You may not follow high school basketball or even read the sports pages, but a story unfolding there says plenty about how immigration reform, Washington’s hot topic du jour, may play out in the peanut gallery.
The Hialeah Gardens High Gladiators basketball team, Florida’s defending Class 8A champion, is hoping to return to Lakeland to defend its title this month. But the team will have to brush up on more than its foul shooting and man-to-man defense. Apparently, prejudice is pretty good at fast breaks on the court.
Last year the Gladiators went up against some serious racial slurs during their run to victory. Fans from rival teams chanted “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!,” an obvious elbow to the nose of the predominantly Hispanic Gladiators, who probably thought they were stuck in some athletic Kafkaesque dream. After all, many of the players were born in the U.S.A.
Alvaro Simoza, the 6-7, 245-pound center and one of two returning starters, said the chanting “angered me and hurt me.” Born in Caracas and raised in Hialeah, he is a naturalized American citizen.
Six-foot-five senior wing Adrian Gonzalez, whose parents were born in Cuba, asked a reporter plaintively, “Why would they go that low?”
What hurt the players most was the ridicule piled on by the parents.
“One person said, ‘Shut up and cut my yard, you Mexican,’ ” Hialeah Gardens coach Marcos Molina told The Miami Herald. “It was ugly, insulting and degrading.”
Reading about the Gladiators brought back 33-year-old memories of accompanying my late first husband, then a school sports reporter, to a basketball tournament upstate and a world away from urban South Florida. There, in a bucolic little town, a restaurant refused to serve the Miami team he was covering, a team comprised of young Hispanics and African Americans. Raised in an ethnic neighborhood, I was dumbfounded.
Toto, I remember thinking, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Since then, has anything changed in a state that is 23 percent Hispanic, in a country where the Latino vote was decisive in the last presidential election?
Sometimes I think not, and as the young Hialeah Gardens basketball player said, it angers me and hurts me.
Several years ago, when my youngest son was playing a mean second base for a park league, a father from the rival team kept haranguing him from the bleachers with racial slurs. Several other parents and I shamed the idiot into silence for the remaining innings. I have no doubt, though, that he took his ugly vitriol elsewhere. In the meantime, my little boy kept scooping up those baseballs like a Hoover.
Fast forward 10 years and the little boy, now a college freshman, was visiting a Southern town in a neighboring state with his University of Florida fraternity. At a restaurant frequented by college students, he and his friends were enjoying a lively discussion with rival football fans when a middle-aged man came up to him and — for no apparent reason except unadulterated meanness — yelled “Spic!” in his face.
You can see that meanness bubbling up in online comments on news stories about immigration reform. After a few days of reading them, of having my heart torn by such hate, I’ve chosen to skip them. I know that, as a country, we’re better than that. Way better.
Follow Ana on Twitter @AnaVeciana