By Camilo Montoya-Galvez and Kervy Robles
NEW YORK — For many immigrant youths in New York City, ambitious dreams of joining the fútbol elite converge at the bustling subway station at 161st street in the South Bronx. A few minutes before 8:00 p.m. on every Tuesday and Thursday night, this group of young immigrants meet at a large training pitch overlooked by the iconic Yankee Stadium to earn a spot in Saturday’s starting lineup and most importantly, an opportunity to fulfill their lofty aspirations.
Once the cleats are laced, the shin guards strapped on and the best plays from Europe’s top leagues analyzed, Andrea’s emphatic instructions begin. “Guys, form a straight line,” he tells his fellow U19 academy players, repeating the commands of the team’s assistant coach in a tone less like the one of an authoritative leader and more like the one of a caring older brother. The 17-year-old goalkeeper, who arrived in the United States in 2006 from the Dominican Republic, relishes and thrives in his role as team captain. Every training exercise revolves around his leadership, which is accentuated by his towering height and a salient maturity unusual for someone his age. He presents himself as a caretaker of sorts for this diverse outfit of young dreamers and immigrants, whom he likens to a rare, unexpectedly cohesive family — one that maintains its treasured virtue of comradeship on and off the pitch.
“These guys are like my brothers,” he said while fixing a pair of worn-out gloves left scarred by blistering shots from opposing strikers.
Andrea, the son of a Dominican mother and an Italian father, has a diverse and storied background that mirrors the composition of South Bronx United and its members, who hail from all corners of the globe. The non-profit organization, based in one of the most underprivileged and economically challenged neighborhoods in New York City’s poorest borough, provides immigrant youth educational, social and legal support, using fútbol as the avenue to do so.
According to South Bronx United, approximately 99 percent of the players in its academy are immigrants or come from immigrant households, and around 40 percent are foreign-born. Players in the program represent more than 30 countries across four continents, with a majority of them hailing from nations in West Africa, South America and Central America.
Additionally, when taking into account the organization’s community and afterschool programs, South Bronx United serves more than 1,100 youths — and 80 percent of them are from immigrant families.
While Andrea practiced diving saves with the other two goalkeepers on the roster, his Jamaican teammate, Dominic, 17, led an intense one-touch passing warm-up drill on the other side of the pitch. The high school senior joined South Bronx United’s Saturday recreational league in 2014, the same year he and his mother moved to New York City from the coastal town of Portmore in Jamaica’s southeastern corner. The young immigrant began to represent the program’s travel academy after coaches noticed his electrifying speed and versatility on the wing. Like Andrea, Dominic treasures the resilient brotherhood forged within the confines of this training arena.
“It’s really easy to adapt because they have a family mentality here. As soon as you get here, everyone wants to be friends with you,” he said while taking off his Portuguese national team jacket, which he wears with pride and with the hope of emulating his longtime fútbol idol and Real Madrid star, Cristiano Ronaldo.
During two hours of arduous training, Andrea, Dominic and their fellow teammates took part in a series of exercises focused on ball possession in tight spaces, effective buildup of offensive movements and the fundamentals of the tiki-taka passing style epitomized by teams like Vicente del Bosque’s World Cup-winning Spanish national side and Pep Guardiola’s record-breaking F.C. Barcelona.
While South Bronx United’s flagship academy side took part in this training session of high intensity fútbol, coach Daniel Arellano led a disciplined group of teenage girls in a set of drills designed to strengthen their tactical awareness, technical finesse and close-range finishing in the mold of five-time Brazilian FIFA Ballon d’Or winner Marta Vieira da Silva and two-time American Olympic gold-medalist Carli Lloyd.
Like many of his players, Arellano’s toughest matches have been played off the field. He grew up playing pickup games in the streets of Cochabamba, Bolivia, and at a very young age, earned a spot in a semi-professional club in the third tier of Bolivian fútbol. His promising career, however, was interrupted by series of severe knee injuries that left him permanently on the sidelines.
After being forced to reroute his aspirations in life in his early twenties, the Bolivian native immigrated to the United States, with his ardent passion for fútbol — the same that once drove him to become a professional player — still intact. Arellano’s arrival in the Big Apple was marked by a transition from contesting grueling skirmishes in the midfield to building game-play formations from the sidelines as a coach. Wasting no time, the former semi-professional player earned his coaching license and took on a part-time job coaching youth teams in Queens, while also serving tables in different restaurants in the city to make ends meet.
