Kicking the Gang Attraction

In Gulfton, soccer is much more than a game

Watching Flores during a lull in the game, it's easy to see evidence of the lure of group membership -- and the two directions it can take -- for a teenager with limited English and few economic advantages. Beneath his crisp uniform, his athletic shoes are meticulously and fashionably unlaced. He still carries a beeper, though he insists it's for legal purposes -- "for girlfriends," Flores explains coyly. But the moment the team whistle blows, Flores politely excuses himself and bounds earnestly down the field to join his teammates.

Fourteen-year-old Franklin Cuevas, a star player and a league coach, takes the league equally seriously. A Honduras native who's lived in Houston for four years, Cuevas was a devoted soccer player before arriving here. Almost immediately after settling in Houston, though, he too joined the Cholos. Like Flores, Cuevas also says he specialized in car theft. Gang life offered him money and possessions he couldn't get elsewhere. But then Cuevas, who says he quit the Cholos of his own volition, found that the new soccer league offered him something that gangs couldn't: the chance to excel at something he loves.

"I have the most goals in the league at my level," Cuevas says proudly. So great was his transformation after joining the league, Cuevas says, that he even gets all A's in school and has been the subject of local newspaper stories. While no one could say that soccer has taken the place of gang activity for a majority, the league has been an important escape route, says Cuevas. Pointing at the field where Flores' team is playing, Cuevas says he knows at least 20 youths who, like Flores and himself, left gangs for the soccer field.

When Silvia Ramirez first started coaching Los Leones in March 1994, her young charges had no uniforms, no family cheerleading and, Ramirez recalls, no discipline whatsoever. A vivacious single mother in her 30s and a community activist since her days teaching catechism in El Salvador, Ramirez had recently arrived here after 15 years in California and was eager to indulge her ten-year-old son's fervor for soccer. She quickly assembled a team of soccer-loving friends who taught her coaching techniques. Then she jumped right in.

Not all the immigrants in Gulfton are as used to taking part in community activities, though. Salvadorans, for example, earned a reputation for grassroots organizing during their country's civil war, but in Houston those skills have yet to flower. The result, says league director Portillo, is a community that often sees itself at the bottom of the civic totem pole when it comes to services and attention.

Adapting to American culture has also left many Latino immigrants at a loss for how to discipline their kids, Ramirez says. When the league started, even her team of grade-schoolers showed an unsettling command of English and Spanish vulgarities and a decidedly un-Latino eagerness to shower them on elders. "Believe me, it's been difficult. The kids were brats," Ramirez says. "When they did something bad, we punished them by not letting them play. Now, there's such a difference in their behavior. They just want to play soccer."

Perhaps equally striking is the impact the league has had on their parents. From a loose association of teams, the league in one year has become a model of community participation. Seventy volunteers -- including young people such as Cuevas -- now coach and organize the league. And if parents were a rare sight at games last year, Ramirez says, about 60 percent of her players' families now attend every practice.

The league also has a directory board, and even a permanent meeting space at GANO, where not only board members, but also parents and players, gather to plan events and shape goals. This August, league families will collaborate on the summer's major fundraising event, a Salvadoran-style picnic with raffles, games and the choosing of a queen.

That kind of community activity, Ramirez says, is nearly as important to her as the kids' improved behavior, their safety from gangs and the fun of running around on a grassy field in 90 degree heat. "For most of the parents, it's the first time they've participated in group activities here," she says.

League director Portillo agrees. "[The league] is not only fun, but helps this group reclaim its rights in the community," he says. And while Portillo stresses that there is no political element to the league, it's easy to imagine that the mix of institutional recognition and community organization could one day bring Gulfton residents a higher profile in city activities, too. For now though, 11-year-old Mario Ojeda, a tiny child whose soccer shorts graze his shins, finds the equation of youth, sports and identity a simple one. "If we weren't doing this, we'd be in the house playing Nintendo," he says. "This is better because we're Hispanic and we like soccer.

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