MONTERREY, Mexico — When I left Monterrey in 2004, I didn’t know that I wouldn’t be back for 13 years. I knew we were moving to San Antonio, Texas. I knew that the Harry Potter movie that had just come out, the one directed by a Mexican, was the best one yet. But I could not have known the turn of events that would lead my family and I into an undocumented life, which eventually meant that we couldn’t go back to the place we were from. I became a permanent resident this year, which means I can now travel to Mexico and back with much more ease. And this year, Monterrey became soccer Valhalla. Both of the city’s teams, CF Monterrey, better known as Los Rayados, and Tigres UANL, topped the Liga MX’s leaderboard—first and second place, respectively—and they were facing off in the final match for the Apertura cup. It was a moment of pride for the city. Wouldn’t be a bad time to come home.
My nuclear family is separated these days. My dad lives in Monterrey, but he is barred from traveling into the U.S. for a few years (love ya, ICE). My mom and my brothers live in Texas. The concept of “home” is very gray to me. Home is many places: the various cities and towns in Mexico where I have extended family, the Texas cities where I have lived, the Texas town where my wife’s family is from, the northeastern metropolis where I currently live. When I think of home, I don’t think of Monterrey, a city I left midway through middle school. In Monterrey, we moved homes three times. We were close to exactly one member of my dad’s extended family, el tío Pablo, who was the son of my grandmother’s sister. I could say he’s my dad’s cousin, but that’s how I know him. In Monterrey, we mostly hung out with friends from school and their families.
The day of my flight, my wife and I went to breakfast. The guys behind the counter at the mainstay coffee shop were talking and prepping muffins and coffees and juice cups. One of them said “¡Tigres campeón!” Later, on the snowy way to the airport from Brooklyn, my taxi had to take a detour on Bedford Avenue, because some costumed dancers had overtaken the street. They were matachines, Mexican folk dancers jumping and swaying under the snowfall. In my connecting flight to Dallas, a couple of passengers were wearing Tigres gear inside the small plane.
And when I landed in Monterrey and saw my dad waiting for me past the customs barrier, I was home, too.
Monterrey is the third largest city in Mexico, and its two Liga teams were facing off in the final for the first time. They’re the eternal rivals, Tigres the public state university team, Rayados the private city university team. Every time the teams hold a clásico, the city pulsates. This was no exception. Flags flew 80 kmh down roads beside the Santa Catarina river. Billboards featuring the teams and brands like H-E-B and Cemex lined the streets. Vendors on street corners and public parks sold scarves and jerseys and beanies. Everywhere you went, someone was wearing either striped navy and white or yellow and royal blue. The city of mountains does not fuck around with its sport.
Even at the Sunday mass I went to in Cumbres you couldn’t escape the game. The crowd at this church, on the opposite side of town from the stadium, wore Rayados and Tigres jerseys. There was a young guy in a Steelers jersey, too. Right after the homily, which was about how people could better prepare themselves for the coming of Christ this advent by giving themselves up completely to the Western deity of choice, the priest asked for peace between fans from both soccer teams. He implored people to behave with good manners, so that the city could have something to be proud of “for the first time in a while.” There was silence, some laughs, communion, and then a Christmas fair with tamales, filled churros and champurrado.
The whole city was pushing peace. From the Government Palace, signs hung down encouraging citizens to keep things chill. Passions run so high here that sometimes fan groups turn tussles and jeering into open aggression and physical encounters. In May of this year, Tigres defeated Rayados in a two-leg game that knocked the latter out of the championship. What followed were brutal encounters in and around Rayados stadium. The video is hard to watch.
When I was younger, my dad took us to a game at each of the teams’ stadiums. El Volcán carried a more family-friendly feel, the games were fun, the crowd was more welcoming. At Rayados’s old Tecnlológico stadium, things got rowdy fast. Fan groups were running up and down the stands. Tussling was not uncommon. That’s probably where I learned all my swear words, and some more I don’t even dare use. The teams have since changed their regalia and their rosters and even one of the stadiums. The mobs remained.
And so did the roads. My dad drove me by the old haunts. My old school, next to the big Coca-Cola silo painted to look just like a can. The park that had a snack store in the middle shaped like a giant piece of wrapped candy. The road through the hill that snaked down and laid bare all the glittering lights of northern Monterrey. There was a rush of image and sound and memory—we went down this road daily on the way home from school or from soccer practice or from swimming or from the mall. My mom would be driving, and the stereo of our 1994 Grand Marquis would be playing children’s songs, and I would be looking up at a full moon above the ocean of Monterrey’s brightness from the velvety car seats. I almost mouthed the words of the song again. Only the billboards were different—different ads from different companies. All that time away, this unremarkable and oft-trafficked river of asphalt with a view appeared in my dreams and in my nightmares a few times. It took 13 years for it to make me cry.
Rayados’s stadium was not at all the same. The new BBVA Bancomer arena is a behemoth that looks like it belongs in one of the European cities with the insanely rich teams. It’s no wonder. Rayados has been fueling its roaring engine with money and players to boot. Rising star Aviles Hurtado just signed with the team this summer, joining with fellow Colombian Dorlán Pabón on the team’s offense. But Tigres have made some moves of their own. They signed Enner Valencia back from the Premier League to join a team that includes big players like beloved frenchman Andre-Pierre Gignac, and some unknowns who are coming up big, like Rafael Carioca, the team’s scorer in the first leg of the final. That players from the EPL are coming to play in Monterrey would have shocked me in my younger years. Tigres are even planning their own stadium rebuild, as their Volcán is now a neat 50 years old, and the contrast with Rayados’s sparkling facilities can only sharpen at this point.
It was in the Volcán, at the first Liga MX game I ever attended that, faced with the mayhem of a full stadium, my dad tipped my younger brother and I. He said if we ever got separated we should hold hands, go to the nearest gate, and wait there close to the wall until the chaos of the masses passed. We’d hopefully find each other then, he said. Walking outside of Rayados stadium with him minutes before the second leg of the final, feeling the rowdy hopes of the fans bubble from the giant steel-and-cement crucible, I wondered if the chaos of the masses in all its iterations would indeed ever pass, or if that was but the natural way of things.
Regio is what you call someone from Monterrey. Tapatío, like the salsa, is what you call someone from Guadalajara. Because I was born in the latter, I would have never called myself a Regio. Regios are said to have a distinct northern Mexican accent—think of a drawl and of a twang and of a lexicon that could be classified as “colorful.” I am polite to a fault, and have long got rid of the bit of accent I picked up while living there. I do curse, but not often in the regionalisms of Nuevo León. In my Regio youth, I always thought of and identified myself as a Tapatío. But I was wrong. Earlier this year, I took my first trip with my wife back to Mexico. We spent time with family and on our own in Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta, and Guadalajara. And Guadalajara made me happy. Being there made me full. But I found my pride in Monterrey; in the cerros and in the foundry, in its multitude of malls and on that road on the hill. The ocean of city lights—I found it there, too.
After the final I went back to Escobedo airport, named after a Mexican general who had also lived out his life as an exile in New York. Tigres were champions. Rayados colors had been shelved away from public view. My dad walked with me to the security gate, insisting he carry some of my things even though I could have done it myself. I hugged him and I wished him a Merry Christmas from the whole family.
We separated, and I, a Regio, went to my departure gate.