After years of sticking to this routine, Arellano found in South Bronx United a place that fused both his love for the sport and his experiences as an immigrant. He now coaches the organization’s U16 girls’ academy team, an outfit made up of young immigrants like himself, whose paths to this training pitch in the West Concourse sector of the Bronx have been fueled by a lack of opportunities in their native countries. The Bolivian coach has worked as a waiter and busser in the foodservice industry for more than 15 years, but during the summer, he said he takes a break from the heat of the kitchen and the demanding pace of the dining room to dedicate to his coaching duties at the Bronx-based organization and most importantly, to his influential role as a mentor for his young players.
“They have the chance to be really good. The key is to instill in them a sense of discipline and work ethic, because in fútbol, if you do not have discipline and work ethic, nobody is going to look at you,” he said while setting up orange cones for a ball control exercise.
By promoting these two tenets of discipline and work ethic, Arellano hopes to close the gap that he believes exists between young female players and their male counterparts. “For them, by being girls, it’s already difficult because they don’t give them the chance to demonstrate their talents,” he stressed. “But, just like you see them, they’re incredible, very conscious. They’re competitive, and do not want to fail.”
Gender inequality in the sport does not only affect these young fútbol prospects in the South Bronx, but also world-class players at the highest level of competition. A national debate was sparked last year with the dispute between the U.S. Women’s National Team and the U.S. Soccer Federation over an alleged pay disparity between them and players on the men’s side.
As this issue has gained world-wide recognition, South Bronx United has made concerted efforts to provide the necessary facilities for these young teenage girls to achieve their respective dreams. The organization prides itself in having a developed co-educational program in a city where no established fútbol league for high school age girls exists.
Approximately 30 percent of South Bronx United’s current participants are female, most of them from Latin American countries. This may seem like a small figure, but according to organizers, it is an impressive feat to achieve due to what they describe as a remarkably difficult process of recruitment.
‘If you don’t go, you don’t play’
While radiant lights begin to illuminate the training pitch near the home of the 27-time World Series champions New York Yankees and young fútbol aspirants step out of crowded rush-hour trains in the 161st street subway station, South Bronx United staff members are diligently enlisting new players, filing paperwork and reviewing court cases on the second floor of a building on Grand Course avenue.
In this unpretentious office, cluttered stacks of documents seem to keep Andrew So, the founder of South Bronx United, preoccupied and working at a pace similar to that of a fiercely contested UEFA Champions League final. After the culmination of his workday — or perhaps, during the added minutes of his match of the day — So recalled the origins of the non-profit organization he established in 2009.
So, who was raised in California, said he pursued a teaching position in the Bronx after graduating from college due to the pressing economic, educational and social needs of the community. During his tenure as a public school teacher in the South Bronx, So realized that a fútbol program had the potential to foster community ties within this diverse neighborhood and improve the opportunities afforded to its youths. “South Bronx has over half a million people, but there was no competitive fútbol program really to give youths a chance to get outside of the community,” he said.
Years after its inception, South Bronx United remains committed to providing its various types of resources to local youth. According to organizers, 80 percent of participants in the program reside in the South Bronx, 10 percent live in the North Bronx and another 10 percent commute from the Washington Heights and Harlem neighborhoods in Manhattan.
The 501 (c)(3) non-profit has been able to play a significant role in the lives of young immigrants in New York City thanks to continuous support from numerous entities and individuals, including New York City Football Club’s charitable foundation, the Citgo Petroleum Corporation and global investment firm BlackRock. According to the organization, approximately 89 percent of its budget is raised through special events, donations and grants, and 82 percent of these funds go directly to programs. The organization needs a steady flow of financial contributions to sustain their work in what is considered to be the poorest district in the nation. According to an analysis of U.S. Census data by the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress, Congressman Jose Serrano’s (D-N.Y.) 15th congressional district — which includes most of the South Bronx — has the highest poverty rate of any federal constituency in the nation. Additionally, the median household income among families in all of Bronx County is $35,302 and about 28 percent of its nearly 1.5 million residents live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The impoverished conditions of the borough also affect the very youth who proudly defend the sapphire blue colors of South Bronx United’s uniform and the emblematic motto found on its crest: ‘Academics. Leadership. Athletics.’ Approximately 47 percent of youths in the congressional district encompassing the South Bronx live in households below the poverty line, and recent records compiled by South Bronx United indicate that more than 90 percent of the young immigrants enrolled in its programs are eligible for free or reduced price lunch in the schools they attend.
