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Chivas de Guadalajara gives fans a sense of home

SOCCER

For many of its followers, Chivas is more than just a soccer team. It's a symbol of Mexican identity that helps ease their homesickness.

August 08, 2009|Kevin Baxter

Juan San Juan emigrated from the mountains of Jalisco more than 40 years ago and has spent most of his life in Southern California. And though he started a restaurant and raised a family in the U.S., he never planned to stay.

"My dream was to go back to my hometown. Always," he says. "But then I realized my kids, being born over here, were not going to move."

So San Juan brought a little bit of Jalisco to Huntington Park instead, opening Gloria's, a Mexican restaurant that features strolling mariachis and, most important, shows every Chivas de Guadalajara soccer game on its eight TVs.

"Chivas is part of Mexican life," he says. "I couldn't be Mexican without loving Chivas. It would be like a margarita without tequila. Chivas is part of the history of Mexico."

He's not the only one who feels that way. Chivas, long the most popular sports franchise in Mexico, has recently spread its reach across the border, adding to its vast following. Today, Chivas de Guadalajara will tap into that U.S. fan base when it plays FC Barcelona in a friendly in San Francisco.

For many of its followers, Chivas is more than just a soccer team. It's a symbol of Mexican identity that helps ease their homesickness.

"To us Mexicans, it's our roots. Right here, it's Chivas," the 59-year-old San Juan says, putting his hand over his heart. "It's a landmark."

Yet it's a love only partly inspired by Chivas' 103-year history and its 11 national titles. What draws most fans to Chivas is its roster. Because while other successful Mexican soccer teams -- archrival America of Mexico City, Pachuca, Mexico's oldest franchise, and even the Mexican national team -- use foreign-born players, Chivas remains all Mexican.

"Chivas is so popular because it reflects Mexican soccer. It's not one of those teams that's half foreign," says Adrian Gutierrez, a Mexican immigrant, while watching a Chivas game at the bar in Gloria's.

And to make sure it stays that way millionaire businessman Jorge Vergara, who bought Chivas in 2002, added a clause to the team's bylaws that forbids it from ever signing a non-Mexican.

"That's a very profound thing for the Mexican fans," he says.

While the fans' passion for Chivas is legendary in Guadalajara, it's a relatively recent phenomenon on this side of the border.

In part, it's tied to immigration patterns as the United States' Mexican-born population more than doubled since 1990. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, more than one of every 10 persons born in Mexico now lives here.

Yet longtime residents say their passion for Chivas has actually intensified as other ties to Mexico have withered.

"When you come to a [new] country, you have to adopt certain things," says Gutierrez, wearing a black Raiders cap. "But I still don't forget certain things about my country. And one of them is Chivas."

As a result, everything from English-language websites and blogs to chat rooms and fan clubs devoted to Chivas have sprung up in the U.S. A year ago the NBC-owned Telemundo network paid millions for the exclusive rights to broadcast Chivas games in the U.S.

And with Chivas scheduled to move into a new state-of-the-art stadium in December, the club says it has already sold seats to fans in New York and New Jersey.

"I feel like there's more love for the team here than in Mexico," bartender Norma Flores says after handing Gutierrez another beer. "[In Guadalajara] they have the chance, the opportunity to see them. But there are few chances here."

One of those chances came last January, when Chivas played before a raucous sellout crowd in Carson, home to its Major Soccer League affiliate, Chivas USA.

"It's amazing when we travel and see how many people are following Chivas," says former Chivas de Guadalajara forward Carlos Ochoa, who played high school and college soccer in the San Gabriel Valley. "It was very impressive [to see so many fans] in Los Angeles."

Impressive but not surprising. "Chivas is the most popular team, the team that everyone is watching, the team that all the other teams want to be," Ochoa says. "Chivas has millions of fans, all over [Mexico] and outside the country too."

Two of those fans are Victor and Marta Castaneda of West Covina, Guadalajara natives who have lived nearly half their lives here. In their house, devotion to the team takes on a religious zeal, with space dedicated to a Chivas shrine featuring jerseys and other artifacts. And while Marta wears a medal of Mexico's patron saint, the Virgen de Guadalupe, around her neck, Victor wears a Chivas medallion around his.

Both say they understand Chivas' hold on fans in Southern California. "Eighty percent of the fans that we have here, soccer fans, are for Chivas," says Victor, who discovered having the Chivas decal on the back of his truck is a good way to make new friends.

"Everybody is like, 'Hey, you're with Chivas?' Even people that I don't know," he says. "We click together just by being [for] Chivas."

Back in his restaurant, with Chivas banners in the bar and the Chivas clock hanging behind the cash register, San Juan slides into a booth.

"Nostalgia is one of the most powerful things that grabs your heart," he says. "I need more of Mexican life. And Chivas is part of Mexican life.

"There's Chivas, mariachis and tequila. It's just that simple."

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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