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You'd saw off a broomstick for a bat. For a ball you'd beg spools of thread from the textile plant, enough to wrap into a wad you could seal with carpenter's tape. You'd go back to that factory for cloth remnants to sew together for a glove, which you'd stuff with cotton you picked at the ranch on the fringe of the barrio.
That's what you did as a kid of Mexican blood in El Paso during the 1940s to play the game that, more than anything else, could make you an American. But to become a champion at that game—to beat all Anglo comers in a world that belonged to them—how would you do that?
Borders are shape-shifting things: sometimes barriers, sometimes membranes, sometimes overlooks from which one people take the measure of another. If you were to transport yourself to the El Paso of 1949 and take up a position as far south as possible—by the north shore of the Rio Grande, in a netherland not wholly of the U.S. but not of Mexico either—you'd be a cutoff throw from Bowie High School, the only public secondary school in the U.S. then dedicated to educating Mexican-Americans. The people of south and east El Paso dealt every day with two kinds of border. The geographical one at their backs reminded them of their Mesoamerican heritage. The aspirational border just to the north, an east-west highway through downtown, was a tantalizing gateway to their country of choice.
Andy Morales, a member of the 1949 Bowie High baseball team, used to walk the eight blocks from his home up to Alameda Avenue, the local stretch of U.S. Highway 80, the artery that ran from San Diego to the Georgia coast. Beyond the avenue lay the Anglos' turf, where a Mexican-American would think twice before entering. Instead they focused on the road. "My friends and I, we'd compete counting out-of-state license plates on Alameda," Morales says. "I set the record one Saturday: 39 in a two-hour period." Plate-spotting gave Morales and his buddies a chance to glimpse the energy of a country ready to burst after the end of World War II, a place where they gradually came to believe they belonged.
They would owe that awakening in large part to the game they loved. Bowie High didn't field a baseball squad until 1946, when a wiry, energetic man, not 5'6", arrived from San Antonio to start one. Three years later the Bowie team included Morales, the wisecracking second baseman who never took a book home from school because there wasn't enough light to read by; Javier (Lefty) Holguin, the pitcher with a knuckleball so loco that nobody would play catch with him; Jose (Rocky) Galarza, the smoky-eyed third baseman to whom Bowie coeds dedicated yearbook pages; and Ramon Camarillo, the catcher whose hunches came to him in dreams.
Despite poverty that made them scrounge for equipment and wonder if they'd have enough food to eat, and despite discrimination that subjected them to stinging slurs and other indignities from Anglos, these boys and the other 11 players on the 1949 Bowie Bears would win the first Texas high school baseball tournament ever staged.
Bowie High sat in El Paso's Second Ward, or Segundo Barrio, home to the city's leach field and sewage-treatment plant. A smelting operation, stockyards and a meatpacking company further fouled the air. Nowhere in the U.S. did more babies die of diarrhea. The barrio had no paved streets, much less sidewalks, streetlights or parks, and 50,000 people packed themselves into less than one square mile, about twice the population density of New York City. Those not living in adobe hovels were warehoused in presidios like the ones in which Camarillo and Bowie first baseman Tony Lara grew up, where as many as 175 families—at least 700 people—were shoehorned into a single block of two-story tenement buildings, with one communal cold-water commode serving each row of two-room apartments. Compared with Anglo El Paso, the Second Ward was, Camarillo said, "like another country."
One might have expected Bowie's '49ers to be cowed by their more affluent, better equipped Anglo opponents, but, Lara says, "we were so dumb, we didn't know how to be intimidated." This obliviousness was carefully cultivated. Bowie's baseball coach made sure his players didn't wallow in want and ethnic victimization, diverting them instead with such requirements as daily classroom attendance, executing the hit-and-run and mastering the nuances of English by speaking nothing else around him. "With Nemo there were no heroes," says Gus Sambrano, a shortstop on the 1949 team. "He was the leader. His message was, 'You have leadership; follow.' We were the followers."
William Carson (Nemo) Herrera was a fronterizo, a child of the borderland like his players, and he probably knew them better than their parents did. He was born in Brownsville, Texas, in 1900; his father, Rodolfo, had immigrated after losing his landholdings in the political unrest that would lead to the Mexican Revolution, and his mother, Carolina, had roots in the Canary Islands. The family moved to San Antonio when Nemo was seven, and by age 13 he had become the bat boy of the San Antonio Bronchos of the Texas League. He steeped himself in the game. His speed and tenacity served him well in basketball as well as baseball at Brackenridge High. He would excel at both sports at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, and play semipro baseball during summers.
After graduating he became the head basketball coach and assistant football coach at Beaumont (Texas) High for a year before joining Gulf Oil's subsidiary in Tampico, Mexico. There he progressed from pipeline work to the payroll department while playing second base on the company team.