Author Series: Robert Andrew Powell Part 1
When I picked up This Love is Not for Cowards by Robert Andrew Powell for the second time in my life this year, I had no idea that Rory Smith of The New York Times had called it his "gold standard for soccer books." But I'm not surprised -- it's the best book I'd ever read.
Powell spends a season following the Liga MX club Indios de Ciudad Juarez as it fights an uphill battle to avoid relegation to the second division while the drug trade and violence boil over in the border city. The city constantly makes national and international headlines for three reasons: murder, kidnapping, and human trafficking.
And yet people still live in Juarez, love the city, and support the Indios. The city isn't separated from the Mexican mainland, but it might as well be -- the closest club in Liga MX lies 800 kilometers south through the desert. This isolation from the rest of the country creates a unique border culture in Juarez, the most dangerous city in the world.
The more I write, the less I'm going to do it justice so I'll just say that when I read the book again a few months ago, it proved exactly as good as my first read in 2012. Powell uses the Indios and the "El Kartel" supporters' group as the medium to explore Juarez, but it's so much more of a work about culture and people than just soccer.
It's the most human piece of writing I've ever read.
Powell has written two other books: We Own This Game: A Season in the Adult World of Youth Football and Running Away, but the soccer world knows him for his time in Juarez. I have to admit that I felt unsure about reaching out to Powell because, as someone I looked up to, he existed in my mind as a kind and inquisitive person who tries to tell everyone's story as accurately as possible. I didn't want to find out that the author of my favorite book was an asshole or something -- never meet your heroes, right?
I'm glad I did, though because our one-hour call exceeded all of my expectations. I could talk to Powell about anything for any amount of time. The interview went so well that I have to split it up into two parts because it's so long. Check back for part 2 tomorrow. And if you haven't read the book, buy it right now.
Evan Ream: I read This Love is Not For Cowards when I was in college and honestly I couldn’t believe that anyone would move to Juarez and write a book about it. You say in the book that you basically moved there because you were broke or because you didn’t understand how people moved in the murder capital of the world but...how did you actually end up in Juarez?
Robert Andrew Powell: Well the joke is that a lot had to go wrong for me to end up in Juarez. The original idea that landed me in Juarez was actually to follow Athletic Bilbao, go to Bilbao and embed with them. It was sort of this idea that I had, I’d read an article in The New York Times about them being the Basque team, which I guess a lot more people knew than I did. For weird circumstances, I’d been living for four months in Boise, Idaho and thought that there could be a story here. I just had that instinct, I could go to Spain and tie it into something in Boise. It was just this idea and then I went to Vancouver briefly but then decided that I had to go back to Miami. I needed somewhere to live, I’d done a project in Colorado that was over so I decided to move back to Miami but a friend said that I really needed to improve my Spanish if I was going to do that. So then I decided to study in Barcelona but I found out the (cost of living in) Barcelona. So I ended up in Puebla, Mexico, which was 15 times cheaper, just for a month. While I was in Puebla, I had to read the papers every day -- I didn’t even know Puebla existed, much less that it was the fourth-largest city in Mexico, I knew nothing. It was interesting to me how little I knew about Mexico, that’s sort of where the idea of that started to grow. Juarez seemed unreal, it was the lead story every day and they would show all these pictures of bodies and blood and I just wondered, "what the hell was going on?" I happened to be reading Joan Didion at the time, reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem, where she spent a lot of time in San Francisco in 1969. She said, “I didn’t even know what I was looking for there, I just knew that I wanted to look.” I was like, “I really want Joan Didion to go to Juarez, and tell the story of Juarez.” That’s really what it was, I wanted her to visit Juarez and read what she had to say about Juarez, but she’s in her 80s and she’s not going to go to Juarez. So that brought the idea of, well, maybe I’m going to go to Juarez. So then right before I left my short month in Puebla, I read on a soccer blog about Marco Vidal in Juarez. That just set everything off. Here is an American living in Juarez by choice. It’s soccer so I can imbed with a team, which was this idea that I had been sort of floating around with Athletic Bilbao. And I had learned a bit about Juarez, which had just fascinated me, and Joan Didion wasn’t going to go there. All this came together. In my very first draft of the Juarez book, I wrote that Joan Didion wasn’t going to go there so I did, and the editor was like, “you have to take this out, you can’t compare yourself to Joan Didion.” It is the initial idea, which has to be some naïveté and cockiness at the time. I did feel like I could be the right guy to talk about Juarez, and apparently I was.
