A man walks into a bar. He comes out with an army.
Sergio Tristán is a welcoming presence. He’s quick with a smile and a joy with which to speak. He’s the kind of stranger you sit next to at a bar and later find yourself leaving having added one more friend in this world.
He launched what can be described as a supporter’s group for the Mexican national football team. Its nickname El Tri is uttered across countless dinner tables and Sunday asadas in the backyard.
But Pancho Villa’s Army is more than a supporter group. What Tristán helped create is a movement, a collective of like-minded fans who are out to not only further the sport and the love of team but bring people together, people who very quickly become family.
Started as a hypothetical notion in 2013, Pancho Villa’s Army is now a website that welcomes about a million visitors a month, a podcast that continues to give a voice to Mexican-American football fandom and 30 chapters nationwide that represent 15,000 members who are very much like an extended family.
And it all started with a dude walking into a bar wanting nothing more than to watch a football game.
Party of One
For that, you have to go back to the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup, a game that pitted rivals Mexico and the United States against one another. El Tri quickly saw the U.S. go up 2-0 behind goals from Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan.
Somewhere in Austin was Sergio Tristán, a lone green El Tri kit among a sea of red-white-and-blue American Outlaw supporters. Chants of “Dos a Cero” reminding Tristán not only of the score but that he walked into the wrong bar if he wanted even a modicum of support.
Mexico stormed back, winning the final 4-2.
“That was a game that Giovani dos Santos had that amazing goal you still see memes about where he chips it over the entire defense and over the goalie, tucks it into the corner,” Tristán recalled.
“I want to cheer; I wanted to yell,” Tristán said. “I wanted to high five someone. And there was nobody, nobody in that bar to high five with. My wife is Puerto Rican. So, I couldn’t even high five with her.”
The only thing he knew for sure upon leaving that bar was that the passion he had for soccer, the nostalgia he felt for the national team, it had to live and breathe elsewhere. There had to be others who wanted to join him and not only root but celebrate and mourn appropriately, a true support system for this magical and addicting thing called football.
“I left that bar thinking there's got to be more people like me that love Mexican soccer that would love to get together like this and kind of cheer on El Tri and have that community type of watch party.”
It's perhaps the inspiration for the group's trailer.
Tristán is El General of PVA, the leader and founder of a group that utilizes military distinctions for its members but resembles more of a community organization. Its members quickly become close friends. And if you find yourself in a city with a batallon (battalion), you can bet one of the city’s members will volunteer to pick you up from the airport and show you a good time.
Rich Guel is El Coronel, the second in command. Tristán’s close friend who time and again was referenced as the guy who reached out to others to welcome them into the PVA community.
“I contacted Sergio and we both had that same passion for Tri and we said, you know, let's do something for the people,” Guel remembered of those early days.
By 2013, the nagging idea that something bigger could be developed took shape, and that’s when PVA was started.
“It was just us two,” Tristán said. “It was a Twitter account and a Facebook page, and we put out a message saying, ‘Hey, we love Mexican soccer. Does anyone else love Mexican soccer? Let's go to a game.’ And that's really where it started.’”
Great ideas have a way of exploding in the most remarkable ways.
At the time the website was launched, there was a relative dearth of good English-forward soccer content that addressed the love Mexican Americans have for El Tri.
“There are people just like me,” Tristán explained. “We not only love Mexican soccer, but more importantly, consume their information in English while also being Spanish speakers. I think a lot of us, especially those of us that grew up in the 80s and the 90s, we had our education in English. So, we consume information a lot easier in English. So, we're yearning for that soccer content in English.”
PVA’s popularity is proof positive that there are numerous soccer fans that agree. Many of them flock to the website each month and, more wonderfully, follow PVA around the country to wherever the next international fixture might land.
It’s there that you get a taste of home wrapped up in the fervor of a tailgate, one that has a Saturday morning college football feel.
It’s easy to laud the sight as fan fever. But that would dismiss the nostalgia running rampant through each and every smile and laugh and chant that echoes from outside the stadium.
Tristán recalls fondly Sundays when he was a kid, busy weekends that included church, breakfast, watching Pumas on Telemundo before playing soccer with local kids.
Guel remembers his Uncle’s house, doused in the sounds of weekend Liga MX booming from the radio. At six years old, he was hooked.
“My passion came just by birth,” Alfonso Solorzano, the Capitán of the Phoenix Batallón, said. “Yeah, we were always watching that Mexican league and then we were watching Tri whenever they had matches, during World Cups or Copa Oros or Copa Américas, stuff like that.”
