Fandom reaches a different level
COMMERCE, Calif. -- The beating of the drums begins before kickoff, and the trumpeters quickly join in. A few among the four dozen gathered for Club America's battle with its hated rival jump up and down with the beat, and the swell swiftly lures in the rest.
They pump their fists, wave their flags, thrust their scarves and serenade their heroes.
Vamos vamos Azulcremas
Vamos a ganar
Que esta hinchada
Yo te sigo a todas partes
A donde vas
Cada vez te quiero mas
For all their fervor, they could be at Estadio Jalisco, doing their best to lift America in its Super Clasico showdown with Chivas. But they're here, in a small, brick-and-concrete backyard of this tidy home in a modest Commerce neighborhood pinned between rail yards.
There's a small, flat-screen television in the corner flanked by massive, blue banners -- one with Che Guevara's visage and slogan "Hasta la victoria," the other with their name, LA16, 10 stars to represent America's 10 Mexican futbol league championships and the initials PTE: "Presente."
They are L.A. Monumental 16, Los Angeles' foremost Club America "crew." They always are presente, if not in the stadium -- and they are, when America ventures north of the border -- then in somebody's backyard. Singing and chanting, jumping and dancing, beating the drums, blowing the trumpets, waving the flags.
It's more than it seems, much more than just a fan club, than a supporters' group, and the culture surrounding it and other Mexican soccer clubs' "crews" in Southern California is rich in its depth, its ritual, its iconography. And make no mistake, the rivalries among crews can get ugly: fighting, thieving, even death threats.
The members of L.A. Monumental 16 -- the number signifies the year Club America was founded, 1916 -- are largely Mexican immigrants, mostly those who came to Los Angeles as children or teens, or the offspring of immigrants. They cross generations and gender and are united by one thing: an all-encompassing love of a team.
"It's a way of living," says Edson Reynoso, 28, who has been with "Monu" since it started eight years ago. "I'm there for my team. I die for my team. I'll follow my team to my death."
The sentiment is written on the faces of every one of the four dozen who have gathered to celebrate, more so than watch, the Mexico City giant's effort in North America's biggest rivalry -- soccer or otherwise.
And it's on a lot of their shirts:
"Amor suicida" -- "suicidal love": crazy love, a love to the death.
"La Monumental: Por America vivo por La Monu muero" -- "America for life, Monu until death."
"It's love for the team," Reynoso explains. "Go to Mexico City, there's lots of groups called the same as us. It's beautiful to go to the stadium and actually cheer on your team, giving your team the strength, the confidence. Letting them know lose or win, we're going to be there."
That Los Angeles has such committed aficionados of Mexican clubs isn't news. There are as many as 7 million Mexicans and Americans of Mexican descent in Southern California, where the favored teams, along with the Dodgers, Lakers and Raiders, are America and, yes, its archrival.
It's love for the team. Go to Mexico City, there's lots of groups called the same as us. It's beautiful to go to the stadium and actually cheer on your team, giving your team the strength, the confidence. Letting them know lose or win, we're going to be there.” -- Edson Reynoso, Club America fan
Chivas' hard-core L.A. fans are organized as Legion 1906, a stem from the Guadalajara club's primary crew. Monu isn't officially affiliated with the Mexico City crew of the same name, but its passion and allegiance rivals that of the original.
"No matter where the team plays, no matter where they're at, we're watching live or on TV," says David Popo, 38, of Huntington Park and one of Monu's drummers. "We show the same passion when we're watching the match at somebody's home as if we were watching them live.
"I've taken friends, regular fans, told them: 'Let's watch at my friends' house; you're going to meet a lot of people.' What they expect is a lot of people will show up, sit down, have a beer, watch the game and discuss what happens in the game.
"They never expect what they see: the atmosphere, the environment, how we live it, how truly passionate we live the game. It's like we're there, in the stadium. It's overwhelming when people see that."
