Cultures are teammates at Iowa high school

Updated: October 11, 2006, 3:56 PM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

WEST LIBERTY, Iowa -- Leaning against the football stadium's fence, watching his son make a bone-jarring tackle, Ruben Galvan looks you in the eye and reveals the truth.

"My family and I came here illegally," he says, "just like so many others."

Had Galvan followed the rules, he wouldn't be here. Nor would his son, the football captain, or his daughter, the volleyball star. If the U.S. government had its way some 25 years ago, when he and his family used falsified identification cards to cross the Mexican border into the United States, they never would have made it.

Ross Dettman for ESPN.comWest Liberty High School coach Ruben Galvan uses sports to help bridge cultures.
Galvan never would have seen Iowa, never would have become a U.S. citizen and, perhaps most importantly, never would have helped this small, blue-collar town use sports to help bridge the gap between the people of his old land and those of his new one.

"I can't imagine this town without him," says high school sophomore Mireya Salazar, who plays volleyball for Coach Galvan at West Liberty High. "Everyone -- white, Hispanic, young, old, whoever -- everyone in this town respects him."

In the past decade, Latinos have become the nation's largest ethnic minority, surpassing African-Americans. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, an estimated 700,000 Latin Americans -- 57 percent of all U.S. immigrants -- came to the States last year alone. It is estimated that, by the year 2050, one in every four Americans will be Latino.

And it's not just immigration into states like California and Texas. Lured by the promise of a safe, quiet, peaceful life, Latin Americans follow family members to states like Iowa and Nebraska, to places like West Liberty, taking up undesirable $10-an-hour jobs in meat packing plants to build new lives.

With that, they change the face of small town America. Banks are hiring bi-lingual tellers. Grocery stores stock ethnic foods. And soccer gives more traditional small-town sports like football and baseball a run for the money.

"The entire tapestry has changed," says Brian Bullis, the athletics and activities director at West Liberty High. "And sports have become a way for some of these kids to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment they might not immediately feel in the classroom."

According the U.S. Census Bureau, the arrival of Hispanics in towns like West Liberty, Denison, Ottumwa and Perry helped Iowa's Hispanic population grow 26 percent between 2000 and 2004. Denison had one Latino family in 1997. Now it has 3,000 Latinos. Ottumwa's Latin population has jumped 170 percent in the past four years. In Perry and West Liberty, there are nearly as many Hispanics in the school system as non-Hispanics.

In every one of those of towns there's someone like Galvan, now the director of parks and recreation at West Liberty, who's using sports to push for more soccer fields, more opportunities and less friction between cultures.

"His job is to get our young Hispanics to get involved, to play sports and to become part of this community," says West Liberty school superintendent Rebecca Rodocker. "It can help them grow in so many ways.

"It isn't easy -- he gets criticized by the Hispanics for being too white, he gets criticized by the white population for anything that goes wrong with the Hispanics, but he's a man who's found a way to take the very best values of both cultures. And he uses sports to pass that along to our youth."

BEST FRIENDS FOREVER

It's Friday night, three hours before the West Liberty varsity football game, and best friends Manny Gamon and Joe Yoder are buried in the middle of their pregame routine. Gamon, whose family moved to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 4, listens to a Sugarhill Gang song he downloaded from the Internet. Yoder laces his football cleats.

The pair couldn't be less stereotypical. Gamon, who speaks flawless English, reveals that if he could see any concert that night it would be country star Tim McGraw. Yoder, a tall, skinny kid with fare skin and a flat-top haircut chuckles. His dream concert is rapper 'Lil Wayne.

When they finish their work here, it's off to Subway for a pregame meal with a handful of teammates. From there, it's off to watch the first half of the JV game. Then it's game time.

Ross Dettman for ESPN.comManny Gamon, from right, and Joe Yoder don't care what other people think about their friendship. "We're best friends," says Gamon, "and that's it."
Gamon doesn't think twice about having a best friend who is white. It's all he's known since they started playing football together in the second grade. The only time it even strikes him as strange is when he and Yoder are in another town and people stare. Even that he's gotten past.

