A lesson about public space through fútbol in the United States


Nicole Hernández
Arizona State University


David Trouille
Fútbol in the Park: Immigrants, Soccer, and the Creation of Social Ties
240 pages, paperback, ill
Chicago, IL.: University of Chicago Press 2021 (Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries)
ISBN 978-0-226-74888-7

When Polo tried to block a rebellious French player of Senegalese descent from taking a jersey, several old-timers urged him to let Patas Locas (Crazy Feet) play, as he was becoming a crowd favorite for his audacious style of play (page 49).

David Trouille’s 2021 ethnography, Fútbol in the Park: Immigrants, Soccer, and the Creation of Social Ties, offers readers a window into the social relations and processes of amateur immigrant soccer players in West Los Angeles. This seven-chapter book culminates a ten-year research project that included 48 interviews and hundreds of hours of participant observation on the soccer field and other personal and public spaces. Trouille’s book highlights the particular importance of public spaces for immigrant communities. He shows that it is not until we understand who uses public space, what activities occur in the space, and what social processes intersect with the space that we will understand the social value of these spaces (pg. 23).

As I was reading the book, I found myself rooting for the players’ cause: keeping the park open and free to use. While our society is continuously losing public spaces, services, and institutions to privatization, Trouille’s book argues for protecting the commons. Trouille’s interlocutor, Roberto, explains the players’ perspective on permitted play during a public forum at the park” “I’ve been coming to this park for over twenty years, and it’s great that we have such a great field, but it’s hard when it’s taken away from us. We’re just asking for some leniency. We’ve been playing here a long time” (page 42). In a region of the L.A. landscape that is becoming ever more exclusive, the men of the Mar Vista Recreation Center represent an inherent social tension in the class and ethnic divisions marking the city. Regardless of the length of time they have occupied this park collectively, park players are perceived as not performing the role of the ‘right’ type of immigrant. To neighbors, they are unwelcome guests in their park, arguing that players are in the park when they should be working; the paradox lies in the fact that these are the same neighbors and neighborhoods that rely on immigrants for low-cost labor for home repairs, construction, gardening, etc. In chapter five, Trouille explores this contradiction by shadowing several men as they work. Trouille notes how the men are welcomed as workers in ways they are not afforded at the park. His book also humanizes the immigrant experience, particularly for Latino immigrants, which is an essential contribution to migration studies.

The space is regulated through paying for material symbols like jerseys and enforcing expectations through written rules in English and Spanish, such as displaying banners that read “Help us show a friendly appearance” and “…try not to bother the neighbors with a lot of noise and scandal,” as well as showing off league trophies.

Trouille contributes to migration theory by deviating from pre-migration networks to focus on how new immigrants create social networks through “‘social-tying’–the dynamic, daily construction of connections” (page 9). Beyond the theoretical and ethnographic contributions to the field, Trouille’s work functions in tandem with the participants’ critical storytelling rituals that help keep memories of the park’s events alive for decades. We know that in this context, storytelling is also used to lay claim to the park and enforce the invisible but salient rules and hierarchies. Trouille’s interlocutors are master storytellers, and with this book, Trouille adds to the social memory of the park while solidifying his commitment to the park and players. His photos add a layer to the shared memory that typical oral histories do not afford. One suggestion for future editions is that Trouille incorporate a map of the 18-acre park to help the reader understand the spatial impact players have in context when we hear about neighbors who claim that the games disrupt their daily lives.

Trouille’s focus on the history of the network’s formation and reformation through the games sets it apart from other migration books that take for granted the ways that social networks get formed. Scoring a goal is a powerful symbol beyond the scoreboard; the games provide everyone a chance to have a moment in the spotlight. This element is key for the rich culture players create around and through the games. With this book, Trouille presents a microcosm that is likely replicated in many cities around the country. Trouille’s carefully crafted microcosm shows how immigrants create ways to meet their social needs in the context of adverse conditions. Trouille gives “los jugadores del parque” (all the players in the park) another moment in the spotlight. “¡Que vivan los jugadores del parque!” (Long live the park players!) as he writes at the end of the conclusion. In this vein, he offers a detailed portrait of a living and changing network while immortalizing the legacy and players at Mar Vista Park.

Trouille has hidden gems scattered through his seven chapters that speak to how the park and the soccer games are integral pieces of the players’ identities, professional lives, and social-emotional web, all of which support immigrants’ needs. Piercing the familiar urban motif of neighborhood soccer games, he enables readers to move beyond the role of spectator and into the lives and negotiations that buttress the social processes of community building. For example, in chapter 1, Trouille weaves his ethnographic account through the perspective of the players, park administrators, and neighborhood members as they all negotiate the use of the space. To avoid creating tension among the park users, long-term players organize the pick-up games in the early afternoon during the week, and games were shortened to 15-20 minutes each to accommodate the evolving membership of up to 150 players. The cornerstone of the games is the regular players who manage behavioral expectations and allot field-time through a preferential system of newcomers and regulars. For example, on page 41, Trouille quotes newcomer Dan on his thoughts about getting passed over to play: “I get it, you’ve got to put your time in.” The space is regulated through paying for material symbols like jerseys and enforcing expectations through written rules in English and Spanish, such as displaying banners that read “Help us show a friendly appearance” and “…try not to bother the neighbors with a lot of noise and scandal,” as well as showing off league trophies. These group-enforced systems create a supportive structure for play while protecting their field time in the face of neighborhood residents who challenge players’ legitimate right to use the park (page 44).

Trouille participated for two years in the soccer league before he was invited by players to shadow them at their work sites. Through chapters four to six, the audience reads reflexive notes from Trouille as he works to build rapport and negotiate his positionality as a white college student amongst a largely Latino and immigrant community. This experience helped him develop an interactionist understanding “that privileges the process of [social] tying,” and he applies it to the soccer players who interact to create a shared world (page 10). The players display their creativity and entrepreneurship in making the setting exciting and fulfilling. Their work to keep the league functioning and popular is mechanics behind play.

Trouille’s writing style is engaging, vivid, and has the unique ability to take the reader through various emotions as we get to know the intimate lives of immigrant soccer players on and off the field. This well-researched book would make a great addition to courses on the Latino experience, urban planning, sports studies, and ethnic studies, as well a general audience. Moreover, Trouille’s book offers urban planners and public policymakers tools to understand the long-term ramifications of their choices concerning public spaces among various community stakeholders.

Copyright © Nicole Hernández 2022

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