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THE BARRIO BOYS
Alexander Wolff
June 27, 2011
IN 1949 EL PASO'S BOWIE BEARS, A TEAM OF POOR HISPANIC PLAYERS WHO WERE TOO UNWORLDLY TO BE INTIMIDATED BY THEIR MORE AFFLUENT ANGLO OPPONENTS, CAME FROM NOWHERE TO WIN TEXAS'S FIRST HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
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June 27, 2011

The Barrio Boys

IN 1949 EL PASO'S BOWIE BEARS, A TEAM OF POOR HISPANIC PLAYERS WHO WERE TOO UNWORLDLY TO BE INTIMIDATED BY THEIR MORE AFFLUENT ANGLO OPPONENTS, CAME FROM NOWHERE TO WIN TEXAS'S FIRST HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL CHAMPIONSHIP

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Sixty years would pass before another team from El Paso County claimed a state baseball title. In 2009, Socorro High, a school with a Hispanic enrollment of more than 95%, ventured to the Austin suburb of Round Rock to beat Austin Westlake and Lufkin for the Class 5A crown. Early in the semifinal a knot of Westlake supporters unfurled a Confederate flag, chanted "We speak English!" and waved their I.D.'s. "If we can have something like that in our day and age," says Jesus Chavez, Bowie's current principal and a former Socorro administrator, "I can't even imagine what they went through in 1949."

A month after their victory the Socorro players visited Bowie to present championship rings—not awarded in 1949—to the eight surviving Bears. A new Bowie High sits on an old melon field that in '49 was part of Mexico but in 1963 passed into the U.S. as part of the Chamizal Settlement between the two countries.

If the borderland remains its protean self, in one respect it's as hard as a barrier can be: While Juárez becomes an ever more Hobbesian hell of drug violence, in which more than 8,000 people have been murdered over the past three years, El Paso remains virtually immune. Bowie nonetheless serves the second-poorest zip code in the U.S. The annual median income in the Segundo Barrio languishes below $20,000, and 68.8% of the children in Bowie's catchment area are considered at risk. Chavez says, "This school is about facing adversity, moving forward and beating the odds."

The 1949 Bears and their young counterparts from Socorro gathered near the commemorative display in Bowie's Fine Arts Building, where a visitor can punch up audio of Nemo Herrera's collect calls back to KTSM Radio. The 400 people on hand included Peter Contreras, assistant athletic director of the state's University Interscholastic League, the high school sanctioning body that hadn't seen fit to properly lodge or honor the Bears 60 years earlier. That Contreras is Hispanic is only one of uncountable examples of how times have changed. As for the old slights, the '49ers were "always very restrained how they responded," says Reyes Mata, the South Side native who helped organize the event. "They always maintained their dignity."

What did they become, Nemo Herrera's barrio boys from El Paso and San Antonio? Judges and produce barons and big-city postmasters. Mechanics and firefighters and civil servants. Opticians and claims adjusters and veterans, many of them decorated. An outsized number chose Nemoesque professions: teaching, educational administration, coaching.

Rocky Galarza, the old third baseman, put an open-air boxing ring behind his South Side tavern. He plucked kids off the streets, and if the streets pulled them back, as they briefly did eventual WBF lightweight champ Juan (Ernie) Lazcano, Galarza would simply wait until they returned, wiser, to the sanctuary of his ring. The best ones ultimately made their way to L.A. or Dallas or Houston, where someone else cashed in on them; Galarza, in cowboy boots and jeans, his black hair flowing as he worked a guy out, simply turned to the next kid to save. One night in 1997 one of Galarza's barmaids shot and killed him in his sleep. Seven years later, on the eve of a title fight in Las Vegas, Lazcano told Bill Knight of the El Paso Times, "Sometimes, when I'm asleep, I still see him, still hear him. He's telling me, 'Come on, Champ, don't give up. Feint. Don't just stand there. Move your feet.' It's nice to know, isn't it, that if you do something special for people the way Rocky did, that you live on through them?"

Andy Morales, the license-plate-spotting second baseman, also "went Nemo," as the old Bears put it. After winning a football scholarship to New Mexico and serving in Korea with the Navy, he became baseball coach at El Paso's Austin High. There, in the early '70s, he taught the game to an Anglo kid named Chris Forbes, who grew up to coach Socorro to that 2009 state title. Morales followed the Bulldogs as they made a familiar way east through the draw, to Midland and greater Austin, as excited as he had been as a Bowie Bear. He was amazed that a dozen spirit buses would make the trip from El Paso for the final.

As for Herrera himself, he remained at Bowie until 1960. "The [Bowie] boys knew little of fundamentals," he said upon leaving, "and I was told I couldn't teach them. But I did." He took a post at another barrio high school, Edgewood of San Antonio. After one year Herrera—by now known as el viejo, the old man—returned to El Paso to coach baseball at Coronado High, a new, largely Anglo school on the outskirts of town. "I couldn't get those guys to do a damn thing," he would say. "They had a car in the parking lot and a gal on their arm."

Upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70, he returned one last time to San Antonio, working as director of civilian recreation at Kelly Air Force Base for 10 years before retiring again. He died in 1984. Herrera remains the only Texas high school coach to have won state titles in two sports, and his name can be found throughout the barrios of the two cities: on a scholarship fund, an elementary school and a baseball field in El Paso; and on a scholarship fund, a basketball court and the Kelly Air Force Base civilian rec center in San Antonio. "It's almost a competition between the two cities to see who can honor Nemo the most," says his son Charles, 75.

Of the eight members of the 1949 Bowie Bears still living, the five in El Paso gather for breakfast every few months at a Mexican restaurant on the East Side. Listen in, and you'll hear the sounds of baseball: chatter, needling, kibitzing, stories that reach across the years and often involve their old coach. Not that it matters particularly, but the banter is much more likely to be in English than in Spanish. And just so you know, Morales says, "For 60 years we've never lost a conversation."

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