Kicking the Gang Attraction

In Gulfton, soccer is much more than a game

It's high noon on a torturously hot Saturday at Burnett Bayland Park: dozens of adults cheer in Spanish for a ten-year-old soccer player rushing the goal, a Salvadoran woman approaches carrying a cooler of refreshments on her head and scores of exuberant kids chase soccer balls on five nearby fields. None of this, says Salvadoran-born Silvia Ramirez, who coaches a 12-and-under team called Los Leones, would have been seen in this park two years ago, before the Southwest Houston Soccer Association was formed. And its impact, she believes, lasts long after each weekend is over.

For the mostly Central American families playing, coaching or watching the matches in this southwest side park, the year-old league has brought a distinct sense of community order, belonging and pride. Its fans range from people like Ramirez, who loves seeing timid, non-English speaking neighbors come out to watch every practice, to teenagers like Antonio Flores -- a former Southwest Cholo who believes that playing soccer has kept him from returning to the street gang.

Although Latin Americans in the United States have watched soccer with uninterrupted passion for decades, the massive Central American immigrant community that sprouted in the Gulfton area during the 1980s has never played much organized soccer. A few groups of adults had teams, but there was no youth league, and only a few organized teams in the area.

"The problem we have here is language," explains Ramirez, a nurse's assistant who coaches in a white pleated skirt and satin blouse. Lack of confidence in English, she believes, has kept Gulfton's Hispanics from many organized activities because of the need to deal with English-speaking officials. "The other problem," she adds, "is that people are working very hard." Immigrant families often just don't have the time to do the organizational work required to set up leagues.

League director Mario Portillo, who is employed by the YMCA, says there was another, more symbolic stumbling block to organized soccer in Gulfton: a lack of institutional support. But all that started changing in 1994, when the Gulfton Area Neighborhood Organization (GANO), the YMCA and Les Haulbrook, founder of a new nonprofit organization to promote soccer nationwide, pooled their expertise to start the southwest area league.

The league got a further boost this spring, when it joined Houston's newly created metropolitan soccer league run by the Parks and Recreation Department. Encouraged by the city and the U.S. Soccer Federation, corporate sponsors such as Fiesta and KTRK/Channel 13 agreed to give each child in the program free uniforms and insurance.

Even before that, though, young players had signed on enthusiastically to the league. It started out with 500 members, 19 years old and younger (most of the players are boys, but girls may join any team and, in fact, account for about 15 percent of the players). One year later, the southwest league has 44 teams and 650 members -- all of whom, it would seem, are running, chasing each other or shouting at the same time on this brilliantly hot Saturday. While the citywide program is meant to discourage gangs and draw inner-city youth into soccer, in heavily Hispanic Gulfton the league has also become an expression of community identity.

"If I weren't playing soccer, I'd be in a gang. Period," declares 18-year-old El Salvador native Antonio Flores. Shy with strangers, resplendent in his white and blue soccer uniform, Flores seems a different person than the one who spent two years in the Cholos, Gulfton's most notorious street gang. Flores came to the United States with his mother and sister in 1990 to improve their family's economic prospects; within two years, he'd joined the Cholos, more for the companionship than anything else.

Almost immediately, Flores started getting into trouble. His priorities, he says in Spanish punctuated by occasional English, were to "go dancing, esquipiar school and to do everything that was the opposite of good." Decked in the ubiquitous gang regalia of baggy Dickies pants and shirt decorated with gang nicknames, Flores butted heads with police constantly. The confrontations peaked in late 1993, when he was arrested for stealing a Toyota Corolla and spent a month in jail.

After he got out, Flores says, the complaints and warnings of adults in his life suddenly seemed to make sense, and he left the Cholos. But just as it's painful to gain entry into a gang -- a typical initiation rite includes a beating from other gang members -- getting out has been hard, too, Flores says. Gang members often ask him why he's "left the neighborhood," and Flores still works to avoid conflict with several former comrades who didn't take well to his quitting.

If he hadn't started showing up at the soccer field about three months after leaving detention, Flores says, he'd probably be back with the Cholos today: even after dropping out, he still went out with them at night and socialized. But playing in the league gave him a pretext to get in early at night and a place to be when he otherwise would have been hanging out with the Cholos.

"When I began to play, I realized: 'What's better, playing soccer or getting in trouble?' In a gang, everyone supports you. Nobody messes with you. (But) here, I've found my favorite sport, and the help of Don Mario," says Flores, whose use of "Don" in reference to the league director suggests deep respect. "He's a magnificent person. He's supported me a lot."

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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