Ream: I want to get to the book and Juarez, but I don’t know anything about your background in soccer, do you have one?
Powell: I played it -- that and ice hockey were my two sports. I wasn’t great. No one ever took me seriously but I played it and enjoyed it. So I know soccer. Being a bit older than you, when I was growing up, there was no soccer on TV -- it was a real niche sport. It wasn’t covered and there wasn’t the internet. Now, soccer has kind of bumped all the other sports in my diet. I watch soccer all the time now.
Ream: The reason why I ask is because in the book, you’re not really writing about soccer, you’re writing about people and culture. Soccer is just the constant in people’s lives that allowed you to form a narrative.
Powell: The reason why soccer works was soccer was something I could understand, I know soccer. I know how to follow sports. The team was named the Indios, which made me think of the Cleveland Indians and I was like, “how can this city, being so crazy, have a professional sports team in their city called the Indians?” That made me think that there had to be more to Juarez than just the murder. The fact that I didn’t know the answer to even the most basic questions was the real attraction to me, it’s one of the most beautiful things about it, because you can learn stuff. I know that there’s millions of Americans that know a ton about Mexico and plenty of Americans who knew about Juarez and the border, but I knew nothing. Nothing. I grew up in Chicago and there’s a sizable Mexican population. My high school had a large Mexican population, on my high school soccer team we spoke Spanish. And then in Miami, where I’ve lived most of my life, there really isn’t a Mexican population at all. I knew nothing about the border and that’s another reason why I wanted to go, because I wanted to learn about this place.
Ream: How hard was day-to-day life in Juarez? You said that the part that really scared you was when you began to feel like it was just an inconvenience when someone was murdered. You were prescribed Xanax...I can’t even imagine.
Powell: The day-to-day life, for the most part was notably mundane. It was notably normal. When I first crossed over, I was so paranoid, I was so nervous. I think my first day I was walking around Juarez looking for an apartment, looking at the downtown area. When I was done, I realized that I spent the entire day assuming I was going to get shot. I didn’t, and almost nobody did. I didn’t see any murder but I was so paranoid. Then, you just start living your day-to-day (life). You’re paying your bills, you’re going to work -- and this was the easiest work ever, I’d just go to a soccer practice and watch. I didn’t have to file a daily brief or anything, I was just hanging around the soccer team and going to lunch. But it was a structure and kind of a job, I’d take notes. You just get immersed in your day-to-day and in your day-to-day, it’s pretty normal. I had to pay bills, I would watch TV, I would talk to friends. You lose sight of the murder and that’s part of what attracted me, I mean, how could there be a soccer team there? It didn’t seem possible that anyone could even be living a normal life in Juarez and I don’t think it would be accurate to call what anyone was living in Juarez a “normal life.” It’s just how people learned to cope with the changes. I think that’s just something humans do, we recalibrate what’s normal. I think COVID shows that. I never thought I’d be stuck at home for a year, but I have been like everyone else.
Ream: How did you embed with the team? I feel like a lot of people could do this with lower division sides or maybe even some MLS teams, but Liga MX is the biggest league in North America. How do you even say, “hey, I’m going to do this and you can trust me.”
