MIGRANTS: Zeus Garcia, the Michael Jordan of Oaxacan Indian basketball

I had lunch the other day with an old friend, Zeus Garcia.

In his day, Zeus was like the Michael Jordan of Oaxacan Indian basketball – this in the mid-1970s. He and his brothers and cousins formed a basketball team from their village outside the City of Oaxaca and won tournaments for miles around for years. In the 1980s, they all migrated to LA., part of a large Zapotec Indian migration to the area that really heated up during those years. Almost all of them moved to either Pico-Union or Mar Vista or Venice.  (More on why not East LA in a later post.)

Zeus, when I first met him in the late 1990s, was a bus boy and intent on bringing a purer form of basketball to the United States, which he felt had corrupted the sport he loved. He coached a team of Oaxacan all stars, which he called Raza Unida.

Oaxacan Indians are basketball-obsessed folks and the sport plays an enormous role in their lives here in Southern California. Tournaments take place almost every weekend somewhere in the LA area. Zeus was kind of the guru of Oaxacan Indian basketball here. I wrote about him in my first book, True Tales from Another Mexico. I later went to the Copa Benito Juarez in Guelatao, Oaxaca, and watched 7000 people take in the tournament at a small outdoor court in the birthplace of the legendary Mexican president, who was Zapotec.

Zeus is now a truck driver delivering for a fruit and vegetable wholesaler near downtown L.A. He told me his brother, Isaias, himself a great basketball player in his day, last year returned to their village to take on a servicio – a public job that is unpaid and that each member of an Indian village must do if he wants to remain in good standing. Some who’ve refused have had their lands taken. Zeus was full of stories of how folks back home seemed from another world to Isaias, mired in gossip and unwilling to try new things or work hard.

This is the story of many Mexican villages, seems to me. The ones with the drive and gumption leave. Those left behind depend on the dollars sent down from El Norte, and the result is a kind of welfare dependency that drives a lot of returning immigrants nuts.

I may do that story. Keep you apprised as it goes along.

Photos:  Zeus Garcia then and in 1999, and two shots of village teams from the Copa Benito Juarez.

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