July 27, 2010
Julio Borbon is a multi-cultural player in a multi-cultural game. The speedy center fielder came to the Rangers via the University of Tennessee, but he spent his formative years in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Borbon talked about his Latin-American upbringing, and the baseball-crazy cultures of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, when Texas visited Fenway Park earlier this month.
David Laurilia: What is your background?
Julio Borbon: I was born in Starkville, Mississippi and lived there up until I was 3 years old. I don’t remember much, but I remember my early days when I was in the Dominican. I lived there 14, almost 15 years, when my parents moved back. Then we came back to the States and I’ve been here since I went to college at Tennessee.
DL: Did you grow up speaking Spanish?
JB: I grew up primarily listening to Spanish, being around my parents, but my first three years I was still in America, so I was going to day care with English-speaking people. That definitely helped me out in picking it up when I came back to the States, but it was a little bit of a hard transition when I went school in the Dominican, according to what my parents told me.
DL: In which ways was it hard?
JB: Just picking up the language and Spanish overall. I was so used to hearing English around me that my first couple years of school I had to make a transition back to learning Spanish. Then, when I came back to the States, when I was 18, I had to [relearn English] because I had to go to school. I had to pick it up pretty quick.
DL: Just how difficult is it for Latin kids coming to the States to learn English?
JB: It’s very hard. It was for me and I had a little bit of a base to start out because I was born here. But it was really a hard transition as far as the language barrier and also the cultural barrier, too. It is one of those things where you have to pick it up as you go, especially being a ballplayer, as you’re around so many English-speaking people that you have no other choice.
If there was something that I would suggest to them, to help them pick it up quicker, it would be reading or watching TV shows or movies in English, because sometimes they find it even harder because of the way they go about it. They only speak English when they have to and they try to stay around people who only speak Spanish, just because it’s their comfort level. It’s hard to get out of that, but if you do, you’ll definitely find yourself learning it quicker.
DL: When you’re a teenager in Latin America, being watched by scouts, is there an incentive to begin learning English?
JB: Being that young, it’s still hard to understand for a young guy, a teenager. They don’t realize until they hit that wall when they come to the States and find themselves surrounded. At that point in their lives, I don’t think they find that urgency yet—not until they get here.
DL: There are a lot of cultural stereotypes about Latin America. What is it really like in the Dominican Republic?
JB: The Dominican is a poor country if we were to compare it to the States, but at the same time, it’s a country with a lot of heritage and a lot of folklore. They have music and they are very happy people and fun to be around. They’re just people that enjoy life overall.
I’ve been lucky. I’ve experienced both cultures and I’ve been able to get a little of both and live my life the way I’ve felt like I needed to live my life. I play baseball and I’m very lucky to do that. I just try to go out there every day and enjoy playing this game, and that’s something that being in the Dominican taught me, because of the way their conditions are, like their ballparks.
DL: Are Dominicans and Venezuelans pretty similar, or are there distinct differences?
JB: They’re different. I think the only thing that comes close is the language, but other than that, everything else about them… you can definitely find a lot of different things. Even their accents in Spanish, or the vocabulary they implement into their daily speaking around other people. I’ve been able to pick it up and hear the different terms they use when they refer to certain things. Even in the baseball world you can still find yourself around Venezuelans and find it hard to understand certain things because of the way they use certain words. Sometimes, Dominicans will use a word that we refer to as something going badly, and they might use it the other way around where it might be something good for them. But overall, we have pretty much the basic things, like saying hi and talking about things, and colors—just the basics. But when it comes to slang, there’s a lot of different things between Dominican Spanish and Venezuelan Spanish.
DL: Style-wise, is baseball the same in the two countries?
JB: Baseball is the same style-wise, definitely. Just the way that… what they bring to baseball is that stylish flavor that I didn’t see in America when I was here in college—the way they move around on the baseball field, the way they run, the way they have their hitting styles. It’s definitely one of those things that you learn when you’re in a Latin culture.
DL: Did you encounter many stereotypes in the minor leagues, such as people assuming that you don’t speak English?
