The emergence and development of modern sport
in Latin America: the North American influence
Joseph L. Arbena

http://www.efdeportes.com/ Revista Digital - Buenos Aires - Año 5 - N° 24 - Agosto de 2000

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     Based on these limited observations, we might offer a few general conclusions about why some sports originating in the United States were accepted in some places but not other sports and not in other places, and with what consequences. As noted above, for the first transfers proximity to the US itself and a larger pattern of interaction with US society seem to have been influential factors. In addition, the frequency of travelers in both directions raised the likelihood of sports diffusion. More recently, global media has increased contacts and offered at least a greater chance for borrowing. And however powerful the Yankee society and economy, some of this transfer came with the encouragement and approval of Latin Americans themselves. Fifth, sports diffusion from the US to Latin America has carried more than just the playing of different games; it has implied in part the transfer of certain attitudes and values. Last, we can tentatively assert that, if only in unbalanced proportions, the influence has been mutual in human, cultural, and economic terms.

     Except in specific cases, it is often difficult to determine if in Latin America aspects of the evolving sports culture, as opposed to the sports themselves, were imported from Europe or North America-and if so, from which; were consciously imitated by Latin America innovators; or resulted naturally from the modernization of the sports structure within the larger national and international context. For example, what provoked the creation of such journalistic institutions as Argentina's El Gráfico or Brazil's Placar? Much, obviously, remains to be researched.

     As I have written elsewhere, and as Guttmann has likewise concluded, while observable extrinsic features of sports are always important, we must not ignore those intrinsic qualities that make certain sports so appealing to certain populations: required skill levels and intelligence, body coordination, internal rhythm and harmony, movement of the ball and other implements, colorfulness of the performance package, etc.40 There are some things in life that we do simply because we enjoy them, "things we love [because] they make us feel alive, arouse our deepest sentiments, and make us laugh and cry."41

     In short, we must avoid getting too rigidly enmeshed in the pursuit of theory, at the risk of taking ourselves too seriously and of losing touch with the truly human in us all. Mario Vargas Llosa, for example, concludes that the problem in trying to intellectualize sport is that "reality overtakes theory." For while theories are rational and logical, "in society and individual behavior, unreason, the unconscious and pure spontaneity will always play a part."42 Ariel Dorfman advises that "if you reduce everything to politics and ideology, you end up totalizing, squeezing the mystery out of life and explaining away too easily what at times has no explanation...43 Jorge Valdano and Eduardo Galeano likewise both warn that soccer-and I extend this to all sport-may be ruined by the pseudo-scientists who fail to understand its emotional reality and threaten to destroy it with excessive seriousness, ultimately producing boredom44.

     I end with the insightful words of one of the leading novelists of our generation, Paulo Coelho, who counsels us that "One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving."45 That is certainly true of people and, I suggest, may at least in part be true of sports as well.


  1. Joseph L. Arbena, "Sports," pp. 171-175 in Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, Vol. 5, ed. Barbara A. Tenenbaum (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1996); Francisco López Izquierdo, Los toros del nuevo mundo (1492-1992) (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1992); Ricardo M. Llanes, Canchas de pelotas y reñideros de antaño (Buenos Aires: Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1981).

  2. Allen Guttmann, From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978).

  3. Joseph L. Arbena, "Sport in Latin America and the Caribbean," pp. 463-466 in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Latin America and the Caribbean, eds. Simon Collier, et al. (2nd ed.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

  4. William H. Beezley, Judas at the Jockey Club and Other Episodes of Porfirian Mexico (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987).

  5. For a summary of Vasconcelos' ideas and those of other Mexicans, see Joseph L. Arbena, "Sport, Development, and Mexican Nationalism, 1920-1970", Journal of Sport History, 18:3 (1991), 350-364. For a general overview of Mexican physical education and its role in shaping the social structure, see Luis López Cabrera, et al., "Ensayo histórico de la educación física en México," pp. 1095-1112 in Geschichte der Leibesübungen, Vol. 6: Perspektiven des Weltsports, ed. Horst Ueberhorst (Berlin: Bartels & Wernitz, 1989).

  6. César Viale, El deporte argentino (contribución a su desarrollo y prosperidad) (Buenos Aires: Librería de A. García Santos, 1922) and La educación física obligatoria impulsaría la grandeza nacional (Buenos Aires: Talleres Gráficos de la Penitenciaria Nacional, 1924); Próspero G. Alemandri, Moral y deporte (2nd ed.; Buenos Aires: Librería del Colegio, 1937).