"People look at me, they look at Joe and you could just see them wondering, 'What are you doing?'" Gamon says. "I grew up walking around with my head down a lot. But I finally got to the point where I didn't care what anybody thought. We're best friends and that's it."

Not long ago, when Yoder's father was pondering the idea of accepting a job transfer to Minnesota, Yoder looked up the demographics of the town his father was considering and learned that the minority population was less than 1 percent. He told his parents he wasn't going.

"I went to prom in [a predominantly white town] last year and it was just weird," Yoder says. "It's just boring. There's no conflict, no differences between anybody. Everything is just the status quo. There's nothing or no one to learn from. And I don't like that. This is what I'm used to."

What he's used to is a town where, at least for kids, skin color has become almost a non-issue. The homecoming queen, Roxana Sanchez, is dating one of Gamon's white teammates, football player Lenny Larson. Larson's sister Lilian just had a baby with Mireya Salazar's brother Mario.

If anything, some Hispanic parents are growing increasingly frustrated that their teenage children are becoming too Americanized. They're playing American sports, they're eating American food and they're speaking Spanish with an American accent.

"I'll say something in Spanish with an accent and my mom will start yelling, 'Talk like you know how to talk,'" says Salazar, who considers herself Mexican-American. "But she doesn't understand. We just want to bridge both of our cultures together."

CHANGING A CULTURE

Drive the streets of West Liberty today and it looks nothing like the Norman Rockwell-like town of the past. The sign above the front door of the Iowa State Bank and Trust Company building reads, "Buelitos Mexican American Food." Around the corner, the American Legion Building butts up against the Acapulco Mexican Bakery and Grocery. Down the street from there, on a flashing red message board, the West Liberty State Bank proclaims that it is, "Miembro, FDIC."

Ross Dettman for ESPN.comIn a sign of the times of a changing influence in this Midwest town, the former Iowa State Bank and Trust building in West Liberty is now home to Buelitos, a restaurant that serves Mexican-American food.
They are changes, for the most part, this town has accepted. But it's the Americanization of the Hispanic culture that some Latinos find troubling.

And it's Galvan, the West Liberty High girl's volleyball coach, who is often times at the center of such controversy. He's been criticized for being too white, yet has been discriminated against for being Hispanic.

When a players need to go home to take his or her parents to the doctor and help translate, or in some other way make life easier for his or her family, Galvan urges them to find a translator to help their mom and dad and take care of themselves. It's often an unpopular stance.

"Parents get upset with me for that," he says. "But that's what I believe. Family is a great thing. It's a very important part of our culture. But what gets you along in life is getting involved. Not always working.

"People say they want to be Americanized, but then, oh no, now you're too American? It doesn't make any sense."

As the youngest of 11, Galvan says he can relate to just about anyone in West Liberty. He, too, attended West Liberty High, and sat in front of many of the same teachers his students now do. He, too, is raising a pair of Mexican-American teenagers in the middle of Iowa. He, too, loves soccer, loves Mexican food, but at the same time has a passion for American football and wrestling.

A few years ago, after Galvan became a U.S. citizen, one of his former high school teachers, Mr. Austin, stopped him before the presidential election.

"He simply said it would be an honor to go and vote alongside me," Galvan says. "I'm not exactly sure we voted for the same guy, but it was touching."

Galvan is one of the few people in this town who can walk up to a fight between teenagers of any background and, without even saying a word, have it stop. His players say he's difficult, demanding, but also hilarious. When he used to coach the boys' soccer team, he responded to one referee's threat of a yellow card by saying, "Well, what I really could use is a green card." He laughed. The referee didn't. And Galvin was given the yellow.

Ross Dettman for ESPN.comThough they all wear the same blue uniforms, the names and faces on West Liberty's football team reflect the town's diversity.
But to understand the effect one man and his undying love for sports and his culture have had on this community is to see the faces of the West Liberty football players last month when Galvan played host for a full Mexican spread, complete with flautas and tamales. Or to listen to the Asian, white and Hispanic girls on his volleyball team when they're one point from victory.

The team's cheer?

"Uno mas."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.