It doesn’t take long to figure out which part of the world Gio Gonzalez calls home. The answer is obvious when the Washington Nationals pitcher wears his black snapback cap with HIALEAH spelled out in black block letters. It is gleaned, too, from his walk-up music at Nationals Park, which currently is a snippet of a Pitbull song called “Greenlight” featuring Flo Rida and LunchMoney Lewis. All three are Miamians. There are references to the 305 — the Miami area code — throughout. Gonzalez is Miami-Dade County through and through.
But as the son of a mother born in Havana and a first-generation Cuban father from New Jersey, his identity is a bit more complicated.
“If I talk to a Latin ballplayer, I’m Cuban,” Gonzalez said. “And if I talk to an American guy, I’m American. No matter what. You’re never going to win in that argument. It’s never a win-win situation.”
This is National Hispanic Heritage Month, a period that runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, and Major League Baseball is recognizing it with a campaign it’s calling “Ponle Acento,” meaning “put an accent on it.” Of the league’s 30 teams, 23 are hosting Hispanic Heritage games, including the Nationals’ game against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday.
The effort is to celebrate “the many ways that MLB clubs and Latino players impact the game on the field and in the Latino community,” the league said. According to MLB, 214 players on Opening Day rosters this season identified as Hispanic/Latino (28.53 percent). Players from Latin American nations comprise the vast majority, but included in the calculation is a growing population of American players who likewise identify as Latino, reflective of the American population at-large.
They are the sons and grandsons of people who left Latin America for the United States, and they are players who navigate between two universes, inside and outside of the clubhouse.
“I’m American-born,” said Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, a Miami native and son of Dominican immigrants. “I love this country. I love everything about it. But, you know what? I’m Dominican. You get the best of both worlds, and it’s a privilege, honestly.”
Not every Latino is the same. Different countries have different cultures and dialects. Countries contain more layers of differences within. Latin Americans, so often grouped together, are vastly diverse, too, beyond country of origin. Some speak Spanish fluently. Some prefer Spanglish. Some do only English. Some have a deeper connection to their roots than others. The diversity is evident in baseball clubhouses.
Nationals reliever Rafael Martin was born in California but spent parts of his childhood, until the seventh grade, in Mexico. He’s fluent in English and Spanish and easily flows between conversations in both. He catches up on telenovelas with his mother during the offseason, and he listens to two genres of music: banda, a type of traditional Mexican music, and country. Before he became a professional baseball player, the only Latinos he had ever interacted with were Mexican.
“At first, it’s interesting,” Martin said. “Weird sometimes. Especially like [how] other countries use different words in Spanish. I find it very interesting, the way people come up in different countries, different styles.”
Gonzalez grew up in Hialeah around Latinos, mostly Cubans, hearing Spanish constantly. His grandparents spoke the language exclusively. But Spanish wasn’t prevalent in his household, and that’s what he told the group of Latinos on the 2004 Bristol White Sox, his first professional team, who gravitated toward him because of his last name and were puzzled when Gonzalez was reluctant to use Spanish.
“It was funny,” Gonzalez said. “I told them the only time I was spoken to in Spanish either was when I was in trouble from Mom or Dad or when I stayed at my grandparents’ house.”
A 12-year crash course later, Gonzalez, 31, says his Spanish has vastly improved. With the language skills and cultural connection comes additional duty.
“I always wanted to make it a point to speak to Latin ballplayers in Spanish,” Gonzalez said. “Let them know I understand and I can help them out in any way.”
As the son of Hall of Famer Tony Perez, Eduardo Perez was born in Cincinnati, grew up in major league clubhouses and split his childhood between the continental United States and Puerto Rico. He attended high school in Puerto Rico then college at Florida State before the California Angels drafted him in the first round in 1991. He realized his unique background immediately.
Perez said he bought 50 $1 Whoppers from Burger King for his Latino teammates every day in spring training with the Angels one year. He lost count of the times he served as an interpreter during eye exams. He gave financial advice to Latinos and explained cultural differences.
“A lot of players have been cut short not understanding the culture on both sides,” said Perez, now an ESPN analyst. “That is something that has to be improved on. And that’s where sometimes I’d come in and help.”
While major league teams are now required to have a Spanish-language translator and minor league coaching staffs are increasingly diverse, bilingual players still serve as intermediaries. Nationals minor league pitcher Ronald Peña was born in Florida to Dominican immigrants. His family has cooked Dominican dishes for teammates, and, as he’s often the only Spanish-speaking player on his team with a car, Latino teammates feel comfortable asking him for rides.
“It’s kind of like being the middleman,” said Peña, 25, who roomed with Nationals catcher Pedro Severino for two years. “It’s something I take pride in, being able to help those guys out with whatever was needed.”
Peña said he identifies as Dominican, even though his time spent in the Dominican Republic growing up was limited to a couple weeks every year or two. Machado does, too, and he announced earlier this year that he will play for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic next spring. In 2006, Alex Rodriguez, also raised in Miami by Dominican parents, initially announced he was going to play for the Dominican Republic before changing his mind and playing for the U.S. team. The decision was heavily criticized in the Dominican Republic. Two years later, Rodriguez committed to the Dominican team, but an injury forced him to withdraw from the next year’s competition.
“It’s tough,” Machado, 24, said. “I’ve played for Team USA already. I played here, but I think it’s a little more than that. I think it goes more to pride and more to what my family wants and what they would love. They’ve always wanted to see me play in those Dominican colors and represent their country.”
Icy political relations between the United States and Cuba don’t give Cuban-Americans the option to play for Cuba, and Gonzalez played for the U.S. team in the 2013 tournament.
“You want to kind of represent where you’re from,” Gonzalez said. “Obviously I was born in Hialeah, Florida, and I’m American, but I also have Latin roots, so it’s a nice thing to put that badge on your chest. . . . I wish there was something like a Cuban-American team. It would be a pretty interesting group. A big group.”