From humble beginnings
Monu, which has nearly 400 members, traces its roots to a June 29, 2002, friendly between America's Aguilas, or Eagles, and Buenos Aires' River Plate at the L.A. Coliseum. One group of America fans, just a handful of them, spent the game on their feet, singing and waving flags.
The man they call "Padrino," or "Godfather" -- he asked his name not be revealed because there's a bounty on his head related to his fandom -- liked what he saw. He'd grown up in Mexico City, had followed America from childhood and was at the game with his wife and children. Before the final whistle, he made his way down to the group and collected phone numbers.
After America's next L.A. appearance a year later against Manchester United at the Coliseum, "We started having meetings, always a few people," says his wife, who goes by "La Madrina." "We'd meet at the Coliseum. Sometimes just two or three people."
Sometimes it was just Padrino and Reynoso.
"We'd be sitting in the parking lot, 'What are we going to do now? I don't know,'" says Padrino, now 36. "Two guys sitting in a parking lot: 'Have something to say? No.' But it has to start somewhere."
Padrino started producing fliers, approached people he saw on the street wearing America's yellow and blue jersey. He sought out other America fans at matches -- the Aguilas usually make at least one appearance in California each year -- slowly pulling more people in.
"Some of them would come to us [at the games] and say, 'How do we join?'" says his wife, 35. "They'd like to be part of the fan club."
Money was raised, by selling America and Monu T-shirts and scarves and the like, to purchase drums and horns, flags and material to make banners, and the group started a MySpace page that attracted others, such as Popo, into the fold.
Moses Aguirre, an America fan since seeing, as a child in Guerrero, Mexico, the 1988 title game win over crosstown rival Pumas UNAM, found Monu "by fate."
"One day walking back to my apartment, coming home from work, I noticed some guys wearing shirts and scarves -- they looked like America fans," Aguirre says. "I was very naive about Monu -- I noticed them, and as soccer fans, you always try to give those with like mind a nod or thumbs-up."
They were headed to a small Monu gathering at another apartment in Aguirre's building, and they swapped numbers. The first time he joined them for a game, "I was thinking something more casual, not something so alive and vivid."
Popo joined the group as it was planning a bus trip to Stanford to see America take on Chelsea almost three years ago, and the turnout turned his expectations inside out. The group sang songs expressing its love for the club most of the drive north.
"I didn't imagine that that many people shared the same passions and love for the team that I did," he says. "And when we got to the stadium, to be able to chant and sing and cheer, to show your passion for the team, that drew me in even more.
"It's different when you see the game as a regular fan than when you actually fit in the middle of a group, and you're cheering and singing and jumping up and down. It's a totally different feeling. I fell in love with it."
America's rivalry with Chivas -- officially Club Deportivo Guadalajara -- has led to occasional trouble, fights in parking lots after matches, another in a tunnel at East L.A. College's stadium, thefts of one another's banners and so on. The hatred each side has for the other is genuine.
"I hate them with a passion. I just hate them," says 19-year-old Andy Martinez, from Bell.
Chivas is "an embarrassment to soccer," says Gustavo Moreno, 21, an L.A. native who has been with Monu almost from the start. He has seen America in Mexico City, at the mammoth Estadio Azteca, and followed the Azulcremas in 2006 to Japan, where they played in the FIFA Club World Championship. With no money for a hotel, the fans stayed outside the stadium. America players furnished their tickets.
Could he imagine being friends with a Chivas fan? "No, never," he says. "Not even my own family. I won't accept them. I'd stay away from my own family."
A favorite Monu T-shirt has Chivas' logo upside down, which is meant to disgrace the club, and X'd out in yellow. At the Super Clasico gathering in Commerce, a defaced Chivas banner was hung upside down -- a child beat it with a stick, opening a gash -- and a Chivas flag was set on fire.
There are cultural differences between the clubs. America, which has lavished huge sums on international stars, is sometimes called the "Millonarios," and it draws heavily from among Mexico City's elite. Chivas enjoys a national following among working-class fans, owing largely to its century-long policy of fielding only Mexican players and its success, with a record 11 Mexican league titles.
