The following article was written by John Frierson. To view the original article, click here.
Manuel Diaz remembers how he felt when he first arrived at the University of Georgia in the fall of 1971. A talented young tennis player from San Juan, Puerto Rico, Diaz struggled at first to fit in and feel at home.
“There were absolutely no Hispanics in Athens, Ga., that I knew of, anyway,” Diaz recalled with a laugh. “As an 18-year-old coming into a new environment, obviously the food was different, the language was different, the climate was different, so for me, it was quite an adjustment.”
That was 50 years ago, and the university and the Athens community are much larger and more culturally diverse now — and made dramatically more interesting and welcoming by that diversity. Diaz eventually found his groove, and the most obvious evidence of that is the fact that he’s now in his 40th year as the Bulldogs’ men’s tennis coach.
In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, which “honors the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America,” according to the official website, three Bulldogs of Hispanic descent discussed their backgrounds and their experiences in collegiate sports.
Georgia volleyball associate head coach Felicia (Arriola) Turner grew up in Southern California, with a large and diverse extended family. She has Hispanic, Native American and white ancestors on both sides of her family. Her maternal grandfather came to the United States from Juarez, Mexico, to work in his aunt’s restaurant in San Diego.
“He started working, got his green card, and he’s been here ever since,” she said. “Ever since then, my mom has had this very strong Hispanic background, making sure that our family is very tight-knit. I think the coolest thing about Hispanic heritage is how close and family-oriented we are. …
“My mom had 50 first cousins, so there was a birthday party every weekend.”
Darlene Camacho, Georgia’s Senior Associate Athletic Director for Strategic Communications, grew up in New Jersey, but her family is from Puerto Rico. And Puerto Rican culture was a very big part of her upbringing. “From food to telenovelas to Christmas Eve celebrations and other holiday traditions, our family was everything that makes Hispanic families and culture unique,” she said.
Camacho said she is thankful that Hispanic Heritage Month celebrates the many, many ways that Hispanic and Latinx people have contributed to American life and culture.
“It’s great that Hispanics tend to be more visible during the month, ranging from commercials to profiling Hispanic leaders,” she said. “Representation matters, and I am a big believer in that in order to be it, you must see it. This month provides the next generation of Latinx leaders an opportunity to see themselves and all they can be in a different light.”
Diaz, who played for legendary coach Dan Magill and in 1989 replaced him as head coach, has gone on to be one of the greatest collegiate coaches ever. Diaz has led Georgia to four NCAA team titles, two National Indoor titles, and is the SEC’s all-time winningest coach with 726 victories.
Diaz attended an English-speaking high school in San Juan, but that didn’t prepare him for the Southern accents he encountered in Athens. “That proved to be quite a challenge, at first,” he said, laughing. He also struggled at first with conversational English because he was still thinking in Spanish and had to translate what he was hearing in his mind, and then do the reverse when he was speaking.
“I felt quite isolated, quite homesick,” he said.
After struggling through his first few months at Georgia, Diaz said he went home for Christmas break thinking that he might not return to Athens. He talked to his father about it, and Manuel Diaz Sr. said, “You gave your word. You signed up for this and you’re going to see it through.”
Upon his return, after enduring an Athens winter, which to someone from Puerto Rico felt quite cold and harsh, Diaz’s Georgia experience blossomed in the spring. “I fell in love with it,” he said.
Men’s collegiate tennis has long had an international flavor to it. The first national champions were crowned in 1883, and the sport was dominated by players from the Ivy League until the 1920s, but by the 1940s Hispanic players were among those from around the world competing and excelling. Miami’s Francisco “Pancho” Segura, from Ecuador, won the national singles title from 1943-45. Tulane’s Jose Aguero, from Cuba, won the national championship in 1955, and USC’s Alex Olmedo, of Peru, won it two out of the next three years.
Hispanic players have continued to thrive in collegiate tennis in the decades since. Diaz was a two-time All-American during his great career, and one of the greatest Bulldogs and collegiate players of all time, Matias Boeker, a two-time NCAA singles champion (2001-02), came to Athens from Argentina alongside his twin brother Nicolas, who earned All-America honors during his career as well.
And before Diaz and later his younger brother Ricky were Bulldogs, Tony Ortiz played for Georgia in 1968. Ortiz, later the assistant pro at the Caribe Hilton Swim and Tennis Club in San Juan, told a young Diaz about Georgia and Coach Magill, which was how the Diaz-Georgia connection began.
During her career in collegiate athletics, from working with the North Carolina men’s basketball team as an undergraduate at UNC, to working in athletic administration at both Columbia and Texas, Camacho hasn’t worked with many fellow Hispanic administrators, and the number of Hispanic student-athletes is comparatively small as well. That is something she’d like to change. She’s working with the Latinx Association for Collegiate Athletics Administrators and Student-Athletes to bring about that change.
“We are all better when we create environments where a variety of experiences and perspectives are present, so collectively we’ve got to be more intentional in our efforts to increase minority representation,” she said. “Get to know your Latinx colleagues, especially student assistants. Let’s talk to our student-athletes of color and other students of color in our campus communities. Let’s be intentional about interviewing, hiring, and giving feedback to help people grow.”
Turner grew up playing volleyball in Orange County, Calif., and went on to play for Georgia coach Tom Black at Loyola Marymount, in Los Angeles. She said she didn’t see a lot of other Hispanic players during her career, which ended in 2013, and she doesn’t see a lot of Hispanic players or coaches today.
“I’m still trying to comprehend why, but I’m very proud to be able to say that I played volleyball and I graduated,” she said, “and hopefully I can be a role model for someone who maybe doesn’t have all the opportunities but can still get there.”
Courtney Gay, Georgia’s Assistant Athletic Director for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, contributed to this story.
Assistant Sports Communications Director John Frierson is the staff writer for the UGA Athletic Association and curator of the ITA Men’s Tennis Hall of Fame. You can find his work at: Frierson Files. He’s also on Twitter: @FriersonFiles and @ITAHallofFame.