The person who gave Carlos Vela his 2019 MLS MVP award was not a league official, someone associated with Los Angeles Football Club or even someone associated with the sport of soccer.
It was Fernando Valenzuela.
And it was fitting, for while Valenzuela may not seem like the obvious choice, it was in fact the best choice, as the LAFC star was the latest Mexican sporting star to win his individual honors in his league in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles is a diverse city, featuring literally dozens of ethnicities and nationalities, from the wealthiest people to those utterly failing to make ends meet every day. But an estimated 80 percent of the Latinx population of LA is of Mexican descent, and over 6 million people in greater Los Angeles are of Mexican descent, with nearly a third of the city’s population estimated to be of Mexican descent.
In short, you don’t have to go far to find signs of Mexicanidad around LA. And while Mexicans have embraced non-Mexican sporting heroes, most notably the Los Angeles Lakers stars, over the years, there’s a special favor paid to high-achieving members of La Raza: Julio Cesar Chavez, Oscar de la Hoya, Canelo Alvarez, Nomar Garciaparra, Adrian Gonzalez and most notably, Fernando Valenzuela. Almost 40 years after the Dodgers pitching legend’s breakthrough season, he’s still given a standing ovation each time he’s shown at a game.
The reason for the adulation of Mexican sports stars in LA is twofold: If you’re good, LA likes winners and you’ll be appreciated. But the second reason is far more compelling. Mexicans still face discrimination and stereotypes – even the literal president of the United States tars Mexicans as rapists and “bad hombres,” with no tangible evidence to back up such defamatory statements.
Americans wonder why many second- and third-generation Mexican Americans root for the Mexican National Team in soccer, when many of these fans have few tangible ties to Mexico and some don’t even speak Spanish. But El Tri gives Mexicans a safe space to feel pride in their Mexican heritage in the United States, when there are precious few other opportunities to revel in something that shows excellence on a regional or world stage for Mexico.
And that’s why it’s so important the first bonafide superstar of LAFC is Mexican. Before LAFC signed their first Designated Player, many spoke of the utility of signing a Mexican star, in abstract terms that often sounded more like walled-off marketing fever dreams than of living, breathing human beings.
That the Mexican star signed was Vela was both logical and a bit unorthodox. Vela was Mexican, yes, and widely considered one of, if not the most talented player produced in decades, but he had a contentious history with the soccer powers in his home country, where he never played professional soccer. In the Mexican press, he was branded a prima donna, a wannabe Spaniard, and far, far worse.
Vela entered into a vortex in which he spent his life and career before coming to Los Angeles in three of the most football-crazed countries in the world: Mexico, England and Spain. The press in all three countries can be merciless, cruel and at times outright dishonest.
Suffice it to say Vela was not eager to play in Liga MX, and chances are he never will. Instead, he took the path his good friend Giovani dos Santos – part of his age cohort and the same exact Mexico-England-Spain press vortex in his career – took and signed with a Southern California MLS team.
If Giovani’s MLS career didn’t quite blossom as hoped, Vela’s took off, and the California lifestyle suited him perfectly while he raised his game on the field. Able to settle with his Spanish-speaking family comfortably, authentic Mexican food easily accessible, Vela can attend NBA games, his personal passion, find the anonymity out in public that makes MLS so attractive for many top stars used to being hounded all the time in Latin America and Europe, and not have to deal with a soccer press that seems like it’s out to get him all the time. Who wouldn’t want that?
While Vela speaks English freely in public and doesn’t tend to talk much about being a Mexican star in Los Angeles, after being honored as MLS MVP on Monday he spoke about his pride at being the first Mexican to win the award with a touching tribute to his compatriots.
“I always try to put Mexico on the top of everything, so this award is something cool for me, because I try to show to the world, Mexicans, we are good. We are doing great things and I hope this can help another person to try to be important and try to be the best in his job.”
Carlos Vela has lived in Los Angeles less than two years, but he’s already become the latest L.A. sporting icon, capped off with this MLS MVP award, playing the game and living life on his terms, just like millions of other Mexicans in this city.
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