The San Antonio Spurs: Whose -ismo?
A family history
This essay considers issues regarding the San Antonio Spurs: changes in its logo, lineup, and its status as a basketball team that represents one of the most Mexican and Mexican American cities in the United States.
This essay deals with my family who live in the San Antonio area. For this reason my life memories are inextricably linked to the place. Recently the first of us died. Now I am carefully, cautiously, curiously awaiting the next phase of us.
New and Old: A Brief Comparison
The city of San Antonio’s centuries-long history is rife with contradictions and reinventions. It only makes sense, then, that its basketball team’s logo would also undergo a change that speaks to the city’s overall shifts in identity. The new logo (2002-present) of the San Antonio Spurs is a model of austerity and aggression. Its black, white, and grey colors are a given, the straightforward colors of the players’ jerseys. Its outline takes the shape of the the facade of the Alamo. The spur that forms the ‘U’ of ‘SPURS’ is upraised at a sharp angle, its end point is more jagged, schematic (not actually functional as a cowboy/vaquero/charro’s spur), and is accentuated by a pointy black outline. The bold pink, orange, and teal of the older Spurs logo (1989-2002) were popular colors representative of the 1990s aesthetic, and communicate a looser, less aggressive vibe. More importantly, the colors of the 90s logo represent the cultural choices of San Antonio at the time.
San Antonio Spurs logos: 1989-2002 (left) & 2002-present (right)
San Antonio is not my home. But the difference between Austin, where I’m from, and San Antonio, where we went to visit my mom’s (Mexican) side of the family is this: Austin was, is, and always will be a city for, by, and about white people. San Antonio was, is, and always will be a city for, by and about Mexican people. Somewhere along the highway south, I-35 was my border crossing. I soften myself down or harden myself up for what lay before me.
Colors: a Historical Review
The colors of the 90s logo certainly cannot be found on any of the six flags that have flown over Texas. No, these are fiesta colors: they represent a city with a long history of culturally-based celebration busily refashioning itself into a Tex Mex fun hub outwardly flaunting elements of its Mexican roots as a strategy to draw Anglo visitors, city regeneration and reunification, and commercial gain. Indeed, this free and easy spirit is communicated in the 90s logo’s overall shape, which suggests the quick swash of a paintbrush. But the rapidity of this gesture also reflects the instability of the fiesta’s foundations. Anyone who knows about the history of Texas knows about the colonization of the indigenous population by the Spanish, who founded the city of San Antonio de Béxar originally as a mission. Monks there were bent on collecting converts when they weren’t dodging arrows, hunger, disease, etc. Then came the Americans pushing west, who soon wrested control from the Spanish. With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1948, thousands of Spanish-speaking, Catholic Mexicans in much of the Southwest lost rights to their language, faith, and nationality overnight. The Anglo invaders had been wearing them down for a good while before then (Texas gained “independence” in 1836). And who are we kidding? The Spanish invaded the shit out of this hemisphere before that.
Map showing the land ceded by Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, 1848
Light skinned and dark skinned history:
Origins: Luis Moya, service in the military, World War II, refused service in a restaurant while wearing his uniform. How many grandfathers experienced this? In photos he looks real light.
Mom’s cousin Jesse: Here’s the way the story was told to me: he was dark skinned. Very, very dark. Even darker than the rest of us! Somehow he married a white skin, blond hair, blue eyed “German” girl named Amy. They had two kids who I guess turned out mocha color. Well, they left the small town of Cuero for Dallas, TX. She ended up fooling around with her white old fat bald man boss there. One day dark skin Jesse caught them in the act, she and he pulled out guns, and they shot each other to death in front of the kids. The boss man was injured by a stray bullet but survived. I don’t even know what happened to their children.
San Antonio Trouble
After the nation of Texas became the state of Texas, Mexicans in the San Antonio and other areas continued to be persecuted and indiscriminately lynched by the Texas Rangers and other governmentally-sanctioned officials up to the end of the 19th century. Beyond that, we can think of the Chili Queens, hard working ladies who pioneered Tex Mex cuisine in San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza over the course of 200 years who grappled with the city’s efforts to thwart their production in order to sterilize and Anglo-cize the city. We can also remember the heat brought to the city by CBS’s 1968 airing of Hunger in America, which profiled infant mortality, child prostitution, and barrio poverty in the Mexican American population of the city, and which featured an interview with San Antonio Senior County Commissioner A.J. Ploch expressing apathy towards these social ills. The city continued to fall into disarray and decay until the 1980s and 90s, when it snapped into a slew of culturally-oriented rescue-renovation projects. Like Mexico itself, San Antonio holds the lucrative lure of tourism; the Alamo remains the largest attraction in the state of Texas. The city spent $186 million in 1993 to construct the Alamodome, where the Spurs were to play for the next decade and which features many similarly colorful accents in the architectural details of the exterior. This frog-spaceship-shaped structure is part of the drive in and through downtown. Breeze by at high speeds. One of the newer welcoming buildings for the visitor.
When I was about ten, my Aunt took me and my little brother to the Alamodome to see the Spurs play against the Phoenix Suns. This was back when David Robinson and Charles Barkley were still playing on those teams, and by chance our seats were right in front of those players’ dads. I don’t know why those guys weren’t in better seats. I guess they were used to it and probably had their fill of games by that point. All of the sudden we were so starstruck that my little brother dropped the giant foam finger my aunt bought him through the cracks of the moveable floor beneath us. He did retrieve it after some ado. The Alamodome was the biggest, most important building I had ever been to by that point in my life. I was awed by the vision of sports, the squeak of sneakers on the impossibly shiny wooden floor, the star-bright lights hanging like bats above my head. There was something about the space that felt like being in our church back home. I was filled with reverence. I did not know yet what a museum was by then. Full of relics from Spain in the 60s and statues of Don Quixote, clowns, and masks, my grandmother and aunt’s houses were museums to me.
