Joe Corona, left, battles America's Adrian Aldrete during a game… (Alfredo Estrella / AFP /…)
TIJUANA — The question bores Joe Corona. Yet it's always the first one people ask.
Is he Mexican or American?
"I always say 'both.' Because I have both cultures," says Corona, who was born in Los Angeles but raised in San Diego and Tijuana by a Mexican father and Salvadoran mother.
"I know it's a little weird but I feel part of [me] is Mexican because of my family, because I was raised in Tijuana. And American because I was raised here, went to school here."
So while others may see the hyphen in "Mexican-American" as a barrier separating the two countries, Corona sees it as a bridge linking them together. And that worldview has caused him no end of grief in his chosen career — soccer — where Mexican and American go together about as well as Hatfield and McCoy, or Republican and Democrat.
Corona's dual loyalties could be tested again if he is named Monday to the roster of the U.S. national team for crucial World Cup qualifiers this month against Costa Rica and Mexico. Not surprisingly, he's played for both the U.S. and Mexico in the past, having been called into camp for Mexico's U-22 team before making his senior debut for the U.S. in three games last year, including a friendly against Mexico in Mexico City.
There will be nothing friendly about next week's U.S.-Mexico rematch in Mexico City.
The rivalry between the U.S. and Mexico is among the fiercest in international soccer. And with both teams off to slow starts in the final round of World Cup qualifying — the U.S. lost its opener in Honduras and Mexico played Jamaica to a scoreless draw at home — the March 26 Mexico City match is crucial for both teams.
Which is why Corona wants to be there.
"That would be very special for me," the attacking midfielder says. "It's always an honor to play with the national team, whoever it's [against]. It would be very special to be a part of that, to be a part of qualifying."
It would also be a very special chance for revenge because Corona could just as easily have found himself playing for Mexico next week, had the tug of war between the countries gone differently.
His first international invitation came from the U.S., with then-national coach Bob Bradley naming Corona to a preliminary roster for a U.S. friendly 18 months ago. But Bradley was fired before the final roster was announced, so Corona accepted a call-up to training camp with Mexico's U-22 team for the 2011 Pan American Games.
When Corona didn't make the final cut for that tournament, he turned back to the U.S. and its new coach, Juergen Klinsmann. And when Klinsmann subbed in Corona for the final minute of a preliminary-round World Cup qualifier against Guatemala last October, those 60 seconds cap-tied him permanently to the U.S.
"I knew it was a great opportunity for me," Corona says. "And once I decided to go with the U.S., that's all I wanted. I'm loyal to them. I could have played with Mexico. But I always felt a little bit more support from the U.S. side."
Though Corona can no longer play for Mexico, he still plays in Mexico, starring for the Tijuana Xolos, the country's defending first-division champions. And as if his binational, bicultural allegiances weren't complicated enough, he commutes to that job from his home in San Ysidro, Calif., meaning he crosses the bridge between his two homelands as often as 14 times a week.
"It's completely distinct, his case," Javier Gandolfi, the Xolos' Argentine-born captain says. "More than anything, when there's a border there I imagine it is difficult."
So Corona has tried to blur the differences between the two cultures.
"He eats hamburgers with rice and beans that are a little bit spicy," jokes Xolos teammate Fernando Arce, who has made 43 appearances with the Mexican national team.
Whether Corona's family shares those tastes could soon be tested. Earlier this year, Klinsmann spoke highly of Corona and promised he would get his chance — and if that chance comes next week in Mexico City, Corona said he has no doubt which side his parents will be cheering for.
"Oh, they'll cheer for me," he says.