Along with persistent economic hardship, the South Bronx community also faces important challenges in its educational sector, including subpar graduation rates. According to statistics by the New York City Department of Education analyzed by the New York Daily News, only 54 percent of high school students in this neighborhood earn their diplomas within four years. During the early days of the organization, So recognized this issue and, just like a fútbol manager, incorporated new tactics to the playing scheme, seeking to maximize his players’ potential.
“We realized pretty quickly that we couldn’t accomplish our mission just on the field. So, we started integrating our academic programming,” So mentioned, sitting in a classroom inside the Urban Assembly School for Careers and Sports, a public high school within a short walking distance from South Bronx United’s office and the current home of the organization’s academic program.
Above the red lockers found in the bright hallways of this Bronx school, a quote from basketball star Michael Jordan serves as a source of inspiration for the young immigrants who come here before heading to practice. “Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it,” the quotes reads, with Jordan’s signature partly effaced.
While some students contemplate about Jordan’s words, others rush into their classrooms to begin the day’s instruction. In these rooms, full-time instructors and volunteers offer local youths educational instruments designed to keep them on track in their paths to academic success. South Bronx United’s multifaceted academic programming has become one of the pillars of the organization, so much so that players are required to attend at least two sessions per week to be allowed to train and play.
“Our students really have to put some work in the classroom to be eligible to play in their games and show that commitment,” said Bridget Mahon, the non-profit’s youth development counselor and one of the staff members responsible for the continual growth of South Bronx United’s academic sector.
Instructions and mentoring sessions run five days a week, and cover a wide array of activities for high school students; including help with school work for freshmen and sophomores, standardized test preparation for juniors and guidance for filling out student financial aid and college applications for seniors.
Mahon, a former goalkeeper and captain for George Washington University’s Division I women’s team, underscored that the organization does not evaluate students’ academic performances through a traditional grading system because of the varying economic backgrounds, immigration status and level of English language proficiency among the young immigrants who belong to the program. “We want our students to be working at their best, and the grades and the outcome,” she said. “But, it is really the process that we are focused on. Are you coming in consistently? Are you putting in the work? And are you practicing the skills of good communication and time management, just like you’re going to need in the workforce, just like you’re going to need in college?”
To reach the expectations summoned by these questions, Brad, 15, who plays as a right back in South Bronx United’s U16 academy team, knows that along with sprinting down the flank and sending quality crosses into the box like legendary Brazilian full-back Cafu, he must also grasp the Law of Universal Gravitation formulated by the father of modern science Sir Isaac Newton. Indeed, after three years at South Bronx United, Brad’s dreams lie in two fields: the transcendental field of fútbol and the revolutionary field of science. “In my future, I want to be a professional footballer. But, if I’m not a footballer, I want to study forensic science because I always watch crime series with my mother,” the high school sophomore said.
If it was up to his Dominican mother and her family, Brad would be hitting home runs in the baseball fields of the Bronx. Instead, the 15-year-old defender followed the footsteps of his Mexican father and has been lacing up his fútbol cleats since elementary school. From his early days in the pitch, Brad demonstrated a strong sense of commitment to the sport, and once in South Bronx United, he managed to move up into more competitive divisions and to secure a spot in the roster of the traveling team after three seasons. Now in his fourth campaign, this young fútbol prospect from the South Bronx wakes up early every weekday morning to catch a D train to midtown, from where he takes a bus to his school in Hell’s Kitchen. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Brad boards the same D train to his tutoring session after finishing school and then walks to practice, which starts at 6:00 p.m. sharp. To go home after a draining night of training, the Mexican-Dominican teenager, along with most of his teammates, heads to the 161st street station, which, at this time, resembles an empty and serene San Siro after a hard-fought Derby della Madonnina.
For some players like Merideth, 13, who now dictates the pace in the midfield of South Bronx United’s U16 girls’ academy side, the terminal at 161st street symbolizes more than just an extra stop. A few years ago, after getting off a train in this Grand Concourse station, her mother spotted a group of boys practicing in the shadows of the giant New York Yankees sign watching over their training pitch and asked them if they had a spot for her young daughter in their roster. In a matter of days, Merideth found herself contesting 50-50 balls in intense skirmishes with these boys from South Bronx United.
