Cal's Gutierrez shaped by life-changing voyage from Mexico (cont.)
His immigration story is no tale of poverty escaped and opportunity seized. Quite the opposite, in fact. In Chihuahua, Gutierrez was middle class, the son of a math teacher and a nurse. "We struggled like anybody else," Gutierrez said. "But there was always food on the table."
Not in Denver.
There, the kids relied on money sent by their parents, but a few pesos never went very far. "We always looked forward to going to school," said Paco Cruz, Gutierrez's high school roommate and now a guard at the University of Wyoming. "Because at school, we knew we would get a free meal."
At home, they were left with whatever they could scrounge up enough money to buy. Some weeks, like the week Gutierrez was diagnosed with anemia, that meant eating only old and wilted heads of lettuce for days at a time. Once word spread about the kids' poverty -- among AAU teammates and opposing coaches, as well as the parents of players they'd competed with and against -- people started contributing cash and grocery cards, a little money here and there to chip in for their well-being.
One day, after the kids had received some grocery money, Ray Valdez showed up at their house to give Gutierrez and his roommate, Saul Torres, a ride. On his way to the car, Torres took a cup-full of raw egg, guzzled it down and let out a machismo-fueled yell. Gutierrez followed suit but was gagging and tearing up as the egg slid down his throat.
Valdez watched, incredulous. "Why are you guys doing that?" he asked. "What are you thinking?"
"Coach," Gutierrez said, "they turned off our gas. We have groceries, but we can't cook."
They couldn't cook, and at times they couldn't even eat, but on the basketball court, it seemed, the Mexican kids could do whatever they damn well pleased.
"Other teams hated us," Gutierrez said. "We were out there beating everybody, talking Spanish to each other on the court. No one could believe that a bunch of Mexicans were as good as we were."
When Gutierrez was a junior, Lincoln started the season slowly, winning only six of its first 12 games. But in mid-January the team hit its stride, winning nine of 10 to finish the regular season. By playoff time, the Lancers had rounded into peak form.
But the winning brought scrutiny. With illegal immigration a constant topic of debate, with Gutierrez physically dominating all opposing guards, with parents whispering about falsified birth certificates and academically ineligible players, a firestorm soon erupted. One night, with Gutierrez on the bench nursing an injury, Cruz erupted for 30 points. When a television reporter approached him after the game, the Nogales, Mexico native stood by in silence, unable to conduct the interview in English.
Local shock-jock radio host Peter Boyles saw the interview and launched into a tirade on his morning show, bemoaning the fact that one of the best basketball teams in the state was filled with kids who spoke little to no English. Boyles assumed, correctly, that Cruz and his teammates had came to the U.S. illegally, and soon anti-illegal immigration activists had rallied to protest against Lincoln's success.
The protesters showed up outside of games, marching and carrying signs. They showed up in the stands, shouting anti-illegal immigration and, at times, racist chants. They showed up at the home of coaches Vince and Ray Valdez, finding any venue available to rail against Lincoln's team.
Gutierrez now has a student VISA that allows him to live in Berkeley and attend Cal legally, but as an undocumented high schooler, he and his teammates were thrust into the center of a debate that has gripped Colorado for years. In 2002, a student from the Denver suburb of Aurora made headlines when he publicly asked to be given in-state tuition at the University of Colorado. He'd been accepted to the university but denied the in-state rate because of his immigration status. Congressman Tom Tancredo, a Denver native, called for the boy and his family to be deported. When Tancredo ran for president in 2008, his primary platform was opposition to illegal immigration.
But the situation in Denver was complicated. Although the Lincoln players' most ardent supporters were Chicanos, American citizens of Mexican descent, their loudest protesters were Chicano too.
"They were yelling things like, 'You're taking my kid's scholarship!' and stuff like that," Ray Valdez recalled. "It was interesting to see."
Midway through the season, CHSAA, the state high school athletic association, began investigating Gutierrez. Lincoln noticed ambiguity in his transcript and self-reported the issue to the governing body. The confusion stemmed over the difference in grade classifications between Mexico and the United States. In Mexico, high school begins in 10th grade, but in Colorado, it begins in 9th. Gutierrez's birth certificate showed him to be 18, as old as most high school seniors, but the school had classified him as a junior. After investigating, CHSAA reclassified him as a senior.
Gutierrez remained eligible for the year, but the ruling was clear: that season would be his last. Still, some people maintained that he didn't belong in high school. "He was so dominant physically," said Mitch Conrad, coach at Ralston Valley High, "that yeah, people definitely questioned his age."
Did Conrad think Gutierrez was older than he claimed?
"Honestly," he said, "I wouldn't have been surprised."
Gutierrez felt shocked and hurt by the allegations, angry at those who questioned the legitimacy of his accomplishments. "They just didn't want to admit that I could do the things that I could do and still be in high school," he said. "They didn't want to admit that a Mexican kid was that good."
And in the state tournament he was dominant, hurling his body all over the court, skying for rebounds over post players and raising hell in the backcourt against opposing guards. He carried Lincoln to the title game, where the Lancers would face Conrad's Ralston Valley squad.
The game would be televised back in Mexico, but many of the players' parents had made the journey to Boulder so they could watch in person. Only Cruz's parents were unable to attend, and before the game, he sat on the floor, crying over the fact that he had no family in the stands. "You do have family here," Valdez later remembered Gutierrez saying. "We are your brothers. So if our parents are here, your parents are here."
Engulfed in controversy, mired in poverty and on the verge of the ultimate victory, Gutierrez and his teammates felt a range of warring emotions. Deeply homesick, they felt thrilled over all they'd accomplished in a foreign land. Wounded by racism, they felt grateful to the Americans who'd seen them not as political pawns, but as children to be helped. Just before tipoff, Valdez said, some teared up listening to the American national anthem, humbled to be playing for a championship in the land that had become home.
"Honestly, you could look at them on the court and sense it," Valdez said. "You could see they were the embodiment of the American dream."
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