How the women in my family connected me to my Argentine heritage through soccer

Credit: Chiara Brown   Credit: Chiara Brown
Credit: Chiara Brown Credit: Chiara Brown /

In Argentina, soccer is more than just a sport, it’s a cultural heritage carried by everyone. For Chiara Brown, it was a way to bond with the women in her family and connect with her Latin heritage from the other side of the world.

I am a real people pleaser. It’s something I’ve always struggled with, and most people in my life will probably tell you it’s their least favorite quality of mine. I will basically do anything to make the people around me happy, including being cripplingly polite to strangers I’ll never see again. I think I’d rather be hit by a bus again than have the waitress who got my order wrong think I’m being high maintenance.

It’s entirely absurd I’ve developed this particular trait given my family and upbringing. I grew up in a family which was completely unbothered by the idea of taking up space, making my desperate pleas to fly under the radar futile in many respects. I am the daughter of an unapologetically opinionated Argentine and a fundamentally free-spirited Kentuckian. The conflicting identities play out in my name, Chiara Shalimar Reynal Brown. A name as long as it is culturally incoherent. My first name is Italian, my middle is Pakistani (two places to which my family is largely unconnected), the first part of my last name is Catalan and the second half is I think, Scottish? (Your guess is as good as mine!) My mother, the Argentine, was unconcerned with how the explanations of my name might play out during my childhood in San Francisco. She has always been a woman who trusted her instincts and followed her truth. From my father, I inherited blonde hair, blue eyes and a sentimentality towards music featuring harmonicas. From my mother, I inherited Spanish as my first language, a habit of gesticulating wildly when I speak and a deep love for the Argentine National soccer team.

To explain this love, it’s first important to understand the passion the team represents. In Argentina, soccer is much more than a sport. It is a religion; a national beacon of hope in a country otherwise plagued by a divisive social and political history. The sport has carried the country through some of its darkest chapters. Argentina won its first World Cup in 1978 as The Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo marched outside the stadium gates. These were the loved ones of the over 30,000 Argentines who were abducted or murdered at the hands of a violent military dictatorship over the course of a period of state terrorism which began in 1977. Journalist Pablo Carrozza said, “soccer is the one place where Argentina feels like a winner,” and that feeling is evident not only on the field, where the players invoke a finesse which often makes the ball feel more like an extension of their being than a fast-moving object, but also in the stands, where fans have long devoted their lives to the support of the national team and their local clubs. The passion for soccer in Argentina cannot be overstated.

Passion is the prevailing sentiment in Argentine culture more broadly, and while that sounds like a lazy cliché, I can assure you it is a very real part of the emotional landscape — at least in my family. In the case of the Reynals, it is exhibited through an unadulterated admiration for romance. My great-grandmother met my great-grandfather while he was touring with the Argentine polo team in California in the 1920s, and after only a few weeks of knowing each other they were married, and she moved to Argentina without speaking a lick of Spanish. Their child, my grandfather Billy, was married five times, had 10 children and 21 grandchildren. Of those 10 children, most have been married more than once.

My mother is the only exception, on a slight technicality. My parents were separated and reunited various times over the course of my life after my surprise arrival, however they’ve stayed committed to making it work with each other. My parents navigating their changing relationship meant I spent a lot of time moving between two very different worlds. Thanksgiving in Kentucky passing around biscuits and quick hugs with my father’s family, and Christmas and New Years in Argentina eating Choripán and having wet kisses planted on my cheeks by strangers. Meanwhile, I was also growing up in San Francisco, a city known for its hyper-white population. Growing up, I desperately wanted stability. What I got was my zealous mother yelling at me in Spanish at the school drop-off in oversized sunglasses and over-the-top jewelry. Not only was this painfully disruptive to the calm and straightforward image I was trying to cultivate for myself, but it was also confusing to those around me.

“You don’t look like you speak Spanish,” people would often say. This comment rendered my youthful self defenseless, because it felt true to me, too. I didn’t, but there was nothing I could do about that. Meanwhile, on our yearly trips to Argentina, I would resent all the effort I had put into disguising my Latin side at home as I attempted to catch up with the cultural references or slang words I had missed. I was prepared to work overtime to avoid being called a “gringa” by my cousins. My Spanish skills and incorporations of the word “boludo,” (Argentina’s most favorite term of endearment/insult) could only get me so far.

It was during my first World Cup when I realized soccer might be a way for me to make sense of the passion that permeated my family. It was 2002 and my parents had just gotten separated for the second time. My mom had transformed our basement into an Argentine-themed sports bar. White and baby blue banners adorned our walls and everyone wore a jersey. My grandmother had sent me one with Gabriel Batistua’s name emblazoned across my shoulders. He was one of the stars of the team, and that summer I transformed again, this time into his No. 1 fan. What I saw on the field over the course of that month, was a team who embraced themselves fully, a team who was not going to ask permission to be who they were.

As San Francisco’s disparate Argentine community filed into our house with empanadas, chorizo and alfajores to watch the games, I suddenly felt like I could see a pathway to a part of my identity I was still learning how to claim. “Of course you’re going to root for Argentina over the U.S. mi amor, they’re your team!” the party guests would say. My team. The fact that they could be mine unequivocally gave me a license to embrace myself.

Despite all the machismo latent in the soccer world, especially in South America, I learned everything I know about the sport from the women in my family. It was my mother who first convinced me to join a soccer team at the age of five and who insisted that I have the number 10 in homage to Maradona. She passed on the legacy of the game which had been passed onto her from her older brothers. Meanwhile, my aunt and cousin who are both deeply involved in the business of Argentine soccer — unrepentantly arriving to break the glass ceilings of the sport with blowouts and high heels — carried on bringing me in as well, using the game as a point of connection for our large family, and encouraging me to do the same.