Now, this Mexican-American midfielder plays an important role in her travel side, always looking to execute that millimetric through ball that leads to a fulfilling team goal and most importantly, an impassioned celebration in honor of her father, who before passing away, instilled in her a devotion to the sport. “My dad introduced me to fútbol. When I play, it always reminds me of him,” Merideth said, looking up to the lights of a classroom inside the Urban Assembly School for Careers and Sports, which she not only attends as a high school freshman, but as a participant of South Bronx United’s academic tutoring. “He passed away, but every time I play, it reminds me of why I started to play.”
Like Brad, Merideth is also pursuing two formidable ambitions: to excel in the U.S. Women’s National Team and to work at the highest level of law enforcement as an agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).
One of South Bronx United’s chief objectives is nurturing the professional dreams of players like Brad and Merideth, and to make sure that they maintain a bond with the community. This commitment is reflected in the testimony of Ahmed Bagigah, a South Bronx United alumnus, who was part of the program’s academy between 2010 and 2012. Bagigah — who left his hometown of Accra, the capital city of Ghana, in 2003 as a 10-year-old — is now studying economics in Hunter College in the Upper East Side. The now 25-year-old West African immigrant attributes his progress in the country that adopted him to the mentorship received through the organization’s tutoring sessions.
“It’s not only about the sports side. It’s about your academics, your personal life, how you carry yourself as a human being — it’s very much important,” he stressed while executing his momentary role as head coach of the U19 boys’ academy side. Bagigah is currently balancing his undergraduate studies with his duties as the assistant coach for this outfit that not so long ago, he represented on the pitch as part of the starting eleven.
Now that he finds himself more distanced from the captain’s armband and closer to a clipboard filled with team formations, Bagigah’s philosophy of play is based less on sheer talent and more on a rigid discipline. The Ghanaian native demands absolute commitment from his players, both on the field, when the referee blows his whistle to mark the start of a match and in school, when the bell rings to signal the start of classes. Bagigah has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to his players missing out on tutoring sessions.
“If you don’t go, you don’t play,” he said.
‘Fútbol is a universal language’
With no defenders to impede his path in a field situated in the fútbol epicenter of this Bronx neighborhood, Andy Jenkins, the director of fútbol programs at South Bronx United, strolled from box to box, overseeing the academy teams practicing on a crisp Thursday evening. This young Liverpool F.C. supporter is in charge of organizing the participation of the non-profit’s academy sides in different tournaments, developing the training curriculum and advising recruitment efforts. Jenkins, a fútbol scholar, arrived in America four years ago, leaving behind his hometown of Belfast in Northern Ireland and settling in Boston, Massachusetts, to coach a club for high school age youths.
After cementing his understanding of youth development programs in the de-facto capital of New England, the Northern Ireland native took his fútbol doctrine to the colorful streets of the South Bronx. Upon commencing this new chapter in his career, Jenkins immediately noticed a glaring distinction from his time in Massachusetts. “A lot of our players come from fútbol-playing nations. So, they’re kids who’ve arrived having played the game since they were two, three years of age,” he said. A majority of the players in the program he now runs hail from countries in West Africa and Latin America, a dynamic which has presented him with the formidable challenge of balancing dissimilar styles of play to fashion a cohesive and pragmatic fútbol identity.
“We see a lot of different styles of play. Certainly, our boys from West Africa; a lot of pace and power that tends to be kind of the style of player from that part of the world. With Hispanics, we see a lot more quick feet, a lot more skills,” he said.
Passages from the encyclopedia of global fútbol have chronicled an important contrast between the playing methodologies in these two regions, just like Jenkins recognized.
The most illustrious chapters of West African fútbol have been characterized by thundering speed, unmatched agility and strenuous physicality — a combination employed by the most successful national sides and players from that region, such as Nigeria’s Olympic gold medal-winning national team in the 1996 tournament held in Atlanta and legendary striker and Ballon D’Or winner, George Weah, now president-elect of his native Liberia.
