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Mexican-Americans Prove They Can Play Basketball — In 193910:08
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The Lanier Voks. (Courtesy Charles Herrera)
The Lanier Voks. (Courtesy Charles Herrera)
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1939: The two best high school basketball teams in San Antonio are squaring off in the city championship. On one side, the home-court Eagles from Brackenridge, an all-white team with fans packing the stands. On the other side, the Voks, from Lanier High School, an all-Mexican-American team from San Antonio’s west side.

"The newspaper people really played it up — this is the perfect match-up," says professor Ignacio Garcia, a former Lanier student.

"Two teams that have played each other twice. "They’ve both scored the same amount of points with each other, they’ve gone to the other person’s home and they’ve won. What more dream game can you have than this?"

It’s a striking image. Tall, lanky white kids playing against a team of mostly short, skinny Mexican-American players, led by their star, Tony Cardona. All 5-foot-1 of him.

"He was so tiny and he was so fast, and he was undoubtedly the best player in the city," Garcia says.

It’s a hard-fought, physical game — and despite the Eagles’ height advantage, the Voks respond with a constant barrage of quick passes. The strategy works, as the Voks keep the game close, and in the final minute, the ball finds little-used backup Alonso Rodriguez, who somehow ties it up.

The clock hits zero, with the score: 24 to 24. The game will go to overtime.

The events of that night would shock a lot of people — and I’m not just talking about the outcome of the game. In a lot of ways, it comes down to history.

Basketball And Assimilation

Lanier wasn’t just a Mexican-American high school — it was also one of the first vocational schools in an urban center in the country. That’s actually where they got their name, Voks, short for vocational.

"There was a perception in the '30s that you had to assimilate and integrate because there really was no Mexican-American future in the way we perceive it today."

Ignacio Garcia

And being a vocational school meant that students were taught one of seven trades, including auto painting and sheet metal welding.

Garcia says people believed, "These kids can’t go to college, but they’re really good with their hands."

Teaching students trades was a way to get them jobs, not a way to prepare them for better-paying white collar work or leadership roles. But bringing Mexican-American students from Lanier into the workforce was part of a larger goal.

"If you could assimilate them into the workforce, you were assimilating them into American society," Garcia says.

And this wasn’t exactly subtle. At Lanier, the messaging was explicit:

"Every Monday, the school would issue you a ribbon that said 'I speak English. I’m an American,'" Joe Bernal says. Bernal is a former Lanier student who played for the Voks in 1944.

"If they heard you speaking Spanish they’d say, 'Come here.' And they’d take your pin away from you, get your name, and your homeroom teacher, and you got demerits," Bernal says.

In some ways, this was a reflection of the time period.

"There was a perception in the '30s that you had to assimilate and integrate because there really was no Mexican-American future in the way we perceive it today," Garcia says.

One of the best ways to speed up integration? Basketball.

"There was this notion that sports can make us good Americans," Garcia says.

A Coach Named Nemo

During that 1939 city championship game, Lanier was coached by William Herrera, or as most people knew him, Nemo.

Nemo was born in 1900 to a Mexican-American mother and a Mexican father in Brownsville, Texas, a town in the Rio Grande valley just north of Mexico. His family moved north to San Antonio shortly after he was born, and he went to Brackenridge High School. He was the first Mexican-American student to play sports at Brackenridge, and he was actually the first ever to graduate.

And he saw up close what could happen if he didn’t fit in.

"By the time he’s in his 20s, operation repatriation and other massive deportations had occurred," Garcia says. "A lot of Mexican-American families said, look, 'We’ve got to integrate, we’ve got to assimilate. We’ve got to not be seen as different because tomorrow it could be us.'"

So, Nemo bought into what Lanier — and, to be fair, much of the Mexican-American community at the time--was preaching. Fully embrace American culture. Speak English. Don’t stand out. And he channeled that message into basketball.

Though he had a Spanish last name, he chose to pronounce it with an Anglo accent. And even though both he and his players spoke Spanish fluently, he made sure to follow the example set by Lanier:

"I never heard Nemo speak Spanish like we did — he wasn’t letting up on the idea that we should all speak English in school," Bernal says.

Nemo knew coaching a Mexican-American basketball team wouldn’t be easy. Basketball might just be the quintessential American game — after all, unlike baseball and football, which evolved from English sports, basketball is the only major American sport invented from scratch in the U.S.

And most white Texans didn’t take kindly to a team of Mexican-Americans playing basketball — and playing it well.

