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Photo by Sam QuinonesZEUS GARCIA HAS THIS THING ABOUT BASketball. Back in his village in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, he built a dynasty. He and his brothers and cousins walked miles to all-day tournaments. They played on dirt courts and, in their day, brought home the top prizes: 10 bulls, two horses and a donkey. Along the way, Zeus became an idol. Women showed up at his house to photograph his thick thighs. His team had quite a run there in the mid-1970s, never losing more than two of over 250 games.
They played great ball, their triumphs on the court becoming a mythic force in their lives. For years, their poverty didn't seem to matter. They made their own sneakers from shoe parts found in the trash. But the years took their toll, and, tired of being poor, Zeus' teammates, one by one, all headed north in search of better lives. Brother Gustavo went to Westminster. Cousin Alberto left for San Diego. Brothers Isaias and Arcadio went to Mexico City. Zeus stayed behind for several years and played basketball with a variety of teams -- usually the weakest ones -- at fiestas throughout the Oaxacan Valley before he, too, decided to move on to escape poverty and rejoin his family. For a year, he worked at a Chinese restaurant in Torrance, and never once played ball, his world reduced to his small apartment and a job across the street. Unhappy, he returned to Oaxaca, hoping never to return to California. Again, all he did was play ball. Again, women came looking for him. But it was all too much for his wife. She left, and Zeus drowned himself in mescal, staying drunk, by his account, for four or five months.
Feeling abandoned, Zeus headed back to Torrance, figuring he would never again play basketball, but a chance meeting on a bus with a fellow Oaxacan player gave him hope: He learned about regular pickup games for the Zapoteco Indians in West L.A. and started playing all over town. His team never lost.
Now, 14 years later, Zeus can no longer play the game, his knees ruined after he tried to play too soon after surgeries. But he still has this thing about basketball. L.A. is the scene of some 40 to 60 Zapoteco basketball tournaments a year, drawing thousands of players. And at the center of them is Zeus, now a tireless organizer and coach. He rarely loses and has whipped his basketball obsession into a religion. At the end of last year, as his team faced its biggest tournament, he had to wonder whether he finally had had too much of this good thing called basketball. What, after all, is the future of a team that can't find a worthy opponent? And he knows that few of the cheering and screaming fans are rooting for his team. Success has come at a steep price. Now, he has to decide whether to go on.
The victories and tests for his team, Raza Unida (United Race), illuminate a side of this city seen only by the thousands of Zapoteco Indians who have arrived here since the immigration wave of 1970. For them, basketball is more than a game. It is about traditions, and keeping a way of life from being contaminated by what they see as America's soulless ways.
"The sport's purity, that's what I want maintained," says Zeus, a 41-year-old busboy and one of the greatest Oaxacan players ever. "It's the same thing as preserving our language, the food, dance. There's no reason we should lose this part of our roots."
THE LOS ANGELES AREA HAS ONE OF THE world's great populations of Oaxacans (pronounced wa-haw-kans). They began arriving in the 1970s, their numbers growing as Mexico's economy crumbled in the 1980s. Today, an estimated 60,000 to 200,000 -- mostly Zapotecos, the largest of Oaxaca's 16 Indian groups -- live here, having reached critical mass in the 1990s. Most live in ã Santa Monica, Venice, North Hollywood, Westminster, Santa Ana, Long Beach, South-Central L.A. and Korea- town. "It's no longer Koreatown, it's Oaxacatown," says Fernando Lopez Mateos, part of an emerging Oaxacan business class in Los Angeles. He owns a money-wire service and La Gueleguetza, a restaurant on Eighth Street off Normandie Avenue. A decade ago, Oaxacan restaurants were rarities, but now have popped up all over town. On Sundays, the lines are out the door. Lopez Mateos decided a market also existed for a newspaper. Last February, he began publishing El Oaxaqueño, a free, 15,000-copy biweekly.
El Oaxaqueño is in the great tradition of American ethnic newspapers. Yet it is not about people from one country -- like the Hungarian Weekly or the Armenian Observer -- but about people from one state. To Americans, Oaxacans may look Mexican. But they are a group apart; they are Mexico's Mexicans, the cheapest labor in a cheap-labor country. Mexicans often view Oaxacans as ignorant and unassimilated. They call them "dirty indios," "Oaxacos" or "Oaxaquitos." They insult them for speaking their native languages publicly and not learning Spanish properly. When Oaxacans began arriving in Tijuana in the 1970s, bus drivers would make them wait until the "white people" had boarded.