Meanwhile, in most of the countries in Latin America, technical exquisiteness, authoritative ball possession and an unrepentant attacking mentality are some of the most paramount idiosyncrasies of their fútbol DNA. These virtues manifest themselves in teams like Mario Zagallo’s 1970 World Cup-winning Brazilian national side and in players like three-time Copa Libertadores winner and arguably the last romantic of contemporary fútbol, Juan Román Riquelme.
Jenkins has attempted to reconcile these different styles of plays by developing a blueprint that does not abandon the virtues learned by the young immigrants in their native countries. For the Northern Irish coach, this endeavor taking place in the fields of the South Bronx bears resemblance to the ongoing efforts in America aimed at forging a seemingly elusive national fútbol identity that is both entertaining and successful. “America as a nation doesn’t really have an identity in fútbol yet. So, we’re kind of tailoring a couple of identities from different places and putting it together,” he said.
South Bronx United, like the city which houses its training fields, is a melting pot — not just of diverse fútbol principles, but of players with distinct experiences, ethnicities, nationalities and languages who are tasked with developing a close-knit on-the-pitch chemistry. Whether they’re from Ecuador or the Ivory Coast, these young immigrants enter the field leaving their differences behind and carrying a sentiment of unity that is supported by their collective objective of winning. This mentality appears to be well-established, as players like Ronny, 17, a native of Ecuador, can thrive in the academy despite their fragmented English. The defensive midfielder, an introverted and composed teenager, just like the captain of his national team and patriarch of Manchester United’s right flank, Antonio Valencia, said that he’s had a difficult time adapting to the new lifestyle he’s encountered upon his arrival in America about a year ago.
After a few months of significant changes in his life, Ronny’s family found in South Bronx United a place that could ease his process of assimilation and allow him to continue playing the sport he’s loved since childhood. As a new member of the U19 academy side, the Ecuadorian native now trains with fellow newly arrivals and immigrants, with whom he is trying to establish a relationship on and off the field.
One of them is Abdoul, a 17-year-old Ivorian national, who like his South American teammate, also struggled learning English, confessing that in his first days at South Bronx United, he did not know the names of the different positions on the field. These linguistic obstacles, according to Jenkins, the organization’s director of fútbol programs, are curtailed by the transcendental values that have allowed the sport to become the most practiced and popular around the world, enjoyed not only in the crowded streets of the fútbol capital of Rio de Janeiro, but in makeshift sand fields in the Pacific island-nation of Fiji.
“Fútbol is a universal language,” he said, with his gaze signaling to the players as irrefutable evidence.
‘Big buildings on the streets — that made us hopeful’
Fifteen court dates. Thirteen open cases. Five legal matters to attend to on the weekly to do list. And four cases still to be determined.
These items inscribed on a poorly erased whiteboard hanging in the small office of Brendan Davis, the legal services coordinator at South Bronx United, represent the dreams of many young immigrants of staying in America. Along with its educational curriculum and fútbol program, South Bronx United is also sustained by a third pillar: immigration legal services. Davis, a young attorney from the city of Brisbane, in Australia’s eastern coast, is the organization’s center back and leader of the defensive line, representing young immigrants in tough matches contested not on the field, but in court and determined not by a referee, but by a judge.
The Australian native and Liverpool F.C. supporter emphasized that South Bronx United began offering legal counsel and representation to the youth in the program after recognizing that many of them needed to fix their immigration status in order to stay in the U.S. The organization and some of its staff members are accredited by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) of the U.S. Department of Justice to represent youths and their families in proceedings before immigration court.
All of the legal services provided by the non-profit — which includes helping players file applications for political asylum, fight removal proceedings and secure permanent residency — are free of charge. Once the youths enroll and start practicing, staff members meet with their families to assess their eligibility for any type of immigration relief. Due to the large number of immigrants in the ranks of South Bronx United, legal assistance is in high demand, prompting the organization to seek help from other legal services providers in the city, such as Catholic Charities, the Legal Aid Society and Terra Firma.
“We make sure that no one slips through the cracks,” Davis said.
The Australian lawyer is currently handling nearly 50 cases, ranging from requests for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJ), to appeals to halt removal proceedings. Davis said these are the types of cases he typically encounters with players from Latin America.
Due to geographical differences, the legal cases of many of the youth from West Africa tend to revolve around visa overstays and requests for political asylum, which, according to Davis, are exceedingly common because some of the players’ native countries are engulfed in armed conflict and political turmoil.
