For some Latinxs, soccer is a way of life one is born with and dies with, a passion that pumps through the collective bloodstream. And yet, as tension mounts and immigration raids sweep the nation under the current presidential administration, some amateur leagues are canceling their weekend games out of fear of gathering and exposing themselves to the new policies.
While that may not seem like much to give up, it’s important to remember that soccer is more than just a (beautiful) game for US Latinxs. It is a unifier that bridges gaps between disparate economic classes and transcends age, race, gender and national borders. That the looming threat of a xenophobic administration is testing those bonds only reinforces how important they are in the first place.
You see it in the South Bronx, where unaccompanied and undocumented minors use soccer as an outlet in an all-girls team created by the Safe Passage Project, an organization dedicated to helping them seek asylum. Their lawyers and social workers not only focus on their cases, but also act as their coaches to empower and instill confidence in the youth.
You see it in Sandy Springs, Georgia, where Los Niños Primeros serves disadvantaged Latinx youth living below the poverty line through a summer academic program, year-round Saturday school sessions, and extra-curricular activities like soccer that “promote creativity, self-confidence and the reassurance of belonging to a caring community.”
You feel it in Philadelphia, where the Unity Cup celebrates the city’s diverse communities through the mass appeal of soccer. “When you bring people together around one commonality, it’s the foundation for important cultural exchange and understanding that increases tolerance across the city,” said Mayor Jim Kenney of the competition.
On the professional level, the tides have been turning in recent years. While Major League Soccer teams still have a way to go with regards to connecting with the Latinx community, USMNT players like retired legend Landon Donovan have been vocal about the need for more inclusion, openly speaking out against the pay-to-play structure that limits up-and-coming players, especially Latinos, from joining elite youth clubs due to a lack of necessary funds.
Donovan is also famously quoted for saying he learned Spanish so he could connect better with his fellow teammates: “I learned to speak Spanish when I was younger, with my club team. Almost every player on my team was of Latino descent, and thus Spanish was used on the field more often than English. I quickly became aware that if I didn’t learn Spanish, I wasn’t going to get the ball, and I wasn’t going to be accepted on the team.”
In its best form, soccer always finds a way to bring different cultures together. In some occasions, it can even be the catalyst for two people falling in love. It is, after all, how my parents met. To say my entire existence is dependent on soccer is not hyperbole. The sport played an integral role in weaving the fabric of my predecessors’ lives together.
Their story begins in 1957.
On the day my father was born, Mexican giants Chivas de Guadalajara were in my native Tegucigalpa for a match against Olimpia, a premier Honduran soccer club.
Rene Rodriguez, my paternal abuelo and namesake, passionately loved Motagua—Olimpia’s longstanding rival—but agreed to support some friends who played for Olimpia on that fateful day. Back home, my grandmother, Haydee, was about to go into labor. Long before cell phones and text messages, she had no immediate way to reach Rene in time. As he witnessed Chivas defeat Olimpia from the stands, my father Ivan was entering the world.
Rene would make up his absence to Ivan six years later, when he took his son to another Chivas match against Olimpia, unaware that this bonding moment would lay the foundation for their lifelong mutual love for the Mexican club. The memory would also inspire my father’s career in sports and eventually lead him to meet my mother, Cora.
But first, he would meet her father, Daniel. In 1980, Ivan was assigned to cover FENAFUTH (Federación Nacional Autónoma de Fútbol de Honduras) as a reporter for Radio America. While he had privileged access to the players on the pitch, he also met and gradually built a rapport with the executive board members.
One of those board members was my maternal grandfather, Daniel, who, at 14, made history as the youngest player to ever join the Honduran national league, and eventually went on to play for C.D. Motagua. When he cut his days as a player short in order to earn his bachelor’s degree at Louisiana State University, recreational soccer helped ease his burden of navigating a new landscape.
It was there in Louisiana, the state housing the largest Honduran population in the United States, where he would meet my grandmother, Marion; an Oklahoma-born, Louisiana-raised English student with a thick Southern accent that still poked through her Spanish years later. Given their different backgrounds, a Honduran and a Southerner falling in love in that era was enough to land them in the local paper, when they wed on Daniel’s birthday—March 16, 1946 in Natchitoches, Louisiana. In their own small way, they made a huge statement about the potential so see beyond one’s ethnicity, language and heritage.
When Honduras qualified for the World Cup for the first time in their history in 1982, Radio America sent my father to Spain to document the historic event. As luck would have it, he would wind up spending a majority of his time in Spain working alongside Daniel, my future grandfather. Over the next several years, the two men would continue to cross paths, unaware that one day they would become in-laws.
By 1987, my grandfather asked my father Ivan to handle the press for an upcoming CONCACAF tournament. As part of the planning, he attended meetings with an advertising firm that handled tournament sponsors. That’s where he first met Daniel’s daughter, Cora, who was the firm’s Creative Director. Months later, he would run into her again at the closing party to celebrate the end of the CONCACAF tournament. Nervous but steadfast in his pursuit, he asked her to dance. “I don’t dance with journalists,” she told him.
Six months later, they were married.
Their mutual passion for soccer was passed on to their children. In my youth, I would rush to the television after dinner to watch my father’s sports segment on the evening news. If I was lucky, he would allow me to visit him in the studio and watch as he dotted makeup on his forehead and prominent nose before going on-air. On weekends, I could hear his voice roar “Goooool!” over Tegucigalpa’s airwaves during crucial soccer matches.
Somewhere deep in my parents’ garage are grainy video recordings of me pretending to be a reporter. With my older sister behind the camera and the Honduran mountains as my backdrop, I would stand in front of our home and deliver the day’s news.
Soccer shaped a significant portion of my childhood in Honduras, and now, as an immigrant living in the United States, it is something I cling to passionately to feel closer to my native land.
I am not alone.
Every year, amateur teams continue to sprout up all over the nation and not just in traditional sanctuary cities. From Rhode Island and Raleigh, North Carolina to Kansas and Kentucky, Latinxs are rapidly carving their niche on new soil. As we continue fighting to maintain our identity in frightening times, soccer serves not only an indelible link to our motherlands, but also offers a sense of community in our new homes—even when the future feels uncertain.