"America is high-class people -- they're the rich people," is how Martinez puts it. "Chivas are the town people, low-class people. It's the high-class against the low-class people."
Los Angeles, it is said, is "Chivatown." Chivas' following in SoCal, largely by millions who have immigrated from Jalisco, rivals the Dodgers' and Lakers'; it's one of the reasons club owner Jorge Vergara brought Chivas USA, the club's Major League Soccer affiliate, to L.A. rather than San Diego, Houston or Chicago.
That Chivas is more popular than America here, Monu members say, is mere myth. "It's a lie," Moreno says. Says Torres: "They're just running their mouth."
"Of every 100 people [who follow soccer in L.A.], I'd guess 25 if not more are America fans," says Hector Ramos, a native Salvadoran who says he played for Inter de Tijuana when it was an America affiliate. "We're more loyal than any other fan." "I feel actually disgusted [by Chivas]," says Aguirre, whose father roots for another Mexico City club, Cruz Azul, and tried to sway his son's passions. "But I never liked them. You can lead a horse to the river, but you can't make him drink the water."
It's worse with his mother, who's a fan of, yes, Chivas.
"Now that I'm grown," Aguirre says, "I tell them I'm glad I was born because I bettered the family."
Aguirre has a close friend who's a hard-core Chivas fan, "and I told her she had something wrong with her brain that she liked the team. And she said likewise [about me]. It was something we agreed on."
Says Popo, "There's hatred toward Chivas, the team, but I will say not so much hatred of [Chivas fans]. I know a lot of people who are Chivas fans and who belong to some of the Chivas fan clubs. Outside the stadium, they live an ordinary life. We get along great. We see each other at work, at Sunday [adult-league] games, and we talk trash to each other. That's pretty much it."
"It's a good rivalry," Aguirre agrees, "as long as it stays fair. I'm really opposed to violence. Soccer is a calm sport, and when people get out of line win or lose, it's just a game."
It gets violent on occasion, and not just with Chivas fans. Martinez says he was in front of his house wearing a Monu T-shirt when a car drove by slowly, turned around and stopped. The driver, a fan of Atlas, another Guadalajara club, demanded Martinez's shirt.
"I said, 'You want my shirt? Come get it,'" Martinez says. "He kicked me, fought me for my shirt. I gave him a beating."
Says Reynoso, "If you're walking to school, whatever, someone sees you [in an America shirt or jersey or a Monu shirt], they're going to try to take it off of you. You can fight back or run. We don't run. We'll fight back.
"We're proud of our colors. We're willing to stand up for them."
The troubles with Chivas fans are more intense.
"At the exit, we put our banners away, our instruments away, and if we see each other in the parking lot, 30 versus 30, we just throw it down," Reynoso says. "Fighting. Everybody hits everybody.
"The only way to become [hard-core] is by stealing shirts and scarves, something from [their] main crew. We bring it back home, take a picture of it upside down and put it on MySpace."
The message: "We're stronger than you. What are you going to do about it?"
Martinez tells of a "glorious night" at the Home Depot Center during the annual InterLiga tournament for Mexican clubs. "We took three of those banners," he says. "Pumas, Cruz Azul and Atlas. Yeah, a lot of fighting. A lot of fighting."
The problems with Chivas fans, La Madrina says, have existed "since the beginning, since we were forming. They would threaten our boys. Some would pretend to be Club America fans to see where we hung out."
One tried to infiltrate the club.
"When you start something new, you don't know who this person is," Padrino explains. "You welcome anyone. It happened when we played Manchester United. A guy came to us, and he would do suspicious things, like asking a lot of questions: 'Where do you meet?' 'Where do you keep your banner?' 'Where do you live?' 'Who's your leader?' Questions that when you come to us, you don't ask.
"Now we know. From that time, we close everything. If we don't know who you are, we ask you, 'Who brings you?' And the one who vouches for you, we put weight on that guy: 'Who's that guy? Who's bringing him in? Who's talking to him?'"