Since the turn of the century, the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram has waged a deadly insurgency against the government of Nigeria, and the militant organization Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has staged various attacks in recent years south of the Sahara, in countries like Mali and Burkina Faso.
A decade ago, a conflict in the Ivory Coast, the native country of Chelsea F.C.’s top foreign goalscorer, Didier Drogba, was brought to halt, in part, because of fútbol. A bloody civil war had been raging in the West African nation for years when Drogba’s national team qualified to its first World Cup. After an unforgettable 3-1 victory over Sudan in the qualifiers for the 2006 tournament held in Germany, the international press was welcomed inside the locker room, where jubilant Ivorian players fell to their knees. On live national television, Drogba proclaimed: “Men and women of Ivory Coast, from the North, South, Center and West; we proved today that all Ivorians can coexist and play together with a shared objective: to qualify for the World Cup.” The team’s extraordinary feat and their compelling display of unity are credited with helping to ease tensions in the West African country and to secure a truce between the warring parties the following year.
With the recent termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for young undocumented immigrants, Davis said he and his team are also considering legal options for those in the organization shielded under the initiative as legislative efforts to ratify the protections for this group have stalled in Congress. According to organizers, four youths were assisted in obtaining DACA status during the 2015-2016 season. This year, Davis estimates that there are 10 recipients of the now-defunct program donning South Bronx United’s uniform.
Despite having only one attorney, the group’s gratuitous legal services have yielded impressive results. Davis said his organization has handled over 75 legal cases up-to-date and helped 23 players obtain U.S. permanent residency. A prime illustration of the organization’s success in this field is the remarkable story of Anayeli, 19, and her two brothers Cesar, 17, and Brayan, 16.
Now a distinguished alumna of South Bronx United, Anayeli is studying accounting at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. The Mexican native faced one of her most difficult games years before becoming a star midfielder in the academy’s U19 side — a contest that did not last the usual 90 minutes of a regular match, but seven days.
In January of 2012, Anayeli, set out for America with her mother and two younger brothers, leaving her hometown of Puebla, the fourth largest city in Mexico, and traveling to the capital, from which she and her family flew to the border state of Sonora. From there, the family embarked on a week-long journey across a barren desert, eventually crossing the border into Arizona with the help of a coyote. Soon after arriving to the Grand Canyon state, the family moved to New York City, where the soaring skyline captivated the attention of the Mexican siblings.
“Coming to a new country, it was a very exciting first day, observing the way there and the big buildings on the streets — that made us hopeful,” Anayeli said in a nostalgic voice.
The Puebla native has been living in the Bronx for five years, a period that has witnessed the culmination of her high school career, as well as her initial struggle transitioning into American society. “I missed my country so much,” she said, recounting her first days as a 7th grader in the U.S. “There was a great difference between being in Mexico and being here. I was bullied by my classmates because of my accent.”
After a few years in New York City, Anayeli discovered in South Bronx United a place that allowed her to use fútbol as a vehicle to continue developing her English and to nurture her American dream. In two seasons at the academy, the Mexican native established herself as an example on and off the field, bossing the midfield, while also earning the grades of an outstanding student. Apart from polishing her English and fine-tuning her fútbol abilities, South Bronx United is also the reason that Anayeli was able to stay in America.
Upon screening Anayeli, Davis, the attorney at the organization, determined that she and her brothers were eligible for U.S. permanent residency under the Special Immigrant Juvenile Classification by USCIS because of a lack of a relationship with their father. “This is the type of case that focuses on the fact that a young person was either abused, abandoned or neglected by one or both parents. And that it is in their best interest to remain in the U.S,” the legal services coordinator said. After Davis filed the applications, the siblings received temporary work authorizations and in 18 months, their green cards. With her immigration status legalized, Anayeli can now access federal financial aid to help cover her college tuition, which she was paying out-of-pocket while waiting for the case to be resolved.
Despite having concluded her spell at South Bronx United, Anayeli continues to exhibit the characteristics that once distinguished her as a restless box-to-box midfielder. She is constantly running around, as she was accustomed to during matches, balancing her studies with the responsibility of caring for her two younger sisters, Jocelyn, 10, and Giselle, 1, when her mother is working or out on an errand.
