Mexico fans in L.A. cheer on team


LOS ANGELES -- The challenge facing so many in Los Angeles' Mexican community Thursday was how to do an honest day's work when something much bigger was tugging at their attention.

Mexico's hopes in the World Cup, so bright just a week earlier, had sunk in an unexpected tie with host South Africa in the tournament opener, and El Tri's clash with mighty France might not have been must-win, but it certainly was need-to-win.

And it kicked off at 11:30 a.m. L.A. time, right in the middle of the workday.

Jose Barajas' solution? A tiny little television in the tiny little shack he calls an office in his job as attendant of a parking lot just off Spring and 8th streets. He has kept one eye on the set for the past week, since the World Cup began, but today is special. And work comes first.

"I can't watch all of the games sometimes," said Barajas, who was born in Yosemite but has lived most of his life in Mexico. "Sometimes I don't have too much time."

Barajas' quandary was repeated up and down Broadway, the spine of downtown L.A.'s Mexican corridor, on Thursday. Restaurants showing the game were packed, high-tech shops with the latest television technology invited fans in to watch -- or, in one case, put a flatscreen in the doorway facing the sidewalk -- and the many unable to maneuver a two-hour lunch break wrestled with tearing themselves away from a tense contest that might determine whether their favorite team would keep alive, no matter how unlikely, its championship dream or head home a failure.

Those without access to ESPN's or Univision's telecasts or the radio play-by-play need only keep their ears open. The whoops and hollers, screams and air horns signaled all they wanted to know.

"Mexico just scored, 2-0?" one man parking in Barajas' lot asked as he forked over $5. "I could hear it all the way over here."

Indeed, it was so. Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez scored one goal and national hero Cuauhtemoc Blanco converted a late penalty kick to lead El Tri to a 2-0 victory that put them on the verge of a spot in the knockout phase of sport's most-followed event. Mexico will know its fate after Tuesday's group finale against Uruguay. A draw would be enough to send them through, a loss wouldn't necessarily end their run.

Noe Reyes, a security guard at Hill Fashion Mart on Hill Street, one block west of Broadway, couldn't imagine missing a moment, although he knew he might have to.

"My boss, he likes soccer, but he's American, he's not fanatic," said Reyes, who had rolled a good-sized TV onto the sidewalk outside his building, hooking it to the electricity with a series of extension cords. "When the boss is not here, I watch. When he comes, I turn it off."

There are sizable lunch-hour crowds at the Shrimp House on Broadway, between 3rd and 4th -- with a good-sized contingent from the nearby courts building -- and a few dozen yards north at Grand Central Public Market. There's a small set at Santo Liquor and Fine Wines, at the Broadway entrance to the market, and workers in adjacent booths craned their necks for a look. A crowd gathered at the television at the food court's seating area, and Emily Lara, who works the information desk, had the perfect view.

It's standing room on the perimeter, and not just for the Mexico game. "It's like that every day for the World Cup," she said. "Especially for the lunch-hour" game.

Marco Cortez, who operates Family Shoes on Broadway and 5th, poked his head into a neighboring store when he got the chance. He was wearing the nifty new black Mexico jersey.

"This is a big one," said Cortez, who is from Mexico City but has lived in Los Angeles for eight years. "We have to win. If we lose, that's it."

Just down the street, Rosemary Gonzalez tried to lure shoppers into the 4K Oro jewelry store. There was a TV inside, and she said the others working -- all Mexican fans -- will watch intently.

"Who's gonna win," she asked? The reply: Mexico, of course ... right? Not a chance.

"I pick Francia, 3-0." She laughed. Her family is Dominican.

Hassan Saab, who with his brother owns two clothing stores and other properties downtown, manned the floor at Blue Jeans Clothing, trying to figure out how to see the game and slowly accepting he'd have to catch it on radio.

"At our other store, we have a giant TV," said Saab, 23, who grew up in L.A. but originally is from Lebanon. "But my brother won't let me."

Saab would live. What he really was anticipating was Game 7 of the NBA Finals between the Lakers and Boston Celtics, at Staples Center, just a few miles away. The Kobe Bryant jersey on his back made his preference obvious.

"This [store] is my life 24/7, but I'm just trying to close early today," he said. "If we win, we celebrate. Especially beating Boston. Nothing's sweeter than that."

Wadih "Eddie" Mater, also from Lebanon, agreed. The manager of Fiesta El Rancho Restaurant a few blocks down Broadway, said he liked soccer, "but I don't wake up at 3 in the morning to watch. I watch when I'm awake."

His employees were decked out in Mexico gear -- Enrique Armando, manning one of the grills, wore the black jersey and tried to sneak a peak at the flatscreen in the next room -- but Mater was contemplating heading home before the Lakers game began. "If there are people in here [watching], I won't be able to leave. I'll be stuck here."

Fiesta El Rancho had a decent crowd, but Mater said it "wasn't as good as it should be. It's all the construction for lofts. We're waiting for the new tenants." At the tournament in Germany four years ago, the swarm of "people went all the way to the street."

It's nearly empty inside the St. Vincent Jewelry Center, sort of a jewelry mall with more than a dozen booths stretched out across the room. At the back is SIE Gold & Jewelry & Diamonds, and everyone was wearing a Mexico jersey or shirt and glued, mostly, to the big-screen TV. Sellers from other booths watched intently from the aisle next to the SIE stand.

SIE has a promotion: buy a piece of jewelry and get a Mexico bracelet free. But sales could wait. "Some people," sighed Betty Bermudez, who works the counter, "are not working until [the game is over]."

The ratio of Mexico jerseys to Lakers jerseys on Broadway and the surrounding streets was about 20-to-1. Jorge Rodriguez was selling knockoffs of both the new black shirt and the classic green jersey. The black went for $30, the green for $25.

"New are expensive; [the jersey from] before is cheap price," said Rodriguez, a Salvadoran who pays no attention to the game. "No fan soccer," he said in halting English. "Lakers good."

Joaquin Paz, also from El Salvador, listened to the game on radio. He was also selling jerseys, T-shirts and novelties. The big sellers: the Giovani Dos Santos, Blanco, Carlos Vela, Andres Guardado, Rafael Marquez and "Chicharito" jerseys. Also air horns, but not so much the small Mexican flags.

A crowd joined Reyes at the entrance of Hill Fashion Mart. More crammed into (and onto the sidewalk outside) Restaurant Guerrero on 8th Street, and at Guerrero Tacos a little farther down. Around the corner, at a restaurant that seems to have no name, there were at least a dozen crowded on the sidewalk. When Hernandez scored, they erupted.

Another block over, Barajas tried to see as much of the game as he could when the steady flow of cars wasn't pulling into the lot. He was able to see Eric Abidal slide into Pablo Barrera, and Blanco's penalty kick to settle things.

"Is good game, no?" said Barajas, a broad smile across his face. "They play good now. And this [game] I see almost all of."

And that's a victory for this Mexico fan.

Scott French writes the "Football, Futbol, Soccer" blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com