Soccer team transforms troubled boys into role models
For the 50 teenage boys in Watsonville’s Aztecas Youth Soccer Academy, their purple uniform is more than just a jersey and shorts. It’s a metamorphosis—a chance to lose their baggy pants, long T-shirts and gang colors, and become something new, says Gina Castaneda, a Santa Cruz County deputy probation officer and the academy’s head coach.
Most of the boys are probationers from migrant farmworker families. Many are in gangs, some in generational gangs with their parents, uncles and grandparents. Several struggle with drugs and alcohol.
On the team, the boys receive not only elite soccer coaching, but also mentoring, academic help, field trips and community service opportunities from a group of volunteers—several who are probation department employees.
At some point, something truly transformative happens.
New players begin dressing in Aztecas gear off the field, not just occasionally, but constantly, says Castaneda. It’s a signal to gang members to leave them alone.
“The warm-ups—they wear them all the time. Their jerseys and T-shirts, they’re worn until they’re tattered,” she says. “They’re absolutely right. They get to identify all the time as athletes. They don’t have to go back to wearing their gang clothes.”
Castaneda, a former Aptos High soccer standout and collegiate player, founded the nonprofit academy in 2008 with the Santa Cruz County Probation Department, after realizing that many of the boys on her case load wanted to play but had no money to join a team. More than just a space for soccer, she wanted to create a safe place, where boys from rival gangs could play together.
She has a strict rule: no gang colors at practice.
“They’re at a point in their lives where they’re rejecting gangs and they’re getting clean and sober, and that’s scary for them,” she says. “There’s a safety concern. How do you move away from gangs and violence and not have your homeboys come after you? What do you do? It’s changing their identity.”
Most of the young men, who range in age from 13 to 20, grew up playing street ball, but never organized soccer. With Aztecas, they’re able to play in competitive adult men’s leagues and receive professional coaching.
The players also include 15 adult volunteer mentors, all Latino men—some who are graduates of the program and others who are probation officers, police and community organizers.
Volunteer Alex Sanchez, a coordinator for the Watsonville employment nonprofit Alcance, says he grew up on Watsonville’s toughest street, and his ticket out was soccer, especially with the mentors he gained in the process.
Sanchez began mentoring with Aztecas after playing the boys in his adult league and seeing an ESPN documentary about the team. “People ask me all the time if I’m scared,” Sanchez says. “I’m like, man, have you ever spent time with these kids? They’re like any other kid.”
Like Sanchez, most of the group’s mentors grew up in Watsonville and grappled with similar life choices.
“You’re talking about a population of kids that people don’t want to support,” Castaneda says. “It’s easier to incarcerate them and forget about them than actually give them service. When they see that there’s all these people and probation officers that show up for them every single practice and every single game, they get motivated.”
Coming into the program, the boys have different goals than many other teens, Sanchez explains—getting fed that day or staying alive, for instance, rather than college.
“It’s changing the mindset,” Sanchez says. “It’s having a bright future, going from ‘I could graduate’ to ‘I’m going to graduate and this is how I’m going to do it.’”
Sanchez says that several of the boys already knew him from his Alcance work. The boys know the other mentors, the police and probation officers, too, from their lives on the streets, he adds.
“We’re not strangers to them,” he says. “Having law enforcement on the team, the boys get to joke around with them and know that they’re human and they make mistakes, too.”
In the past four years, Aztecas has graduated more than 15 students from high school. Outside of the program, Castaneda says, in 10 years she’s had only two students in her probation caseload graduate from high school.
What’s more, Aztecas boasts a handful of alumni playing college soccer at Cabrillo College and California State University Monterey Bay.
“They’re not just kids that are at risk or kids that are on probation or gang kids,” she says. “We really guide these kids into becoming athletes, and not just athletes, but pretty competitive athletes.”:
Santa Cruz Gives
Aztecas Youth Soccer Academy is one of 30 nonprofits in GT’s Santa Cruz Gives holiday giving campaign, which runs through Dec. 31. To read about the project for which they are seeking funding from Santa Cruz Gives donors, go to santacruzgives.com. For more information on how to become an Aztecas volunteer, visit aztecasyouthsocceracademy.org.
SPREADING CHEER Paulina Gonzales, an Aztecas assistant coach, gets doused in a team celebration.