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How a 20-year-old left-handed pitcher from Mexico set the stage for a Nuevo generation of Angelenos to embrace the home team
A 20-year-old left-handed pitcher from Navojoa in Sonora, Mexico, Fernando Valenzuela took the mound at Dodger Stadium on opening day, 1981. He was pudgy and had a distinctive windup, his eyes turning skyward before the pitch. That day he threw a shutout. He would begin the season 6-0 and lead the Dodgers to a World Series victory over the Yankees. He would also transfix the city: millionaire or day laborer, third-generation native or new arrival—everyone cheered. The city’s burgeoning Mexican community, scarred by the history of Chavez Ravine, finally embraced the team as its own. Two Mexican Americans who lived in L.A. during that time—Cruz Angeles, the director of Fernando Nation, part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series, and Dagoberto Gilb, the acclaimed novelist and short story writer—recall Fernandomania.
Cruz Angeles: “When Fernando was around, there was no Internet. No one knew who he was. He had come from nowhere. He transcended class, race, and all these social constructs people create. His story was so amazing that anybody could identify.”
Dagoberto Gilb: “You have to understand L.A.’s history. Mexicans and Chicanos are pretty much dismissed as unimportant people, relegated to the working class—and even more, the invisible working class: janitors, restaurant workers. It was a rare thing that a Mexican player became such a dominant force in the city.”
CA: “Reagan had just been elected. There were a lot of immigration raids, a lot of xenophobia. To have this guy from Mexico be center stage made us feel welcome. We felt we could go to the stadium and watch him play. The community identified with him because he was chasing a dream.”
DG: “All your life you’re defensive about your culture. Usually the clichés about Mexicans were that they were gang members, illegals. Everybody was cheering, happy about Mexicans for the first time that I could remember.”
CA: “My family would have a barbecue and gather around the TV. It was Beatlemania for baseball.”
DG: “I lived a mile from the stadium. The bleachers were $4. I’d go with my sons. We’d take the baby carriage. When Fernando was pitching, it was the best time I ever had at Dodger Stadium.”
CA: “Fernandomania could not happen today. Baseball isn’t played the same way. Pitchers don’t pitch the full game. His story sort of fizzled away.”
DG: “Fernandomania would be greater because the population is greater now. If there were a Mexican American basketball player, people would go nuts. If you look at the people buying Lakers shirts, it’s mostly Chicanos. It would be good—not only for the community but for the country.”
The Global New Wave
The unprecedented influx of immigrants during the 1980s continues to shape L.A.
Number of new residents in the city of L.A. since 1980, when the population totaled 2,966,850
Recent arrivals in 1980 who were Latino
Segment of the population in 1980 that was Latino
Latino population in L.A. today
New immigrants to L.A. today who are Asian