Big and Bright Chapter Ten Excerpt: Harlingen Cardinals

cover of B & BWhen Texas was admitted into the union in 1845, the United States Congress offered the new state a unique option. If the legislature ever chose to, the state was given permission to separate into five separate states, thereby increasing its representation in congress. Texas Pride being what it is, the likelihood of this happening is remote, but the option exists.
In many ways, Texas might as well already be multiple states. Texas State University geography professor Donald Huebner pointed out that Texas is one of a few states that describes its regions in terms usually reserved for separate states. There is no North California, West Tennessee or South Nevada; instead the suffix –ern is usually included. In this state however, North Texas, West Texas, East Texas and South Texas are the correct usages. The terminology recognizes these regions as very distinct places.
In essence, Texas is a borderland where four separate cultures meet. The American Southwest enters from the west, the Midwest from the north and the South from the east and Mexican culture from the south.
To confuse things even more, the Gulf Coast crescent from Beaumont through Houston and around to Galveston is part of the Tidewater South, stretching east to New Orleans and Gulf Coast Mississippi and Alabama, while the rest of East Texas is effectively part of the ‘Old South.’
The Metroplex is its own little world. Dallas is almost like a northeastern city stuck in the middle of Texas, while Fort Worth, just 50 miles away, belongs to West Texas. Central Texas is an entirely different mess, with the crashing together of cultures from the four compass points on top of the academic-liberal enclave of Austin and the German and Czech influences of the Hill Country.
Texans from other parts of the state hardly recognize South Texas as part of the United States, much less Texas. Every Texan loves San Antonio, but the triangle of land to the south of Alamo City is described as North Mexico as often as South Texas. At the bottom of this triangle is the Rio Grande Valley, often referred to within the state simply as “The Valley.” One cannot go further south and still be in the United States. West and south of the Valley is the Rio Grande River, and Mexico; east is South Padre Island and the Gulf of Mexico. To the north, 250 miles of sparsely populated farmland and desert separates the Valley from San Antonio.
The Rio Grande Valley is isolated from the rest of Texas in many ways. Part of this isolation has to do with race and nationality. The Valley is nearly 90 percent Hispanic; Anglos are a distinct minority, a fact the rest of the state is well aware of and cause of the commonly held view that the south isn’t quite Texas at all. The cities of Brownsville and McAllen on the American side and Matamoros and Reynosa on the Mexican side form, in effect, an international commerce zone.
The “North Mexico” slur has a sliver of truth to it. The border crossings at the river have been likened to “Toll booths across an irrigation ditch” as traffic across the river is routine and quick for Americans heading south to buy medication and Mexicans going north to shop, work and visit family. Mexican nationals can cross into the Valley with only a flash of a card to do business north of the river. To the people who live in the Valley, Mexico and her affairs have as much impact on day-to-day life as what’s going on in the rest of the Lone Star State…
…The Valley’s an outlier from a football perspective, as well. The coaching community in South Texas is largely self-contained. Rio Grande Valley coaches rarely leave for jobs elsewhere, and coaches from other parts of the state don’t often make South Texas part of their circuit when climbing the ladder. On the rare occasions when coaches from “up Texas” make it to the Valley, there’s a perception they come with an attitude that they know better than the locals how things should be done.
When a Valley coach tells me about working with a coach from “up north” (Central Texas in this case), he says,
“He thought he was going to come down here and show us all how things ought to be done.” This outsider lasted just two years, “He thought he was in Mexico…not South Texas,” the Valley coach says resentfully.
None of this is to say South Texas or the Valley doesn’t fit into Texas Football Culture. They absolutely do. The fanaticism here rivals and often surpasses other regions in the state. Loyalties are strong through generations and the competition is fierce…

…One week isn’t enough for me to understand the love and hate of Harlingen High School in the Valley, but it’s long enough to know that any rivalry involving the Cardinals involves deep feelings. In their 100th year of football, the Cardinals have been a major Valley power for generations, regularly winning district championships and embarrassing opponents. Harlingen has had only four losing seasons since 1970; they’ve made the playoffs 12 straight seasons and have won 10 or more games the past four years. This much success can lead to jealousy, arrogance and resentment, words I heard repeatedly from locals inside and outside the program.
Most Harlingen coaches are alumni of the school. Successful programs often take the structure of a family and use it as a rallying point. Most often this family is a seasonal thing, changing each year as coaches’ move, kids graduate and new members join. At Harlingen, the family connections are real and deep.
Harlingen’s ‘family’ is an exclusive club–one either is a Cardinal or isn’t. Local sportswriter Eladio Jaimez says the Cardinal football program is the New York Yankees of the Valley. Like the Yankees, the Cardinals have a large and passionate following and like the Yankees the Cardinals are hated by everyone else. There is no middle ground. If you live in the Valley, you either are a Cardinal or you can’t stand them…

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