The family’s small house in the working-class neighborhood of Norwood in the North Bronx is, in many ways, a fútbol cathedral. The televisions are all tuned to games from Europe’s preeminent leagues, the living room is adorned with numerous tournament trophies and plaques honoring the achievements of members of the household who have and are currently representing South Bronx United and many conversations revolve around fútbol, especially La Liga MX, the Mexican top flight, where there is friendly rivalry in the family. Adela Méndez, the warm and caring matriarch of the household, has been a diehard supporter of Club América, one of the leading teams in Mexico City, ever since she was a young adult watching the most renowned player in Mexican fútbol history, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, perform his trademark archer celebration after caressing the ball into the back of the net. All her children, including Anayeli, however, support América’s chief rival and Mexico’s most successful club in international competitions, Chivas de Guadalajara.
But, perhaps the most important column underpinning this household is the love that its members have for one another. And, as expected, Méndez described the genesis of this deeply-rooted attachment using a fútbol analogy.
“I always tell them that this is a fútbol team. If one of them hurts their foot, the team is no longer whole, because, even if they are the best, without a team, it can’t be done,” she said, sitting in the living room, the spiritual center of the household, where a large clay sculpture of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of her native Mexico, keeps a constant and attentive watch. “This is a team. We are a team.”
“There’s nobody else on the bench.”
Davis said the application process for this special federal initiative that allowed the Mexican siblings to legalize their status has become more complicated and rigorous ever since Donald J. Trump was sworn in as America’s 45th President. The Australian attorney added that the cases he is working on for this program, instituted as part of the Immigration Act of 1990, have been taking longer in recent months. “Around these Special Immigrant Juvenile Cases, at the moment, there is a lot of pushback on the legitimacy of the applications,” Davis stressed. “There’s a lot more requests for more evidence. There’s a lot more efforts to undermine and stall the process.” The legal services coordinator believes the apparent increased vetting in the application process for this immigration program stems from the “anti-immigrant” positions of the current White House.
In addition to the significant policy changes he believes are occurring at federal agencies which handle immigration matters, Davis also emphasized that the rhetoric flaunted by Trump as a candidate on the campaign trail and now as commander-in-chief have sown fear in the immigrant communities from which virtually all of South Bronx United’s players come from.
Despite the hardline rhetoric on immigration by the administration and its accompanying crackdown on undocumented immigrants, immigrant youths continue to come to the fields of the academy, looking not only to pursue their fútbol aspirations, but for immigration relief. In fact, Davis noted that in recent times, the number of immigration cases handled by South Bronx United and other organizations in the area has increased dramatically. “Across the board, the large legal service providers in the city are kind of at max capacity,” he said.
Axel, a 15-year-old high school student and a new member of South Bronx United’s academy, is one of many immigrant youth who took part in treacherous journeys across borders to reach this training field in the South Bronx. In the summer of 2014, he, his mother and four young siblings left their home in Tela, a small city in the northwestern coast of his native Honduras, crossed into the neighboring Guatemala and traveled across the heart of the ancient Maya civilization on a packed bus. On this ride, Axel said he contemplated about the harsh reality of his home country. “In Honduras, there are a lot of things that need to be understood. It is known that there’s theft, there’s tragedy in Honduras right now. And it is known, that in the streets, there are gangs and they’re attacking innocent people,” he said in what appeared to be a tone of disappointment and a look of frustration.
After crossing the Guatemala-Mexico border and traversing the territory of the former Aztec empire, the 15-year-old recognized that violence and crime were not phenomenons exclusive to his native Honduras. “Mexico is a big country, but many things are hidden. For me, Mexico is not safe,” he said. Over the last decade, Mexicans have endured a period of record violence, with powerful and cold-blooded drug cartels turning many parts of the country into hotbeds of delinquency and lawlessness.
To cross the U.S.-Mexico border into Texas, the Honduran teenager and his family were forced to take La Bestia, or ‘the Beast’ in English, a cargo train in which hope and fear travel together through miles of railway tracks. For years, thousands of immigrants like Axel’s family have climbed on the rooftops of the freight cars of this train — despite the constant prospect of a precipitous fall that could lead to a severe injury or even death — with the hope of reaching the proclaimed land of opportunities.
After culminating an 18-week journey across four countries, Axel and his family moved to New York, settling in the Bronx. In the fall of 2016, Axel was granted political asylum and allowed to remain on American soil. Now, with two years in the country, the young immigrant and midfielder of South Bronx United’s U16 academy side still carries the same dreams of playing professional fútbol and engaging in humanitarian work that once, on the tumultuous ride on La Bestia, seemed a great distance away.