  7. Matthew G. Shirts, "Futebol no Brasil ou Football in Brazil?" pp. 87-99 in Futebol e cultura. Coletanea de estudos, eds. José Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy and José Sebastião Witter (São Paulo: IMESP/DAESP, 1982); Lincoln Allison, "Association Football and the Urban Ethos," pp. 203-228 in Manchester and São Paulo: Problem of Rapid Urban Growth, eds. John D. Wirth and Robert L. Jones (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1978).

  8. Victor Andrade de Melo, "Posibles representaciones sobre el turf en la sociedad carioca del siglo XIX", Lecturas: Educación Física y Deportes, 3:9 (1998); Julio Frydenberg, "Prácticas y valores en el proceso de popularización del fútbol, Buenos Aires 1900-1910", Entrepasados: Revista de Historia, VI:12 (1997), 7-27.

  9. Amy Bushnell, "'That Demonic Game': The Campaign to Stop Pelota Playing in Spanish Florida, 1675-1684", The Americas, XXXV:I (July 1978), 1-19; Elliott J. Gorn and Warren Goldstein, A Brief History of American Sports (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993).

  10. To avoid an excess of words and possibly awkward constructions, in the context of this paper I am applying the term American to things associated with the United States.

  11. Benjamin G. Rader, Baseball: A History of America's Game (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992); John P. Rossi, The National Game: Baseball and American Culture (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000); Jules Tygiel, Past Time: Baseball As History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

  12. Peter Levine, A.G. Spalding and the Rise of Baseball: The Promise of American Sport (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); William Schell, "Lions, Bulls, and Baseball: Colonel R.C. Pate and Modern Sports Promotion in Mexico", Journal of Sport History, 20:3 (Winter 1993), 259-275.

  13. The most detailed and comprehensive survey of Cuban baseball history is found in Roberto González Echevarría, The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). Greater focus on just the origins of baseball and its connection to emerging Cuban national identity and eventual struggle for independence from Spain is provided by the same author in "Literature, Dance, and Baseball in the Last Cuban Fin de Siecle", South Atlantic Quarterly, 95:2 (Spring 1996), 365-384 and by Louis A. Pérez, Jr., "Between Baseball and Bullfighting: The Quest for Nationality in Cuba, 1868-1898", The Journal of American History, 81:2 (September 1994), 493-517. Pérez expands his impressions of the place of baseball in Cuban society in On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999). Two recent and equally stimulating pictures are provided in Mark Rucker and Peter C. Bjarkman, Smoke: The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball (Kingston, NY: Total Sports Illustrated, 1999) and Milton H. Jamail, Full Count: Inside Cuban Baseball (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000).

  14. Samuel O. Regalado, Viva Baseball! Latin Major Leaguers and Their Special Hunger (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998).

  15. Paula J. Pettavino, "Novel Revolutionary Forms: The Use of Unconventional Diplomacy in Cuba," pp. 373-403 in Cuba: The International Dimension, eds. Georges Fauriol and Eva Loser (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1990).

  16. Paula J. Pettavino and Geralyn Pye, Sport in Cuba: A Diamond in the Rough (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994).

  17. Tom Verducci, "The Power of Pedro", Sports Illustrated, 92:13 (March 27, 2000), 54.

  18. Alan M. Klein, Sugarball: The American Game, the Dominican Dream (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991); Rob Ruck, The Tropic of Baseball: Baseball in the Dominican Republic (Westport, CT: Meckler, 1991).

  19. Peter C. Bjarkman, Baseball with a Latin Beat: A History of the Latin American Game (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1994).

  20. See Alan M. Klein, "Baseball as Underdevelopment: The Political-Economy of Sport in the Dominican Republic", Sociology of Sport Journal, 6:2 (June 1989), 95-112.

  21. See González Echevarría, Pride of Havana, on Cuba and Klein, Sugarball, on the Dominican Republic.

  22. Silvia Spitta, Between Two Waters: Narratives of Transculturation in Latin America (Houston: Rice University Press, 1995).

  23. Urbano Fernández, "La leyenda viviente de Chocolate", Cuba Internacional, XIII:139 (June 1981), 48-51.

  24. On Dempsey's popularity in Mexico, see Richard V. McGehee, "The Dandy and the Mauler in Mexico: Johnson, Dempsey, et al., and the Mexico City Press, 1919-1927", Journal of Sport History, 23:1 (Spring 1996), 20-33.

  25. Luis Amador de Gama, ed., Historia gráfica del fútbol americano en México, I: 1936-1945 (México, D.F.: Olmeca Impresiones Finas, 1982).

  26. An expression of that continuing Mexican interest is the magazine Yarda 50: La Revista del Futbol Americano de México which began publication in 1999; issue no. 3 (p. 10) carries an article by Marely Marín on 'Futbol Americano Femenil."