Powell: Again, you have to have a lot of naïveté. If I had really thought about it, I couldn’t pull it off. But by not knowing how hard it was, I pulled it off. What I did was I just wrote them, I had been writing as a freelancer for the New York Times for a couple of years and I had clips so I never mentioned the Times, but in the modern age, everyone Googles you and as soon as they did, The New York Times came up. So I ran with that. I wasn't going to dissuade them from thinking the best of me. So that’s how I got the initial meeting. And then for the meeting, a friend of a friend of a friend from Colorado, a nurse, hooked me up in Juarez with her son, who spoke absolutely no English, took me around. We got it done. I spoke enough Spanish that we got it done, but it was just bumbling and awkward. I’m sure after my first meeting with the press people -- there was only a two person press staff at the Indios -- I’m sure they thought, “who the fuck is this weirdo?” But I did it and asked for permission to come to practice and they said, “sure.” And then I just started showing up to practice. One of the upsides of being an American was that I didn’t have any competition. I was the only one. There were some local reporters and there was no one else. That very fact was also scary, it was like, “what the fuck, there’s no one else here. Am I the only one who thinks this is interesting? Are my instincts wrong?" The whole time was just so great. I always remember after one game, an important game, a home game, when El Kartel got to their bar and we were just hanging out afterwards, I just remember feeling jazzed and feeling really excited that I was there and really excited that a lot went wrong in my life to be in Juarez as a full time job and that my previous book didn’t work out. Living there, I really felt like it was a great story, and I was in the middle of it. So even though it’s clearly a horror story, professionally it was very interesting. I guess I understand why some people become war correspondents and get addicted to that because you get this heightened sense of being alive. I loved it, I loved the whole experience of it.
Ream: Did anyone who appeared in the book read it? Do you know how your work was received?
Powell: One thing in book writing, and I learned this with my first book project, which I completed many years before. That covered the black community in Liberty City, Miami, it’s a book more about the political dynamics of Miami than it is a book about football. There was this guy who was doing a documentary film at the same time and when he would show up with his cameras, everybody would bounce and everybody would smile and want to be on camera and joke around. Just showing up every day, people ignored me -- even if I was writing a book, it wasn’t going to come out for two years. And that’s a really good thing. People just didn’t ever see that there was going to be an end product and weren’t concerned in the slightest. (People in Juarez have) read it now. El Kartel didn’t like it at first but now they like it. It’s hard to be written about, I think you’ve seen enough. There’s always the initial reaction of, “hey this isn’t me,” and then later, “yeah, that’s me.” Marco Vidal liked it a lot but he didn’t like that I made fun of him for wearing Ed Hardy. He got traded to a team in Puebla and I went to go visit him and his wife and he took me into the guest room and his bedspread was an Ed Hardy bedspread. He was so clearly embarrassed to show me that. I found it funny that he was into Ed Hardy, but he was into it with honest enthusiasm. But he got a kick out of being in the book. Herculez Gomez, who only got a sentence, loved being in the book. People enjoy being written about. To me it’s just day-to-day, I don’t think about it, but for Marco, it was a big deal.
Ream: Indios ended up folding but there have been a couple of teams in Juarez who have followed. Have you followed any of them, like the current Liga MX squad Bravos de Juarez, which has a horrible logo by the way.
Powell: I totally agree about the logo. I don’t like the name either. The woman who runs it had a contest to name the team and I had a chance to talk to her. She said, “we love the name, it’s very organic, it came from the people.” And of course the people had voted for “Indios” and “Bravos” came in fourth, but that’s the name she wanted so she went with “Bravos.” I can live with the name because of the Rio Bravo, so it’s not so horrible, but the logo is weird. But the team, I’m glad they exist. They seem to be really bad again. The cycle continues and the door’s open for someone else to go with the Bravos. I’m glad they still have a team. I enjoy seeing them pop up on Google and that the city is back in the discussion.
Ream: I’m from the Sacramento area and to get anyone to play for the NBA team here, the Kings have to essentially pay more than market value because it’s not considered a desirable destination for the players. I have to imagine it’s similar in Juarez, but on a way larger scale because of the inherent dangers.
Powell: It was and it probably still is. I mean Juarez is still a violent city. The murder rate isn’t anywhere near (what it was when I lived there) but the core problems remain. Murder is still effectively legal -- you’re not going to get caught if you kill someone. It’s harder to get caught than it is to get caught doing steroids in Major League Baseball -- there’s a very small chance. That still exists and that’s still fascinating to me. Again, the murder rate is down, but it’s still legal. This supports my whole theory that most people are good, most people aren’t going to kill someone, even if they’re allowed to. The core lessons that I got out of the book experience are not what I expected going in. I didn’t expect to be roused by and encouraged by humanity. Juarez really was a hellhole in a lot of ways, but I liked it and I liked the people and I felt good about myself and about people from being there.