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Jun 12, 2014

Peralta brings La Partida to big stage

FC's Robbie Earle, Tommy Smyth and Shaka Hislop look ahead to Mexico's World Cup opener against Cameroon.

LA PARTIDA, Mexico -- The most important skill in La Partida is knowing how and where to find shade. It's smoking hot, even in spring, even as adults head to work and students in uniforms wait on the road's dusty shoulder for a morning bus. The 3,798 residents of the farming and industrial village find relief wherever they can get it, slipping beneath tarpaulins to eat a breakfast gordita at a roadside stand, walking beneath umbrellas like antebellum ladies or hanging beneath the pinabete trees, which manage to survive in the arid badlands of northern Mexico. At the edge of town, backed by endless rows of corn, the tin-roofed bleachers of the soccer pitch offer perhaps the largest stretch of shade, where the heat fades and the breeze blows cool on your face. The ground beyond the faded chalk boundaries sparkles with broken glass and hundreds of Corona tops, another way to escape the sun. The field itself is khaki-colored dirt, with a patch or two of sickly grass, and it is here, on a scorched field with a tractor rumbling past on a distant road, that the star of the Mexican national team first played the game.

"One day," Oribe Peralta told his family as a boy, "I'll be on TV."

Now 30 and a grown man, Peralta plays his first World Cup match today in Brazil, the only person from La Partida ever to play in soccer's biggest event. His family and former neighbors will be gathering around televisions, like most everyone in Mexico. Oribe made good on his promise. His father has to work, but he'll be checking the action. His uncle, a local dentist, laughs and mimes the action of carelessly working inside someone's mouth with his head glued to the game. At some of the factories 2 or 3 miles down the road, where Oribe might have ended up were it not for his magic feet, the foremen are shutting down the plants so everyone can watch. They'd do this even if Peralta weren't a local boy made good, but the connection will be even stronger in the sprawling industrial park. Soccer isn't ever the most important thing in the world, but for the next month, in La Partida, it's pretty damn close. Everyone in the village will be inside, watching.

"Lonely streets," says local resident and family friend Homero Carrillo, smiling, as he finds his piece of shade in an outdoor restaurant with a single metal table and four plastic chairs. Behind the counter, Eva Hernandez works a flat-top griddle and handles business with the Coca-Cola deliverymen. She says Peralta -- who until recently played for the club team in the nearest city -- comes home at least once a week, on Sunday, to visit his family and go see his old youth team play at the dirt-covered pitch.

"He's an idol," she gushes.

A discussion of Peralta soon leads to the pervasive angst over Mexico's chances in Brazil. Carrillo makes an exaggerated nervous-shaky-hand motion when he talks about the national team, known as El Tri, which barely even qualified for the World Cup. In a recent ESPN The Magazine story, Bill Donahue wrote about how fans in Mexico always seem to be looking for a folk hero to bring them salvation. "No one could save us now but the saints," he quoted a television reporter saying.

Oribe Peralta is set to play for Mexico in his first World Cup.
Oribe Peralta is set to play for Mexico in his first World Cup.

The latest candidate for this secular canonization is Peralta.

"The family lives here," Carrillo says, pointing across the highway, which runs through the cornfields and past the industrial zone toward the city of Torreon.

Now retired, with not much to do, he cranks his red Volkswagen and leads me to their home a block away. Peralta's grandmother sits in a chair reading, and when she sees an approaching reporter, she walks inside, sending Oribe's uncle, Noe Morones, outside to welcome the visitors. He is a sturdy, friendly man, a little thickness unable to obscure his former athlete's body. He moves like an athlete. The family is proud of Oribe's success but also wary of the Mexican folk hero machine, which offers the promise of a bright, warming sun and then burns up most people who step into its light. That's how people in La Partida might best understand the concept of fame: It's like giving up forever the possibility of shade.

"They pump them," Morones says, "and when you have one bad season, they put them down."

Peralta played for a series of Mexican teams, eventually landing at the Torreon-based club Santos Laguna, and two years ago, at the London Olympics, he led El Tri to a gold medal. Back home in La Partida, people burst from their homes into the streets, waving flags and riding up and down the streets in cars and trucks, chanting and laying on the horns. For a few hours, it was as if they had all traveled halfway around the world to become champions. "No matter the place where you are from," Morones says, "if it's small, it doesn't reflect the size of your heart."

A month ago, the wealthy Mexico City club America, the New York Yankees of the nation's soccer world, bought Oribe from Santos Laguna. He's leaving the area where he grew up, and the safety of his hometown. No more nostalgia-filled Sundays at his grandmother's table. Peralta felt sadness when he got the news, because even though he is chasing bigger and bigger dreams, he's giving up something in return. His uncle tries to explain, through a translator, why he cannot imagine Oribe as an old man in La Partida, hanging out here in hometown, living out his days as a sort of local deity. "He is so inside the football world of Mexico," Morones says, "it's difficult for him to come here again."

"You mean, 'You can't go home again?'" I ask.

Uncle Noe nods. Peralta's dreams carried him away from the heat of his dusty town, and also away from the shade, and when he comes home, his life is so different from that of his old friends. "Some grow and some don't," Morones says. "It's hard to talk to each other. It's hard to relate with your friends."

Peralta is moving to the biggest team in Mexico, and at 30, his uncle admits, this is probably his last World Cup at the top of his form. His time is running out.

Morones nods.

"This is his moment," both Carrillo and Morones say.

"It will be really important how he performs," Carrillo says.

"It could be la vidriera ..." -- a Spanish word meaning 'shop window' -- "... for a European team to call him," Morones says.

A half-block away, a middle-aged man stands over the heat of his grill, as he does every day, turning gorditas, painting them in a red slurry he keeps in a stainless steel mug on the grate. He grins when asked what is inside his cup.

La Partida is a farming village of 3,798 residents.
La Partida is a farming village of 3,798 residents.

"Red chiles and butter," he says.

Locals line up and wait for big orders, wrapped up with the homemade salsa poured to go in plastic bags, carrying away food for lunch. Each white bucket of salsa contains six pounds of fiery red jalapenos. It's barely 10 in the morning. Years ago, Peralta would come eat at his house, since the Contreras family is known for being great cooks. Like everyone, he is struggling with Oribe's move to the fancy Mexico City club.

"We don't like America here," he says.

"Why?" I ask.

He thinks for a moment and laughs.

"I don't know," he says.

Big trucks loaded with green bales of hay bounce past, one with a cowboy hat on the dash. Contreras stands beneath a tree, where he's set up his grill, and much of the town will pass by before the day is done. He sees a lot, and he says he noticed that after Mexico won the Olympic gold medal, something felt different.

Peralta didn't change, but his hometown did.

"When he comes nowadays, he stays inside the house," Contreras says, pointing down the street. "He doesn't walk the town anymore. He's kinda famous now, and the people gather around him."

Contreras flips the gorditas. A woman sweeps the dust in the street, and people clean up from yesterday's market. The people of La Partida will gather in front of their televisions, in the shade of the mostly one-story houses, while a continent away, one of their own steps out into the sun.