For several decades now, the news coming out of Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez has been laden with stories of femicide, cartel violence and homicides. But the border region south of El Paso on the Rio Grande is more than the violent wasteland we often see depicted in the news. And of late, the city has experienced significant growth and change; in November of 2014, Juárez ranked 37th on a list of worldwide murder rates, a 70% improvement from data gathered in 2008.
It was that same year– 2008– when Juárez’s local fútbol club, Los Indios, was promoted to Primera División action. After surviving a couple of seasons of first division competition amidst tensions and indiscriminate violence, the hometown team went on a miserable 29-game losing streak, solidifying its place in the history books as the worst team to ever play in Primera. Robert Andrew Powell– an expert on Juárez soccer history–was bummed by the failure at first. But he was quick to realize that Indios’ difficulties were a metaphor for the city at large. In an essay for The NY Times Powell wrote, “Things were bad on the border and getting worse. I found two dead bodies in the drive-through lane of a convenience store. A decapitated torso hung from a fence near my local burrito joint. As many as 25 Juarenses were being murdered in a single night.” That year (2010), government statistics reported unprecedented body counts nearing 4,000 dead.
Los Indios’ difficulties were a metaphor for the city of Juárez at large.
Júarez’s dark past makes the city’s recent soccer transformation that much more beautiful and inspiring. In June of 2015, FC Juárez arrived to bring professional soccer back to the city for the first time since 2012. The team has an unlikely leader at its helm: Alejandra de la Vega, the only female director in either of Mexico’s top two fútbol leagues – Primera and Ascenso – and one of very few around the world. Under de la Vega, FC Juárez is ushering in a new era of hope for the community. This is not to say that the border town is free from the chokehold of violence, but it demonstrates the capacity of sports to instill positive change, capture the resilience and perseverance of a people, and foster communal identity in an effort to move past troublesome times.
Born in El Paso, de la Vega spent most of her youth living on the Juárez side of the border. She studied engineering at Monterrey Tech, and went on to become a respected entrepreneur and philanthropist– president of her family’s business, Almacenes Distribuidores de la Frontera, crucial player in bringing a children’s museum to Juárez (“a place where children can dream”), and, above all, strong believer in the power of arts and sports to “thread communities together.”
In the late 1980s– while astoundingly only in her 20s– de la Vega became the first woman to enter the Mexican pro soccer ownership ranks managing the Cobras de Ciudad Juárez. Serving as vice president and chief executive officer, she oversaw Cobra’s ascension from second to first division play before the team eventually folded in 1995. Even then she was focused on the importance of soccer players serving as role models for the region’s youth; “that’s really what this is about,” she told El Paso Times. “That’s what I see. Economic development and revitalization of Downtown? Yes. But it’s more than that.”
At the start of this season– FC Juárez’s first campeonato in the Ascenso MX– she disclosed similar sentiments: “We need to focus on the quality of life … It will be a reflection of that fighting spirit, of the resilience that characterizes all Juarenses.”
The team’s name– “Los Bravos,” or “The Tough Ones”– could not be more symbolic of the fighting spirit that de la Vega spoke of; in its first ever season, Juárez came in second and beat Atlante FC 3-1 on aggregate to win the Ascenso MX title (the second leg was played this past weekend, a 3-0 win at the Estadio Olímpico Benito Juárez with goals from Wanderley de Jesús, Edgar Mejía and Leandro Carrijo.)
The community finally has a team that it can rally around once more.
“We are very pleased with the team’s sporting performance, and above all pleased to be able to give that satisfaction to the best fans in the league, who have filled the stadium for each and every game and who immediately sold out tickets to this finals’ match. It is great that this community – hit hard by violence – can feel that urge to celebrate life, to cheer for a goal scored by its home team.” she told Mexican sports newspaper Récord after the match. “That shows the great resilience of the Juarenses and their desire to succeed, leaving behind this very dark period of their history. Ciudad Juárez is in full recovery; safety indices have returned to normal – in fact, we have 26 months without a single kidnapping – the murder rate is already lower, and today we celebrate fútbol, which is food for the soul.”
When asked about de la Vega’s impact on Juárez, Robert Andrew Powell told me that what she “has accomplished with the Bravos is astounding. From conception to a league title in only seven months – does that even have a precedent? She’s been notably hands-on throughout the process. She flew down to Cancun for the initial player draft. She hired the coaches, branded the club, ordered up distinctive uniforms and put a team on the field that was a contender from game one.”
What de la Vega has accomplished with the Bravos has no precedent.
He went on to describe her as a “civic vitamin of sorts, something positive for a city to rally around” a la Francisco Ibarra, the former owner of the Indios. Her presence is felt across the river too; “she had the Bravos play a game in the stadium of the Chihuahua baseball team that she also started up recently.” Apparently, she’s a big proponent of a transnational Juárez–El Paso community.
When asked if FC Juárez would be able to achieve the impossible and get promoted to Liga MX action after only one year in existence, Powell said he definitely wouldn’t bet his life on it; “can we say for certain that the undefeated Carolina Panthers will win the next Super Bowl? But the Bravos are at least halfway there already, which is amazing. I applaud the team’s success. I’m pumped up for the city and for my many friends there who are enjoying the sport they love. I’m going to be following the Clausura closely. I badly want to get back to Juárez to see a game.”
We’ll be following too, no doubt blown away by FC Juárez’s heroic first year of fútbol success.