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'The Long Game': Story of Mexican American high schoolers who became golf champs

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: In Del Rio, Texas, in the 1950s, a group of Mexican American teenagers did the unthinkable - they played golf. You see, back then, the only Mexicans allowed on the all-white country club courses were as caddies or groundskeepers. But these kids made it all the way to the Texas state high school golf championship, and their story is told in a new movie, "The Long Game."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LONG GAME")

JAY HERNANDEZ: (As JB Pena) How would you boys like to be the first members of the San Felipe High School golf team?

(LAUGHTER)

CHRISTIAN GALLEGOS: (As Mario Lomas) Us?

HERNANDEZ: (As JB Pena) Sure. Why not? Little coaching, the right opportunities, who knows? Maybe we can make it to state.

MARTÍNEZ: That's the boys' coach, JB Pena, played by Jay Hernandez. Pena is an Army veteran and the school's new superintendent. And while he's watching these kids drive golf balls onto a homemade, one-hole course in a patch of dirt and brush, he sees their potential to play at a much higher level. Julio Quintana is the writer and director of "The Long Game."

JULIO QUINTANA: With a movie like this, technically it's about golf. But, obviously, the golf becomes a symbol for the American system as a whole.

MARTÍNEZ: Dennis Quaid plays Frank Mitchell. He's the golf pro at the local country club. Here, JB is trying to convince Frank to help him coach the team.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LONG GAME")

DENNIS QUAID: (As Frank Mitchell) Let me ask you something. Are they any good?

HERNANDEZ: (As JB Pena) Well, you know, they can be.

QUAID: (As Frank Mitchell) You don't even know.

HERNANDEZ: (As JB Pena) Why does it even matter? The most important thing is that people see Mexican kids golfing, all right? That's good enough for now.

QUAID: (As Frank Mitchell) Good for who?

HERNANDEZ: (As JB Pena) For the kids. For everybody. People need to see us as more than just caddies and cannon fodder.

QUINTANA: One thing that I didn't really know about golf, 'cause I didn't golf much before this, is that golf is such a game of honor. You know, you have to - when you're out on the course, you're keeping track of your own score. Nobody's watching you. And you're the one that has to fix your own divots on the green, and you're the one that has to rake your own sand. And so it became a really amazing way to express what I think a lot of immigrants go through, which is we want to be accepted. We want to be included.

And then we're also trying to figure out how to play the rules the American way, whatever that means in any given situation. We're trying to figure out how to adapt our own backgrounds to integrate into this bigger system. JB rightly sees the country club as a way for him and these boys to finally feel integrated and accepted into the broader American community.

MARTÍNEZ: So on understanding the culture of the place you want to be at - 'cause that's something that JB Pena knows and understands very well. As he's getting the kids ready to play in tournaments, he preaches restraint when faced with obvious racism and, actually, a lot more than that. Let's hear a clip of Coach Pena preparing his kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LONG GAME")

HERNANDEZ: (As JB Pena) I want shirts tucked in and a belt, all right? And no shorts. And lastly, and probably most importantly, I don't want to hear Spanish on the course - ever. We've got to look and act like we belong here.

MARTÍNEZ: What does JB Pena think he'll get by joining a place that seemingly doesn't want someone like them to be there?

QUINTANA: The movie's really about trying to figure out what is the balance between assimilation and authenticity, and how do you figure out how to integrate into a bigger system without losing yourself. And I think that speech you just played is JB at the beginning, when he's willing to sacrifice pretty much his whole identity in order to fit in - and he learns over the course of the film that that's not a sustainable model. That doesn't work.

MARTÍNEZ: The movie, though, does, I feel, ask questions about the intersection, so to speak, of identity and patriotism - loving a country that maybe doesn't love you back - because it seems like these kids didn't get much respect outside of their own community.

QUINTANA: Even though they identify as Mexican American and everybody thinks of them as Mexicans, they consider themselves Americans, and they love their country. And the fact that they can feel that way in spite of the way they were treated I found very inspiring. It's a real testament to them that they were able to overcome their feelings about being marginalized and still recognize that there's something bigger and something important that we're participating in in this country.

MARTÍNEZ: Joe, the best golfer among the kids - like, the one that JB has to convince to try and play golf because he doesn't want to play at first - he, though, is dealing with a father at home who discourages him from playing golf. Let's listen to some of that exchange.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LONG GAME")

JULIAN WORKS: (As Joe Trevino) They asked me to join a new golf team today.

JIMMY GONZALES: (As character) Yeah? Does it pay more than the club?

WORKS: (As Joe Trevino) I wouldn't be getting paid, and I wouldn't be a caddie. They actually want me to be a player.

GONZALES: (As character) Well, better bring your sombrero anyway, man, 'cause whenever you're invited to a gringo party, you're either the entertainment or the help. And at least you were getting paid to be the help at the club, no?

WORKS: (As Joe Trevino) I told him no.

MARTÍNEZ: Well, yeah, there's a lot in that clip because I am sure that there are plenty of kids of immigrants who have opportunities, but then they bring it to their family. And their family, being maybe someone who has been denied opportunities in the past, tries to be positive, but winds up being negative about it because of their own pain and their own heartbreak. I mean, I wanted to get mad at the dad, but I also kind of understood where he was coming from.

QUINTANA: Yeah, I know what you mean. And I think every immigrant has experienced some degree of that, more or less. And, you know, even in my own life, when my family found out I wanted to make movies, I think it's only been in the last couple years where they stopped asking me if I'm going to go back to school and become an engineer or something.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

QUINTANA: You know, I was like, what do you mean? My last movie was seen by, like, 100 million people on Netflix. But there's still always a sense that, like, maybe that's for other people, you know? Maybe that's not quite for us. And so I understand. Like, you know, Joe's dad - he also served, and he was hurt in his own way. And he was unappreciated, and so he's decided to put up the defenses so it doesn't happen to him again, it doesn't happen to his son. But that's just not the way forward. I mean, the reality is that if we want to accomplish anything - not just Latinos, but anybody in life - it requires risk.

And so luckily, for Joe, JB comes in as a mentor figure and is able to encourage him and tell him that maybe it's possible to do something greater. And that's why it's so important to have good mentors in any community and alternate, sort of, narratives to young people because, sometimes, it's holding us back from something greater. So that's what Joe's dad represents here.

MARTÍNEZ: Julio, I had a aunt who never thought that radio was a solid career choice for me.

QUINTANA: (Laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: She thought it was maybe not dependable. Even 15 years after being in radio, I see her at Easter or Thanksgiving or Christmas, and she would be like, you're getting better. You're getting better at this.

QUINTANA: (Laughter)

MARTÍNEZ: I'm like, I don't know - how many more years do I have to do this before you're convinced that that's a career path? But, you know, I get it because that story is much like many other immigrant kids who have to convince their parents that this new world that they brought them to - you know, that they're part of, offers opportunities they never had.

QUINTANA: Yeah, absolutely. That's exactly - I've had the - I still have that experience. I think this movie probably will convince my family to stop questioning my career choice.

MARTÍNEZ: Julio Quintana is the writer and director of the film "The Long Game." Julio, thanks a lot for joining us.

QUINTANA: Thank you so much. This was great.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDY FENDER'S "VAMOS A BAILAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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