For Davis, the Australian attorney, the extraordinary stories of resilience and struggle of young immigrants like Axel should be commended and admired, not demonized.
“I think that anyone who has this negative view on a 15-year-old who just wants a better life — I think that’s a little harsh,” Davis said.
‘He didn’t have the struggles as all us’
Taking a giant leap towards the center of the cross bar, his body forming an arch in midair, Andrea, the captain of the U19 academy team, saved an impressive shot from one of his fellow goalkeepers, tipping the hostile sphere over the goal with his overextended fingers in a moment of brilliance reminiscent of Gianluigi Buffon’s remarkable extra-time save against a lunging header from France’s number 10, Zinedine Zidane, during the final of the 2006 World Cup — a play that forced the match to a series of frenetic penalties in which Italy triumphed after a potent final kick by left back Fabio Grosso to win its fourth World Cup.
But Andrea shares more than the same position on the field as the standard bearer of the Italian national team and long-time goaltender for La Vecchia Signora. Both goalkeepers possess an innate capacity to lead. Both captains promote an admirable sense of unity among their players, whom they treat as their own kin, enforcing not only their commitment to the team, but to having each other’s backs.
The high school senior from the South Bronx is not only prepared to defend his teammates from players on an opposing team, but from anything or anyone who wrongs them, even if that person turns out to be the president of the United States. Andrea stressed that although politics is not a central point of discussion between the team, conversations about news coming from the current White House are becoming more common because they hit close to home. “We talk about it. We know what this guy is capable of. So, like someone of us fear him,” he said. “But, it’s hard. We don’t talk much about politics like that, but Trump is a dangerous guy.”
Andrea indicated that it is difficult for his team to ignore Trump’s tough rhetoric on immigration and the policies of his administration that many consider to be anti-immigrant and discriminatory. “(Trump) says that Mexicans are drug dealers, rapists and gang related. I’m like ‘come to South Bronx United and you’ll see that all us teenagers want is to play fútbol in college. We want to have a great education’” Andrea said, with his parental gaze fixed on his teammates. “He would learn about different cultures, he would learn how to be more respectful, he would learn about other points of view, because, you know, this guy, he was born rich, so he didn’t have the struggles as all of us.”
Like his Dominican-Italian teammate, Dominic, one of the wingers in the team, also recognized that today’s divisive political climate has made its way into the fields they compete in. The young Jamaican immigrant said that apart from feeling demonized by current occupant of the Oval Office, he and his team have also been the target of racial animus. Dominic said his team’s pronounced diverse composition makes them stand out in the tournament they participate in with clubs from the five boroughs of New York City and various towns in Westchester County. Because many of the clubs they face have rosters that are predominantly white, he said a salient juxtaposition can be observed when his teammates line up next to the opposing team before the opening whistle. In one particular game last season, Dominic remembers being the target of racist epithets by players on the rival team and their fans. Although upsetting, the high school senior said he did not allow the chants to interfere with his performance.
Prejudice and xenophobia are not only present in the modest fields where these young immigrants contest spirited matches, but also in the highest echelons of world fútbol. During his exceptional career, Cameroon’s all-time goalscorer Samuel Eto’o found himself embroiled in multiple on-the-pitch incidents where he was the target of racist abuse. In February of 2006, while playing for F.C. Barcelona, the African striker nearly walked off the pitch in a game against Real Zaragoza after a small section of the home supporters at La Romareda stadium badgered him with monkey chants and threw peanuts at him when he approached the corner flag.
For the group of immigrant youths in the South Bronx, however, the strong brotherhood they’ve built through the sport overshadows any incidents of discrimination or political rhetoric that targets their diverse makeup, their experiences as immigrants and the genuine tolerance they espouse. And despite not being completely immune to the politics of division and intolerance found outside their training arena, the players try to concentrate on the sport they love.
“We just focus on fútbol — we don’t really care about Donald Trump that much,” Andrea said. “Donald Trump for us is irrelevant.”
Note by the editors: The surnames of the current participants of South Bronx United’s fútbol program — who are all minors — were omitted to protect their privacy. Despite being an adult and alumna of the organization, Anayeli’s surname was omitted to protect the privacy of her siblings.