South Philadelphia: World Cup Soccer Unites Ninth Street’s Thriving Latino Community

Many shops on Ninth Street sell soccer jerseys of Latin American teams, which are very popular in South Philadelphia's Latino community.

Latino pride is especially strong this summer in South Philadelphia, with this year’s FIFA World Cup being the talk of the neighborhood and capturing the attention of many locals, including the city’s growing Hispanic contingent.

The global soccer tournament, which occurs every four years, drew in an average of more than 5 million viewers per game in the United States in 2010. It is definitely the world’s sport and Latin American countries in particular are incredibly passionate about soccer.

Unsurprisingly, Latino businesses and homes in South Philadelphia are proudly representing their respective teams during the tournament.

Throughout its history, South Philadelphia has been a vibrant hub for various ethnic communities, which now includes a thriving Mexican population. As of 2010, there were 15,531 residents of Mexican descent living in Philadelphia, which makes them the second largest Latino ethnic group in the city behind Puerto Ricans. Mexican migrants began moving into South Philadelphia within the last two decades, with a lot of them migrating from the Mexican municipality of Puebla, located in southeast Mexico. w=500 h=281]

One of the most prominent Latino neighborhoods in the city can be found on Ninth Street between Washington Avenue and Ellsworth Street. The awnings are embellished with paper cutout flags in red, white and green – Mexico’s “tricolors.” Small taquerías and shops line the block and it’s not uncommon to hear bachata or norteño music blasting from the storefronts.

The neighborhood has a long history of immigrant residents. It was home to formidable Black American, Jewish, Polish and Italian communities long before the influx of Latinos arrived. Although South Philadelphia is typically known as an Italian American district, Southeast Asian and Latino immigrants have been steadily making their mark on the area for the past few decades and their influence continues to grow in the city.

From the outside, it may seem like Mexicans dominate the area but many people from other Latino ethnicities reside in South Philadelphia. The region is a mix of Mexicans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Colombians, and many of the residents are not shy about expressing their national pride. Several shops display national team soccer jerseys on their front doors and Latin American flags are seen throughout the block.

Sporting events have always been a time of unity for communities – and it is no exception for South Philadelphia’s Latino community during the World Cup. For many of the locals, the World Cup is a time to celebrate their love for their respective home countries even more than usual. Dozens of bars around the city show all the World Cup games but Ninth Street is an especially festive place to be when Latin American and South Americans teams are playing.

With a few Latin American and South American countries represented in this year’s World Cup, including Costa Rica, Honduras, Colombia and Mexico, it is no surprise that many locals have been taking breaks from their busy lives in order to catch their beloved national teams on the big screen at the several bars and taquerías on Ninth Street.

Benjamin Olshin, who watched the recent Mexico vs. Brazil game at local taquería Don Chucho, is a regular who often stops by the restaurant to watch some international soccer.

“Americans don’t really like soccer like the people do in the ethnic communities,” Olshin said. “These guys [in the restaurant] know soccer.”

Olshin believes that Americans are too obsessed with American football and basketball and thus, soccer will not likely catch on as one of the nation’s popular sports. However, with a growing population of soccer-fanatic Latinos and the general globalization of the sport, soccer can not only become a significant part of the city’s sporting culture, it can also become an outlet for patriotic expression.

Orlando Guevara (right) often watches World Cup games at work.
Orlando Guevara (right) often watches World Cup games at work.

Despite most of the games taking place during the day, some fans are still able to catch the action since there are many Latino employees working in neighboring restaurants and bars with televisions. Orlando Guevara, who works at Don Chucho, watched the Mexico vs. Brazil game while waiting for his shift to begin.

“I work at night time but I come here earlier to watch the game,” said Guevara. “I have to watch my country.”

Even residents who are not usually die-hard soccer fans may stop what they are doing in order to watch their teams play during the tournament.

“I’m not a soccer fan,” said Wendy Gomez, 15, a student from the Academy at Palumbo. “But I’m a fan when my country is playing. Mexico was playing, so I am a fan [today].”

Wendy Gomez gets into the festive spirit, despite not being a big soccer fan.
Wendy Gomez gets into the festive spirit, despite not being a big soccer fan.

“People are really passionate about representing their country, but it’s not just Spanish-speakers who come in to enjoy the games,” said Tony Gallo, a server at Los Taquitos de Puebla. “We had a lot of people who are not Mexican watch and root for Mexico. People of all ethnicities love to come together to enjoy the sport.”

Los Taquitos de Puebla isn’t only full of cheering fans during the World Cup – the restaurant is also a local favorite for watching boxing and wrestling matches. Authentic Mexican “lucha libre” wrestling masks are displayed throughout the taqueria’s walls, each one ornately decorated in a plethora of styles and colors. Even when the World Cup isn’t happening, watching sports games brings the community together.

Carlos Romero, a Mexico City native and owner of Los Taquitos de Puebla, lauds soccer’s ability to unify the surrounding neighborhoods, regardless of the teams playing. Mexico’s national soccer team has a longstanding rivalry with the United States’ team but that doesn’t stop locals from partaking in the game’s festive spirit and unexpectedly cheer on a rival.

“The sport is something to bring everybody together,” Romero said. “We enjoyed the USA game versus Ghana. We were all chanting, ‘USA, USA, USA!’”

“The beautiful game,” as many like to poetically call soccer, is a longstanding tradition for Latino communities. And as the Latin American identities grow, so will the game’s spirit in the next few weeks.

– Text, images and video by Jennifer Nguyen and Taisha Zeigler

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