Monu has more trouble with a spin-off America crew, Ritual del Kaoz -- the name comes from a Mexico City crew -- than with Chivas' Legion or local crews supporting Atlas, Pumas, Santos or Morelia.
"We're based on one idea, and they have their own idea," Martinez says. "We don't really like each other's ideas."
RK, as the other club is known, split from Monu a few years ago. Monu claims its members have been threatened and provoked, that RK "hates" Padrino.
I didn't imagine that that many people shared the same passions and love for the team that I did. And when we got to the stadium, to be able to chant and sing and cheer, to show your passion for the team, that drew me in even more.” -- David Popo, America fan and member of L.A. Monumental 16
"I meet RK in the market or on the street, I walk up to them, and they just look at my face. They don't want to fight me. They know who I am."
Says La Madrina: "It's sad, because we both root for the same team. In my opinion, it's a stupidity thing."
La Madrina serves as Monu's events coordinator, working with game promoters to acquire large blocks of tickets, get the group's banners and instruments into stadiums, and let security know what to expect from rival groups. It's not always a simple task.
"We're not a club that promotes violence, that causes problems, that tries to damage stadiums," she says. "We're a fan club; we have families with children. And it was hard for them to understand, because there are fights with Legion, and the stadium sees this. And I tell them: 'We don't provoke them, but we do have to defend ourselves if they come after us.'"
Monu isn't completely innocent, she knows. There was trouble with Chivas fans when 88,000 packed the Coliseum for a Super Clasico friendly in 2005.
"One of our guys went to go take a banner from them. I told them not to go, but we can't control 200, 300 people. They went to take a banner, and [Chivas' group] found out, and after the game, five or 10 Chivas guys were coming after us."
She has tried to dissuade Monu members from confronting Chivas fans and taking their shirts.
"We try to explain to our guys that they're just regular people," she says. "'Leave them alone. Don't look for trouble. You could hurt them.' We try to promote nonviolence. Sometimes we have to explain over and over to them.
"They're young, they want to have fun, they see other clubs [here and in Mexico] having all the rivalry and not being caught, and they want to do the same thing. But it just makes things worse, because stadiums become more and more strict. At some point they will not let us take the instruments in. We try to make the guys see: 'How ridiculous would we look with no instruments, no banners, nothing?'"
Heroes and anti-heroes
America's on-the-field struggles -- the Aguilas reached the playoffs this spring for just the second time in five seasons and 10th time in 19 (there are two seasons each year: Apertura, or fall, and Clausura, or spring) -- frustrate its fans.
They believe that club officials have been interested in the team solely as a business venture since the death in 1997 of owner Emilio Azcarraga Jr., a television magnate, when America's reins were passed to his son, Emilio Azcarraga Jean.
"Everybody is unhappy; everybody is demanding the club change its directors, change its managers," Aguirre says. "We all know something is wrong."
Says Padrino: "We are being run by people that just don't know the game, that just want to make big bucks for their own benefit. I don't know why they're buying all these forwards, all these midfielders."
"We need," Aguirre says, "people who love the shirt, who will fight for the colors. Lately, we haven't had those people."
The Aguilas' hopes to contend this season were hurt when star Paraguayan forward Salvador Cabaņas, who loved the shirt and fought for the colors, was shot in the head in a restroom at a Mexico City nightspot. He survived but might never play again.
"He was a warrior, making goals on his own, dribbling by four people, just making goals you wouldn't expect one person to do," Aguirre says. "Goals that saved us, where we would tie or win at the last minute because of him.
"When I found out he was shot, the first thing through my mind was I hope he survives because of the person he is. I want him to live a good, quality life. He's a walking miracle. There's a reason behind that. It's a miracle he's alive. That's something we have to be thankful about."
Monu has other heroes: Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who was born into an America family and once, to the acclaim of Americanistas, said he'd never lower himself to play for Chivas. Yellow America shirts could be seen all over the Home Depot Center when the Chicago Fire, with Blanco the past three seasons, played the Galaxy or Chivas USA.