Argentina’s World Cup matches continued to punctuate important chapters of my life and as I grew, I began to see parallels between the team and my family, contextualizing my experience in a way I never could have imagined. My instinct to manage situations with the path of least resistance was forced into the light as I watched the players taking leaps of faith and trusting their gut on the field. They weren’t apologizing for taking a little extra time on the ground after being tripped, so why should I apologize for taking up a little extra time to express my emotions? I began to recognize how often I was asking permission to do something as simple as making my feelings heard.

The more time went on, the more soccer started to feel like a steadfast cultural reference that showed people, somehow, I was legitimate. An otherwise apathetic sports fan, I would become obsessed during the World Cup, tracking players and games in a way I never imagined I would have the patience or interest for. I would overhear my mom make comments about the team, and then I would parrot them back to anyone who would listen.

“From my perspective, one of the biggest struggles Argentina has faced during the World Cups is its sense of individualism on the field. There are so many amazing players that want to shine, that it makes for complex dynamics when they’re all put together,” I always said smugly hoping that it would make me sound knowledgeable.

As I got older and our trips to Argentina became more infrequent, soccer became one of the only ways I knew how to connect to the world I had once known so well, but now worried was fading from my consciousness. By the time I reached college, I had grown accustomed to having to work a bit harder to protect the Latin side of my identity, but I felt far away from a part of me that not even my closest friends were always willing to acknowledge.

It was because of this that I decided to go to Argentina on my own the summer after my college graduation. Stepping into my Aby’s house (our family’s shorthand for abuela), the house in the quiet Buenos Aires neighborhood I had grown up spending so much time in and remembered so well, I felt terrified that I would feel like a stranger. That after so much time away, I really had dreamed it all up. And in some ways, the first few days after my return felt like that.

After arriving, I went immediately to “La Ventanita,” the local parilla next to my grandmother’s house. Sitting under a blue Quilmes umbrella in a matching folding chair, I looked down at the sidewalks familiarly patterned into small grey squares. The sidewalks were familiar, and the smell of the air and the brightly colored corner shops and the hand-painted walls and shade of the tipa trees. So was the sticky heat that sat heavy as we waited for our steaming plates of meat to arrive, a wicker basket full of white bread rolls with chimichurri sat on the table in the meantime. Behind us inside the restaurant, the walls were covered in a sea of posters commemorating various Rolling Stones tours to Argentina, Maradona and the 1978 World Cup, and River, the neighborhood’s club team. I felt like I knew the scene well, but that I didn’t belong. I had returned to a place that I always saw as integral to who I was, but now being there in person again, I felt like an outsider.

That night, my cousin made a plan for us to go watch her club team, Racing, play a match. We were going to sit in the stands, which made me nervous because I had read the stories of the barras bravas, the sometimes violent fan mafias which haunted the Argentine club soccer leagues. These superfans lead the chants in the stands and fuel the energy during the games, but also own all the surrounding parking lots and are responsible for a huge amount of the club’s underground revenue. I had recently heard a story of a fan who had been thrown off the balcony for wearing the wrong colors even though he was a supporter of the very fans he was standing with. My cousin was totally unfazed by my anxiety, however. She’d been going to the stadium with her older brother all her life. It had become a haven for them, rough edges and all. I know what I’m doing, she reminded me, backed up by a confidence I craved deeply.

It was only my second ever club game, my first was a Boca game with my uncle. I still remember the feeling of stepping into the stadium with him. I had seen photos of myself as a baby, wearing the Boca onesie he had given me, and he had always said I was a “fan.” But to be in the stands made me instantly feel part of a lineage, a larger family story which I had felt far away from for much of my life.

When I stepped into the Racing stadium, the same feeling returned to me. After days of feeling adrift, unable to tether myself to a crucial part of my identity, I was suddenly able to access an important cultural touchpoint, one which (as long as I was wearing the right jersey) would welcome me in with open arms. I felt the passion coursing through me as I flicked my wrists in the air with those around me, a movement that makes you feel like you are shaking off any negative energy anyone might possibly throw to you. As the streamers flew through the air and the ground shook from the jumping spectators, I felt reconnected to an important part of my cultural history. The passion which I had recognized all my life in various forms, distilled into a single moment and place. In Argentine soccer, you are part of the hope and the disappointment and the joy of everyone around you. You belong.

Over the last year, I have been thinking a lot about identity and what it means to embrace mine. There have been times when it’s really weighed on me, as I’ve struggled to figure out how to both examine my privilege as a white person and embrace my heritage as a Latina. Recently, I was trying to explain the struggle I’ve had with recognizing my Latinidad to a friend of mine. “Why do you care that people know that about you?” she asked me. It’s taken me a long time to figure out my answer, but I’ve come to realize that being able to embrace my identity and be unapologetically myself is something I’ve been striving for since that first World Cup. It’s how I’ve been able to find a sense of home in myself, without being burdened by the boxes I always wanted to fit in.

It turns out in my family, soccer has always been how we’ve identified a sense of home. We’re all from many places, mothers, countries, but through soccer, we can all be Argentine. We love with the same passion, and we keep playing, not because it’s easy, but because it’s necessary, filled with joy, and most importantly, it reminds us where we come from.

Fan Voices. For a week at the end of 2020, ice dancing kept me alive. light