"They weren’t supposed to be able to do that. There was this perception that the Mexicans could not play at that level," Garcia says.

People regularly said things like:

"[Those] kids know their X’s and O’s like they know their frijoles or tortillas, or they play defense like mosquitos," Garcia says.

They called the Voks:

"Wetbacks, dirty Mexicans, greasers — that was common."

"I don’t think they ever felt like we were Americans, yet," says David Rodriguez, a former Lanier student who played on the Voks from 1943 to '45.

But no matter what people said about the team, Nemo’s response was always the same.

"At the beginning of the year, he always sat us down, told us, we’re going to play, win, and you’re not going to listen to the crowd. Don’t listen to the taunts, the remarks they make," Rodriguez says.

"Anybody saying ugly to you, the way you show 'em is to outplay 'em," Bernal says.

Heading Into Overtime

Let’s go back to where we started. The 1939 San Antonio championship game between the all-Mexican-American Lanier Voks and the all-white Brackenridge Eagles.

The Eagles and the Voks had played to a hard-fought tie. They were heading to overtime.

“Of course overtime, back in those days, was whoever gets the ball and scores first wins the game. So you could win in one shot within seconds,” Garcia says.

The Brackenridge Eagles get the ball to start overtime, and work their way to the hoop. They get close… but the shot misses, and the Voks grab the rebound. Out of the corner of his eye, Billy Saldaña sees Tony Cardona streaking down the sideline, straight to the Eagles’ basket. Billy heaves a high arching pass across the court — Tony catches the ball in stride and puts the ball up.

And it goes straight through the hoop. The Lanier Voks are San Antonio high school champions.

An all-Mexican-American starting five defeating an all-Anglo team in basketball in 1939. This was huge. It might not seem like a big deal, but this was almost 10 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball — at the time, even more than baseball, basketball was a white man’s game.

"The players started pushing each other, the coaches came in quickly, but the fans had already joined. The fans just got into it on the court, in the stands. They took it outside, they grabbed rocks, started throwing at each other, at cars, and the building itself, one young man got stabbed, others got beaten."

Ignacio Garcia

But before this could all sink in for Tony and for the rest of the Voks:

"Someone from the stands came down and he hit Tony Cardona in the back of the head," Garcia says.

"There were not too many Lanier fans there, they were outnumbered, and the Brackenridge people more or less ganged up on them. They were surrounded by Brackenridge fans. It was kind of scary," Rodriguez says.

And things got out of hand pretty quickly.

"The players started pushing each other, the coaches came in quickly, but the fans had already joined," Garcia says. "The fans just got into it on the court, in the stands. They took it outside, they grabbed rocks, started throwing at each other, at cars, and the building itself, one young man got stabbed, others got beaten."

As for Tony, who had become a hero only moments earlier:

"The assistant coach grabbed him, dragged him out, put him in his car, and said, 'Just lay down on the floor,'" Garcia says. "And all he could hear was, 'Let’s get Tony, let’s get Tony.'"

Tony stayed hidden, and eventually, the police showed up.

"It took eight police cars, and a number of policemen to not only break up the fight but to allow the bus that was carrying both the Lanier team and Lanier fans to be able to get out of Brackenridge, and they got pelted with rocks," Garcia says.

Imagine how difficult seeing that riot in 1939 must have been for Coach Nemo.

"He must have looked out there and seen a fight. It wasn’t one school against the other," Garcia says. "It really broke down on racial lines. And I think that was extremely uncomfortable for Nemo, because he was sort of outside of that conflict. He didn’t bring it to the locker room, he didn’t bring it to practice, he didn’t bring it home, but now it had intruded at the most important moment, at that time, of his life."

For Nemo’s whole life, he believed that if he just kept his head down and did things the “right way,” he’d be accepted by white, Anglo Texas. And he found out that wasn’t true in the most dramatic way possible.

But what’s interesting is what happened next — he kept going. He didn’t change. He didn’t quit. He just went right back to the same message, telling his players to focus on the game, to not stand out.

And Lanier kept right on winning. They became the best high school basketball team in the entire state of Texas, winning two state championships. But still, Texas never quite accepted them.

"We felt like we didn’t get the notoriety we deserved, the wins we had. When we won the state in 1943, there was no parties, no nothing," Rodriguez says.

In the end, Nemo must have understood that, in Texas in the 1930s and '40s, he would never truly fit in. But he pushed. And America... pushed back.

Read more about Lanier's basketball team in Ignacio Garcia's book, "When Mexicans Could Play Ball."

This segment aired on February 18, 2017.

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