SAO PAULO – The number of fans cheering Mexico at the World Cup has taken observers in Brazil by surprise. But talk to those waving the green-white-and-red, and it becomes clear that when the tournament ends, many will return home not to Mexico, but to the United States.
It's unknown how many of the 200,000 World Cup tickets sold to people in the U.S. were bought by fans of Mexico. The number, however, certainly has boosted the 34,000 who purchased tickets from Mexico itself, according to sales figures released by international soccer's governing body.
For Mexico's first match at Dunas stadium in Natal, the Mexican Soccer Federation expected about 15,000 fans would be there to cheer for "el Tri," as Mexico's team is known. But by the time the team claimed its 1-0 victory over Cameroon, surprised local media speculated there were at least twice that number.
On Tuesday, when Mexico tied Brazil 0-0, the number of fans wearing green or red in Castelao Stadium was large and passionately loud against the World Cup host.
"That's the talk here," said Juan Chacon, a Mexico supporter who lives in Texas. "We're asking each other, 'Where did so many come from?'"
The United States has seen steady growth in its Hispanic population, which now makes up 17 percent of the total population, or 53 million people. About two-thirds of those trace their roots to Mexico. At the same time, strong earning power in the United States makes it easier for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living there to afford the trip to Brazil. Per-capital annual income in the U.S. is $47,000, compared to $9,000 in Mexico.
U.S. travel agencies were ready to capitalize on World Cup travelers, regardless of whether they were cheering for Team USA or Mexico. Fans wanting to follow their preferred team to Brazil's various host cities could purchase a luxury travel package for $11,000 including high-end hotels, personal tour guides and local transportation, or economy deals without the frills for between $3,000 and $4,000.
Many of the soccer fans traveling from the U.S. are part of the last great wave of Mexican migration to the United States, which spanned the 1990s to the mid-2000s. Others are second-generation Mexicans who grew up rooting for the Mexican team at a time when Team USA was still unknown.
Chacon, for one, was born in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, but grew up and studied in El Paso, Texas. He and two American friends traveled to see Mexico in both Natal and Fortaleza, where the team faced Brazil.
While he speaks Spanish with his friends and with Mexicans he has met during his trip through Brazil, it's not always smooth. "All of a sudden, out comes the Spanglish," he said, such as when he's asked what he does for a living.
"How do you say 'customer service?'" he wondered, before exclaiming with relief, "Soporte al cliente!"
Francisco Trejo and his two sons traveled to Fortaleza from Los Angeles. "As with us, there are many more friends and acquaintances here who have (U.S.) nationality, but the truth is we came to support Mexico completely."
Daniel Hawkins, a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who has studied the sociology of sports, said the support for Team Mexico is only natural.
Mexican-Americans, he said, "love the U.S. They would cheer for them, but they have this loyalty to Mexico. It's a cultural thing of identifying with your home culture in addition to being American."
That sentiment was on display by the Dallas chapter of a fan club called Pancho Villa's Army, which formed last year to support the Mexican team. At a beach in Fortaleza in northeast Brazil, members of the group posed with a banner showing the Mexican seal against an outline of the Dallas skyline.
"Historically, Mexican-Americans have always been huge Mexico soccer fans. It gets passed on by our culture," said club founder Sergio Tristan. "The USA soccer team is relatively new. So, there are a lot of people in my generation that, now that we have money in our pockets, we are going to travel with our team."
Marcos Mijares, a 42-year-old Atlanta resident, said he roots for Mexico even though he's lived in the United States for more than 10 years.
"For us, to root for Mexico is like eating tortillas," he said. "You've got to do it."
Associated Press correspondent Carlos Rodriguez contributed to this report from Fortaleza.
Adriana Gomez Licon is on Twitter http://twitter.com/agomezlicon