Paseo del Río
Steeped in its Mexican-flavored mode of celebration and festivity, the city also invested in the massive expansion and renovation of the River Walk in the 1980s and 90s. Gardened pathways edged with mostly Tex Mex themed bars, shops, and restaurants entice visitors as they wind through historic downtown just below street level. Anyone who has ever stepped within a few blocks of this area near a holiday, especially a Latino one, will know the type of lights, dancing, and other festivities that tend to take over the city. To protect its cultural/touristic investments, the city instigated improvement projects in the 90s to control flooding of the San Antonio River, which runs from the zoo, past the Alamo, and alongside each of the three old Spanish missions south of downtown.
The San Antonio River Walk
We went to the river walk together a couple of times. We might have even gone on a floating boat once. If we did, ballet folklórico was danced on the banks as we floated past. At Christmas the lights covered every overhanging branch. I don’t know if I thought I was dreaming or if I thought that this must be how Mexico was like.
Fiesta Fever Revs Up
The conflicts of history aside, the colors and shape of the 90s logo communicate a playful, budding team spirit tied to the newly fiesta-filled atmosphere of the city. The pink, teal, and orange logo represents a city in the midst of a transitional return to its historic past, the start of gente-fication (a resurgence of ‘Hispanic’ interest/expression). The Six Flags Fiesta Texas Amusement Park opened to great fanfare in 1992 following the opening Seaworld Theme Park in 1988. Dedicated to the experience of fun filtered through a mix of German and Mexican music, food, and culture historically linked to the region, Fiesta Texas was a succinct fantasy of lederhosen, roller coasters, and Tejano music. With the Fiesta Texas park development, the city extended its renewed historical and cultural identity to a higher level of artificiality. The fiesta flavor needn’t be tied to a specific historical landmark like the Alamo or a mission; it could spring up on the outskirts of the city as part of an amusement park.
Fiesta Texas was the most fun I could have as a kid. My identity as a Texan came a lot from the way I felt while walking around there.
Back in the Game
As San Antonio regeared itself towards a center of amusement and attraction, the Spurs warmed up the court. Parallel history: new owner Red McCombs, new coach Larry Brown, and new recruit David Robinson press reset in 1989. Over the next decade, the Spurs gained speed with players like Sean Elliott, Avery Johnson, and Dennis Rodman (more on him later), so that by 1999, it hit the jackpot and won the first of four NBA Championships. The Spurs worked the city into a fiesta frenzy again in 2003, 2005, and 2007 thanks to the later/ current dream team of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan.
More to the point of frenzy: the irregular edge and bright colors of the 90s logo do more than embody the changing priorities of the city; they embody one player in particular who brought a new attitude to the team, the fans, and the sport at large. Dennis Rodman joined the Spurs in 1993, and there has never been anyone on any team like him since. It was with the Spurs that Rodman went full force into his rebellious, chameleon identity. The Worm was out of nowhere; in a town of many aliens, he was the one who outed himself.
Dennis Rodman didn’t give a shit. He didn’t take himself too seriously but he also was masterful on the court. He took care of business and had fun on the side. He lived his life the way he wanted and spent a good chunk of time on top of his game without any shame. In this way, he was like my Uncle Steve, who did exactly what he wanted in life almost until the very end.
The Coyote: The Only Mexican on the Team
Is it strange that the team representing a city with one of the largest concentrations of Mexican Americans has never turned out a big Mexican American star? Manu Ginobili is the hardest hitting Latino that has come through the team, but whatever loose gaucho affiliations we can make with the vaquero/charro/cowboy connotations of ‘spur / gachupín’ (another term for a Spaniard, curiously enough) aside, he is still a South American. That leaves us with Coyote, the Spurs mascot since 1983 and as far as I can tell, the only Mexican (American) on the team.
The word ‘coyote’ comes directly from the Spanish word, also ‘coyote,’ which comes from the Nahuatl (the language spoken by the Mexica / Aztecs) word ‘coyotl’. The Spanish took on and adapted the term since coyotes were never before seen, native only to the New World. Coyotes are seen as scavengers, unwanted, menacing, but it’s not all bad. They are also skilled as tricksters, our very own pícaros of the western hemisphere.
It is my contention that I too am a coyote.
From Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas (collected by Jerome Rothenberg, University of New Mexico Press, 1991):
CRAZY DOG EVENTS
1. Act like a crazy dog. Wear sashes & other fine clothes, carry a rattle, & dance along the roads singing crazy dog songs after everybody else has gone to bed.
2. Talk crosswise: say the opposite of what you mean & make others say the opposite of what they mean in return.
3. Fight like a fool by rushing up to an enemy & offering to be killed. Dig a hole near an enemy, & when the enemy surrounds it, leap out at them & drive them back.
4. Paint yourself white, mount a white horse, cover its eyes & make it jump down a steep & rocky bank, until both of you are crushed.
Final Thought: Going Forward, Going Backward
In San Antonio, the future is through the past. Whatever shape that takes, however superficial, monetary, etc. its intentions have been and will be, its relationship with its Mexican past, present and future is tenuously but inevitably linked. The city will always satellite around a point in its past that fixes it to this identity, and the visitor cannot leave without a sense that the city is genuinely haunted by those that have come before.
Who were we? Who are we? Who will we be next?
Where have we come from? Where are we now? Where are we going?