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Monday, December 09, 2019

The Immigrant Saga, Played Out On A Soccer Field In The South

The story of Los Jets is quintessentially American.

A smalltown high-school team, cobbled together of outcast and underdog students, struggles to overcome obstacles put in its way by unsympathetic officials and community naysayers. The once ragtag team perseveres with grit, heart, spirit and hope, and wins a state championship. The townspeople finally embrace the one-time outsiders as local heroes.

The sport is soccer. The town is Siler City, North Carolina, where the high-school football team — the Jordan-Matthews High Jets — was not initially inclined to permit fútbol to be played on its hallowed field. Los Jets, the soccer players, are mostly Latino. They are immigrants or sons of immigrants. A few are biographically similar to the youth who have filled the news lately — children who left Central America’s strife and crossed the border alone.

Los Jets’ coach is journalist Paul Cuadros, who moved to Siler City 15 years ago with a grant to study and write about the growth of Latino immigration to the South. After spending time among the migrant workers in local poultry plants, Cuadros decided to help their kids get a soccer team at Jordan-Matthews. He wrote about the experience in A Home on the Field: How One Championship Soccer Team Inspires Hope for the Revival of Small Town America, published in 2006.

Now comes Los Jets, a six-part documentary series premiering July 16 on NuvoTV, with Jennifer Lopez as executive producer. The series, filmed last fall, follows the team to the state soccer playoffs, but what it’s really about is something else: how immigrants become a part of their communities.

The immigrant’s saga is a peculiarly American genre, and in ways it is the defining story of our nation. For centuries, group after group of foreigners has arrived and has been cussed at and blamed for all sorts of social ills. Time after time, natives have fulminated that they will never learn English, will never assimilate, will never be loyal.

And yet the immigrants do. While all the legal and political fracas swirls around them, immigrants, particularly their children, integrate. Especially through public schools and sports.

“You are just seeing American kids when you see these boys on a team,” Cuadros said of his players.

They fret over girlfriends and who to take to prom. They have control issues with their parents, learn to drive, balance part-time jobs and soccer practice, and make plans for college or military service. They are obsessively attached to their cellphones. Some players were born in the U.S.; some are documented, legal residents and others are not.

Much has changed since Cuadros first convinced city fathers to allow a soccer team at the high school. The Latino population in Siler City has continued to boom, even after the poultry plants closed. Despite the predictions of some locals, the Latino families didn’t leave. It’s more of a bedroom community now, with families commuting elsewhere for jobs.

Only one member of the state championship team a decade ago went on to college. Now, the majority of Cuadros’ players do. Many receive academic scholarships, not athletic.

Cuadros has noticed a change in immigration patterns as well. After the housing bust and recession of 2008, the new arrivals from Mexico trickled to a halt and tended to come instead from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, most often fleeing spiraling violence and poverty in their home countries.

The series offers much needed counterbalance to current headlines. The week after a red-carpet screening the Los Jets series was held, protesters in Southern California blocked the roadway so busloads of the migrants who have been streaming across the border could not pass. The plan had been to get the migrants to a processing center. The angry protesters chanted “USA!” “Impeach Obama!” and “Deport! Deport!”

The humanitarian crisis at the border is not alleviating. People continue to show up daily, including children traveling alone, overwhelming border patrol agents and further stressing a system that was inadequate in the first place.

House Republicans continue to claim they can’t trust Obama, as an excuse for sitting on their backsides instead of legislating reforms.

Obama threatens to take executive action to fix things, but the only “fix” he has done is separate more families by deporting more immigrants than any previous administration. It’s a political stalemate with no resolution in sight.

Meanwhile, last week, Los Jets’ players were glued to their mobile devices, social media fiends that they are, sharing their disappointment over the USA’s much-too-early exit from the World Cup.

(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via email at msanchez@kcstar.com.)

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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