  27. Francisco Ponce, "Qué horror, caray," Proceso, 1184 (July 11, 1999), 76.

  28. Mario Longorio, Athletes Remembered: Mexicano/Latino Professional Football Players, 1929-1970 (Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Press, 1997).

  29. Buenos Aires Herald (August 3, 1997), 21.

  30. James Naismith, Basketball: Its Origin and Development (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996 [1941]).

  31. Jay R. and Joan D. Mandle, Caribbean Hoops: The Development of West Indian Basketball, Vol. 8 in Caribbean Studies (Langhorne, PA: Gordon and Breach, 1994).

  32. John Bale, The Brawn Drain: Foreign Student-Athletes in American Universities (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1991). On the larger pattern of athletic talent migration, see John Bale and Joseph Maguire, eds., The Global Sports Arena: Athletic Talent Migration in an Interdependent World (London: Frank Cass, 1994); specific chapters on the Latin American involvement in this process are authored by Alan Klein and Joseph Arbena.

  33. Grant Wahl, "One Tough Hombre," Sports Illustrated, 92:3 (January 24, 2000), 60-63; John Gustafson, "Mas macho," ESPN: The Magazine, 3:3 (February 7, 2000), 94-97.

  34. For examples, see Richard Brunelli, "This Dunkin' Dominican Stands Tall," Caribbean Travel & Life, 15:2 (2000), 86-87 and Steve Wulf, "Special Delivery," Sports Illustrated, 82:2 (January 16, 1995), 48-56.

  35. Michael Bamberger, "Sand Blast", Sports Illustrated, 87:12 (September 22, 1997), 50-51. In Argentina, the beach variety has also made some progress; see, Julio Chiappetta, "Arena, sol y juego", Noticias de la Semana (January 10, 1993), 144-145.

  36. Sources, though not all scholarly, on professional wrestling in Mexico include Blue Demon: Memorias de una máscara (México, D.F.: Clío, 1999), Rafael Olivera Figueroa, Memorias de la lucha libre (México, D.F.: Costa-Amic Editores, 1999), and Heather Levi, "Sport and Melodrama: The Case of Mexican Professional Wrestling", Social Text, 15:1 (Spring 1997), 57-68.

  37. Jorge Saraví Riviere, Aportes para una historia de la educación física, 1900 a 1945 (Buenos Aires: IEF Nº1, 1998); quote from p. 69. On the YMCA's role in Mexican sport, see Maurice A. Clay, "Sport and Physical Education in Mexico," pp. 405-423 in Sport and Physical Education Around the World (Champaign, IL: Stipes Publishing Co., 1980). The importance of travel in both directions in the diffusion of modern sports throughout Latin America is stressed in Richard V. McGehee, "The Impact of Imported Sports on the Popular Culture of Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Mexico and Central America," pp. 85-111 in Strange Pilgrimages: Exile, Travel, and National Identity in Latin America, 1800-1990s, eds. Ingrid E. Fey and Karen Racine (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2000).

  38. Joseph L. Arbena, "Sports Language, Cultural Imperialism, and the Anti-Imperialist Critique in Latin America", Studies in Latin American Popular Culture, 14 (1995), 129-141. See also Arbena, "Sport and Sport Themes in Latin American Literature: A Sampler" Arete: The Journal of Sport Literature, V:1 (Fall 1987), 143-159.

  39. For an implicit commentary on the 'brutalization' of Colombian Spanish as a result of the spread of baseball jargon, see Roberto Montes Mathieu, "El cuarto bate" pp. 29-38 in El Cuarto Bate (Bogotá: Plaza & Janes, 1985).

  40. Allen Guttmann, Games and Empires: Modern Sports and Cultural Imperialism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994); Joseph L. Arbena, "History of Latin American Sports: The End Before the Beginning?" Sporting Traditions, 16:1 (November 1999), 23-31; Joseph L. Arbena, "Meaning and Joy in Latin American Sports," International Review for the Sociology of Sport (2000), forthcoming.

  41. Juan Sasturain, "Desde el túnel," in El día del arquero (Buenos Aires: Ediciones de la Flor, 1986), p. 5.

  42. Mario Vargas Llosa, Making Waves, ed. and trans. John King (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), p. 167.

  43. Ariel Dorfman, Heading South, Looking North: A Bilingual Journey (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), p. 259.

  44. Jorge Valdano, Los cuadernos de Valdano (Madrid: Aguilar, 1997), pp. 23-24; Eduardo Galeano, El fútbol a sol y sombra (Montevideo: Ediciones del Chanchito, 1995).

  45. Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist: A Story About Following Your Dream, trans. Alan R. Clarke (New York: HarperFlamingo, 1998 [1988, 1993], p. 123.

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