This is something that gets passed down from one generation to the next, and a link that forms a kind of permanence that is comforting.
Zinuhe Tinoco “El Zargento” is a sergeant in the Phoenix battalion, and he was also young when El Tri came calling.
“It came when I was four,” he said. “My first love for Mexico, just soccer in general, really came in the ‘94 World Cup. I was connected to the U.S. team. I did find a connection. But something about the Mexico team and where I was born and seeing my dad cheering Mexico and just kind of seeing the team and the spirit they had. For me, it just outshined the U.S. team.”
The tailgates are a connection to childhood, a simpler time when the worries of the world revolved around the time the game started.
“I mean, everybody's talking Spanish,” Tristán said of the tailgates. “For like four hours that day, it becomes a little Mexico. You have your food. You have your culture. You have your music. You have your language. And so that commonality is really cool.”
As American as Tacos and Soccer
There is perhaps nothing more American than starting a supporter group for the Mexican National Team.
For Mexican-Americans, there is an inherent duality about rooting for El Tri that can be a struggle or a blessing depending on how you look at it.
We may have gone away from this recently, but America is by its very nature a nation founded on the bedrock of so many different cultures and ethnicities. To share that and welcome others to enjoy in it is distinctly American.
“There was a time when if you were a Mexico fan in the U.S., there was some hurtful language used against you,” Tristán, who is a first-generation American, born to immigrant parents who came to this country in the 1970s, said.
“But I think I was the worst example for them to use. I'm a veteran. I was an infantryman in Iraq, trained in some of the most tenuous times, especially at the first (Iraqi parliamentary) election in 2005. I was there during that period. Some of the biggest battles of infantrymen, leading soldiers in combat. And you're going to tell me I'm not American. It just destroys the entire argument.”
Tristán has been in the military for 21 years now. He joined the army at 17, enlisted to the Infantry Airborne, received scholarships and was commissioned to become a lieutenant in 2002. By 2006 he was back from Iraq, earned scholarships to law school and transitioned to the JAG Corps where he was again sent back to Iraq in 2010. “I'm just as American as everybody else; I just like tacos and Mexican soccer,” he said.
The enjoyment you find in PVA isn’t relegated to cracking a beer and talking about who is in the starting XI.
“This goes further than in soccer,” Guel said. “What we have it's a privilege. I really believe it's a privilege that we have the best of both worlds, two different cultures.”
It’s About Family
Pancho Villa’s Family doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, but it really is that close-knit of a community. It’s a group that is dedicated to enriching their neighborhoods with myriad charitable endeavors. It’s an organization that organically turns new members into something much closer.
“I feel that when you watch a game, you watch it with friends. You watch with your family,” Tinoco said. “You become a family together. The ability to come together, you know, cry, laugh, cheer, suffer together, celebrate together. It's just a thing that just creates bonding.”
It’s not just a Mexican thing. It’s not just an American thing. This group has one rule, and that’s to make everyone feel at home.
“We're a national support group that welcomes everybody. We don't care if you're from Texas, from New York, from Georgia, if you're from Australia—we actually do have a member in Australia, Jamaica, Germany—We welcome everybody, every nationality,” Solorzano said. “If you want to support soccer and support El Tri, that's what we're here for. We're here to have a cohesive group that welcomes everybody.”
The group embodies the very best of sports frivolity. And this group rolls deep. As this Mexican American can tell you, even a three-year-old birthday mandates three cakes and copious amounts of food. So you can imagine the spread at an international fixture.
A tailgate with Pancho Villa’s Army is a party that never stops, replete with banda and whatever regional food you can throw onto a grill.
The chants are loud and the crowd is sizable. It’s not unheard of for PVA to enter the Rose Bowl with 1,500 supporters and fill up four sections with sons and daughters reveling in the ambiance of sports heritage.
For a few hours on any given day throughout the year, football fans have their childhood Sundays back. What started as a day on the couch with dad watching Chivas or kicking the ball outside with cousins or, more specifically, watching El Tri by yourself in an Austin bar back in 2011, has turned into a time machine that only plays the hits.
“It's really a pageantry of culture, of costumes, of ideas,” Tristán said. “It all just kind of gets blended in. Whether you're a U.S. fan full time, whether you're a Mexico fan full time, or whether you have that duality like some other people. It all comes together in this really cool flavor in the stands.”