The Carolina Panthers and Hispanics in Charlotte have been growing together over the past 20 years as the NFL franchise marches to its second Super Bowl appearance, bringing along new fans in the city’s fastest-growing population, says one advocate for the Latin American community.
One reason Hispanics are drawn to the team is because many see head coach Ron Rivera as one of their own, said José Hernández-París, executive director of Charlotte’s Latin American Coalition. Rivera’s mother is from Mexico and his dad is Puerto Rican.
Immigrants and Hispanics who move to North Carolina from another state “are looking to belong and integrate themselves ... And the Panthers offer that,” París said.
“The Panthers are starting to build an international following – it’s not just local,” he said. Many large Mexican cities have listeners who tune in to the Panthers Spanish radio broadcasters Jaime Moreno and his nephew Luis Moreno, Jr.
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On Saturday, the Morenos will host two Panthers pep rallies in California – one in English and one in Spanish for Roaring Riot club members based in 10 countries.
Luis Moreno Jr. said he understands interest in Rivera’s race, but thinks “the fact that his team is winning is the number one reason” Hispanics in Charlotte are paying more attention to Panthers.
For most people from Latin America – countries such as Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, Cuba and others in South America and Central America – soccer, or fútbol, is the most popular sport.
Gridiron football isn’t likely to surpass soccer in popularity, París said, but he sees a growing attraction to the Panthers among Hispanics in Charlotte. Coach Ron Rivera, he said, “kind of jolted that interest in the team.”
Rivera is “the ideal image of a (Hispanic) father figure: stern, but fair,” París said, adding that the team has done a good job reaching out to local Hispanics.
And it’s a growing market. Nearly 20 percent of children in Charlotte schools are Hispanic, and the area’s overall Hispanic population has grown by about 15 percent since 2010.
The Levine Museum of the New South has documented the growth in an exhibit called “NUEVOlution! Latinos and the New South.” It highlights the culture and contributions of Hispanics in North Carolina and includes Rivera.
Charlotte mom ‘proud’ of Rivera
Some Hispanic parents in Charlotte say pulling for the Panthers helps them teach their children a part of their Latino culture as well as learn about the most popular sport in the U.S.
Jarvis and Katherine Arrington of Steele Creek regularly host game-watching parties at their home with friends from Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru.
Raised in Bogota, Colombia, Katherine Arrington says she only began paying attention to the sport her husband is obsessed with after Rivera became the Panthers’ head coach in 2011.
Rivera’s last name caught her attention and she searched the Internet for information about his upbringing in the U.S. in a Hispanic family. She later brought her friends on board, as well as her family in Colombia.
“I said, ‘Hey, this guy is Hispanic – let’s start watching and see how it goes.’ ”
Her husband, Jarvis Arrington Jr., who is a black American, says the diversity at their game parties is a chance for people from different cultures to get to know each other and find common ground in football.
The Arringtons’ youngest child, Joshua, 6, says he wants to “go to school and study football,” his mom said. Their oldest son, also named Jarvis, is 18 and the student body president at South Mecklenburg High. He tries to recruit his Hispanic friends to attend school football games.
“I feel proud (of Rivera),” Katherine Arrington said. “I know my friends feel proud, too. There are kids that want to be like him.”
This weekend, Arrington’s family in Colombia will watch the Panthers take on the Broncos. Arrington sent them Carolina gear and links to Spanish-language videos that explain football.
In Charlotte and in Colombia, her family will watch the Super Bowl from home – not in a bar or restaurant as many in the U.S. will do. Despite growing interest, there’s no particular public gathering spot where Hispanics go to watch the game in Charlotte, both Arrington and París said.
Fans already have a taste of the fervor Hispanics bring to sports through the Morenos’ spirited broadcast for the Panthers.
When the Panthers score, it inspires a Moreno cry of at least a few loud consecutive “Touchdown!” cheers. Luis Moreno Jr., one half of the 102.3 FM duo, says he doesn’t want to be known solely for being a Hispanic calling games for the NFL – just a talented broadcaster “who happens to be Mexican.”
Rivera has similarly said he’s proud of his Latin American roots but wants to be known as a great coach overall, not recognized only for being the second Hispanic head coach to take his team to the Super Bowl.
Moreno said he understands the interest in Rivera’s ethnicity, but thinks “the fact that his team is winning is the number one reason” Hispanics in Charlotte are paying more attention to the Panthers.
As Moreno sees it, a person’s heritage doesn’t matter: “the race to the end zone – that’s it.”