Another is Che Guevara, whose image adorns Monu banners, T-shirts, even one of the crew's drums.
It's about "being a rebel," Reynoso says.
"Che was someone that fought for the right cause," Popo explains. "He was a fighter, a warrior, and that's pretty much how we see ourselves. We see a lot of Che in ourselves. What we're cheering for, chanting for, jumping for, singing for, it's fighting for a good cause."
"Pretty much you'll do anything for your team," Reynoso says. "Another team, like Chivas, they'll have their crew [at the stadium], and you're there. We'll have 200 fans, and they 500 fans. ... Instead of fighting, we'll sing over them: We have more strength than their fans. We will shut them down."
America fans relish their club's status as Mexico's most hated club. A valid comparison is the Yankees; both have succeeded by spending more money on talent than other teams could, and America's string of successes in the 1980s, when five championships were won in seven seasons, rankled its rivals' followers. "People view us as the villain, and in the '80s we were one of the best teams in the hemisphere," Aguirre says. "We dominated, we won back-to-back-to-back [from 1983 to 1985], and that's really what you can say really [made] people [mad]. We have a slogan: 'We have done in 10 years what your teams haven't done in a lifetime.' People hate us."
Another America slogan: "Hate me more."
"I wear my colors on game days and live by Pico-Union, so I see plenty of people with Chivas shirts," Aguirre says. "I hear plenty of whistles and jeers. I turn around and smile: Hate me more. I say, 'I know you don't hate me because I'm beautiful, it's because my club is great. Your little club can't comprehend the greatness of mine.'
"And I just walk away."
A unique love
Chivas beats America, 1-0, its fourth win in five league meetings, but Monu takes it in stride. The jumping and singing only get stronger after the Aguilas fall behind.
"That's when you show the true passion you have for the team," Popo says. "You can't just show passion in the good times. It's in the bad times that you really show how dedicated you are. Losing isn't going to put us down -- as a matter of fact, we're going to love the team even more."
Padrino confides he devotes so much of his free time to America and L.A. Monumental 16 that he feels guilty. "Sometimes I sacrifice my family time because I love my team," he says. "I feel bad, but I have to give what I can for my team."
Popo notes that "a lot of people here not only carry the love of the team in our heart, it's branded on our skin."
He has on his right leg a tattoo of Club America's classic logo: a globe -- or soccer ball, if you prefer -- picturing North and South America in blue, a yellow "C" to the west and "A" to the east. Others have on their upper arms Monu's shield, with "LM" and the 10 stars, or "Amor Suicida" with the continents and "CA" encased in a heart.
The love is in the lyrics of every song they sing. "Vamos vamos Azulcremas, vamos a ganar " -- "We are crazy in our passion," they sing. "We follow you wherever you go. Every time I love you more."
Popo's house is decorated in America paraphernalia -- he's proudest of a wooden eagle holding America's logo in its claws -- and Reynoso has a jersey signed by the team, a Monu shirt signed by Blanco ("Gracias por el amor, a la Monumental"), autographed magazines, scarves hanging all over his bedroom.
Everyone has shirts and scarves, bracelets and sunglasses carrying America's logo, and many wear nothing but clothing identifying them as Americanistas. Monu shirts are particularly prized.
"Just because you like America doesn't give you the right to have a shirt," says Reynoso, who produces Monu-associated gear and sells it to members. "You have to earn Monu. I don't sell to anybody. You have to earn the shirt, and the only way is to have love for the team, give everything for the team, support the team, come watch the games [with the group]."
That's not all they do. They gather every weekend, game or no game; they have Halloween and Christmas parties; they celebrate birthdays. They're organizing a car wash to help a member's family in Mexico.
"We're like a big family," Reynoso says. "We are family."
His father, a Chivas fan, isn't convinced.
"He thinks I'm wasting too much time," Reynoso says. "But pretty much the reason for me working is so I can travel to watch the team." His job, he says, is solely a means to support his America habit.
And he has no regrets.
"It's something you feel," he says. "You can't let it go."