mass Communications at Texas Tech University.

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Nov 24, 2015