A Home on the Field

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Migrants from Mexico and Latin America are transforming the American south. In his new book A Home on the Field, TIME reporter Paul Cuadros chronicles one town's decision to start up a soccer team in its increasingly Hispanic public school — and how that team struggled not only to win acceptance among the Anglo establishment but also on a playing field dominated by white soccer organizations who looked at them as interlopers. The story is a deeply personal one. Cuadros himself helped to found and coached the team, taking a bunch of young street footballers from Jordan-Matthewes High School in Siler City, North Carolina, through triumphs and defeats to come in reach of a state championship. Published by Rayo, an imprint of HarperCollins, the book will be in stores after Labor Day. An excerpt:

The second day of practice saw only sixteen players arrive. Several had not been eligible to play on the team and had dropped out. Others had found the first practice too hard, too uncomfortably hot in the sun, and stayed home. Others didn't like the regimental form of practice and only wanted to play cascarita [free-for-all street soccer]. Many couldn't come because they worked after school.

Work was very important to these kids. Most had jobs or were looking for them. Work defined who they were. If you had a job, you were somebody, you were not lazy. For these Latino families, work was so important it took a backseat to almost everything in the family. It didn't matter what kind of work you were doing as long as you were working and making money. Some Latino kids had no choice, they had to find a job to help pay the bills at home. Latino families expected their children to help pay for the household expenses once they got older. Many families rationalized that if their children were in Mexico and were sixteen, they would already have been done with school and out there working. Some took jobs in home construction, fast-food restaurants, garages, whatever could be found. Some even worked at the chicken plant on second shift at night, using false IDs because they were under eighteen.

The work issue was a definite impediment to the team. Some could not make it because of their jobs. I asked them to shift their schedules for the season and many did. Others could not or would not. The bottom-line requirement was that they needed to be at practice at least three days during the week.

After two weeks of hard practices that focused on teamwork, Ricardo and I ended practice without the usual cascarita the boys loved so much. We gathered them together in a circle and talked about the next week. We were starting the season in earnest that week with a home game against our country conference rivals, Chatham Central.

Now I left Ricardo with the boys, went to my car, and brought back two large boxes. I dumped them down in the middle of the boys. It was time. The boys needed to play in uniforms and I had ordered some at a discount with the Chatham Soccer League, of which I was a board member. A local businessman paid for them.

When I opened the box, it was like the ground had trasmitted an electrical shock to the boys' feet. They jumped up and crowded around. I shoved them away and told them that seniors would get the chance to pick first, followed by juniors, sophomores, and freshmen last. The chavos grumbled, but it seemed the only fair way to hand them out. We called the seniors to the box first and the boys stepped up and picked out a uniform. There were two sets of uniforms, for home and away games, and the numbers needed to match. The home uniforms were white with royal-blue sleeves and gold piping. The shorts were royal blue and the socks white with blue stripes. The away uniforms were royal-blue jerseys with gold piping, gold shorts, and blue socks. On the chest of each of the uniforms was the word JETS. The boys immediately put on their jerseys, laughing and touching the silky fabric. It was the fist time they had ever worn JETS on their chests. They were giddy with joy.

"Esta chido, Cuadros," Loco said when he got his jerseys. "It's cool, Cuadros."

Hearing Loco say that and watching the boys don their jerseys made me think of all the effort it had taken to reach this day. It was the first time that Latino boys at JM finally felt like a part of their school, like they belonged, and that they had a chance to bring honor to their school and community. They were no longer on the sidelines watching teams compete as Jets. They were now Jets themselves and they were eager and excited about their first game.

It was only Oso, a senior, who recognized the signifcance of the moment and the work that had gone into it. He came up to me, towering over me in his white jersey, and softly said, "Gracias, Cuadros ." He wrapped his big arms around me. Oso had the maturity to see what an important moment this was at the school. Last year he was playing for Chatham Central because they had started a soccer program the year before and he wanted to play. He had transferred specifically to play on their team but had always wanted to play for JM. When he heard we were going to have a team, he rescinded his transfer and came back to be a Jet. He wore the jersey now with dignified pride.

As the boys pulled the white-and-blue jerseys over their heads, I gathered them together. I tried to say something to capture the moment."You are the first," I started. "Remember that you are getting the chance that many other Latinos at this school wanted but never got. You are the ones who are making history today. You are the first Latino Jets."

The boys stopped for a moment and turned to me.

"There were some who never wanted to see this day but here it is. There were some who didn't want you to wear those colors, but here you are in blue and white. There were some who didn't believe you could make the grades, or stay in school, or behave as a team. But here you are. Now you have to prove to everybody that you can win because that's what they want to see, that's what you know you can do. Win. Now we'll see if you have the will. The ganas."

"Si, Cuadros, si," they said. "Vamos a echarle ganas. We're going to try hard."

I thought about that word — ganas — for a moment and all that it meant. The word not only asked the speaker to try to give everything from his heart, but it asked what his heart was really made of. And that remained to be seen.

From A Home in the Field by Paul Cuadros. Copyright 2006 Paul Cuadros. To be published by Rayo, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.