JB: Oh, yeah. I would have people come up to me and say, “Oh, I didn’t realize you spoke English because I’ve seen you around a lot of Latinos, and by the way you speak Spanish, it doesn’t even look like you’d come close to speaking English.” I’m a living experience. I’ve lived that and I’ve seen it happen to other people—other Latinos coming up in the minors. I got to see how some guys approach [a Latin-American player] and the first thing they do is try to speak the little bit of Spanish they might know, and then they find out that he understands enough to where they could have spoken English to him. I did definitely see that, but because a high percentage of Latinos don’t speak English, it’s not for us to blame. It’s one of those things where maybe you have to just go by where they’re from, I guess.
DL: When I interviewed Manny Mota earlier this summer, he said there wasn’t racism in the Dominican when he grew up. What is your perspective?
JB: There’s racism everywhere. In the Dominican, I wouldn’t say it’s specifically between black and white, it’s more between the nation that it’s attached to—Haiti and the Dominican—from what I’ve seen. Obviously, Manny Mota has been around and he’s a little older than me, so he’s probably had more experience than me. But from what I lived, growing up in the Dominican, I can recall experiences seeing Haitian people being judged and mistreated by Dominicans, and back and forth, just because of them coming from a different culture, not necessarily because of the color of their skin.
DL: How do people in the Dominican, including young baseball players, look at the United States?
JB: They see it as a bigger country, way bigger, and not only because of what they see in maps, but from what they see in pictures from other people who have been there. It’s definitely something they see… a lot of guys have it as their goal, one of things that they want to accomplish in life, either as a baseball player or as just having a normal job and coming to the States on vacation, maybe to New York or California—anywhere in the United States. It’s just one of those things they see as a goal—a lot of Dominicans that I’ve seen.
DL: From what you’ve seen, are Latin American players treated any differently coming up through the minor-league system?
JB: I wouldn’t say so. Based on what I’ve seen, I don’t think so. I think everybody I’ve seen has been treated the same. I was around a lot of the Latinos coming up and I never saw anything; everybody was treated the same way. They were given the same amount of time; the same amount of effort was put into each one of them according to their needs.
DL: Did you act as a liaison for teammates who didn’t speak much English?
JB: Definitely and I still do to this day, just helping them out. When we were in the minors and out on the road, and we had to go out and eat, or they had to do anything that they couldn’t understand as far as making a payment online, or doing something that they had no idea of what they were doing, they would reach out to me and I was glad to help them. I was definitely one of those guys they would seek out for help.
DL: How much do Dominicans follow MLB?
JB: One hundred and fifty percent. Every Dominican that lives there, when I lived there, was keeping up with any Dominican in the league. I remember keeping up with Sammy Sosa and Pedro Martinez, and all of the guys that were doing well back then. TV and newspaper are the primary vehicles used to keep up with it.
DL: Do most Dominicans have TV access to MLB games?
JB: Definitely, and they don’t necessarily need it at their houses. There would be gatherings at little business centers or places where they would place bets. They wouldn’t necessarily place bets, but they would use it as a way to keep up and watch how these guys were doing in the States back then.
DL: How differently are you treated when you go back to visit?
JB: Last year, I was able to go and the only difference I saw was that I got recognized a little more when I was out in the streets. But other than that, it was the same. You can go out there and walk down the street and not worry about it. There’s so many people that are baseball friends and what they do is encourage you and keep supporting you and keep wishing you the best. It’s something where you’re seen more as an idol, somebody that people look up to—kids and even older people.
DL: Any final thoughts?
JB: I’m just a 24-year-old who has been able to experience both cultures, and I’ve been really blessed and lucky to play around guys who I grew up watching, like Vlad Guerrero and so may other Dominicans who are still around the league. I’m a living experience that people can go out there and set goals for themselves and no matter how high they are, if they believe they can achieve them, they’re definitely reachable.
I’m a little bit over a year already in the league, and I’m really excited about the things I’ve experienced so far. I started out a kid in the Dominican, having dreams of playing in the big leagues, so I feel very lucky, at this point of my career, to have enjoyed and lived the things that I have.