When Ofelia Lira immigrated from Torreon in northern Mexico to Las Cruces, N.Mex., last July, she believed she was doing right for her two sons, Ivan, 11, and Gaspar, 9. But as she watched Gaspar play soccer on a windy desert night a few weeks ago, the outline of the Organ Mountains off to the east, the single mom admitted she might have made a mistake.
"It has been hard to find work, and I have been thinking about going home," she said in Spanish, looking down at Ivan, who was seated at her feet. "But I cannot leave because of the opportunity they have here to play soccer. They love it, and I can't take it from them."
Immigrants like Lira have long brought soccer-loving children across the Rio Grande (legally and illegally), part of the reason New Mexico, and particularly the southern part of the state, where Las Cruces is located, has become a hotbed of talented youth-league players. One has only to look across the 23 packed fields on the Santa Ana Pueblo in Bernalillo outside Albuquerque—site of this month's State Cup—to appreciate the sport's popularity throughout the Land of Enchantment. But more discerning eyes, such as the pair belonging to the Liras' coach, Linda Lara, look across the fields in Bernalillo and see the results of a grassroots movement that only recently succeeded in bringing change to the soccer culture here.
Even as New Mexico's Hispanic population grew to more than 42% as of 2000, the highest proportion of any state, the top level of youth soccer was inaccessible to many of the best Hispanic players. The selection process for the state's Olympic Development Program (ODP)- US Youth Soccer's tool for identifying potential national-team players and a pipeline for college recruiters—was dominated by coaches from big club teams in and around Albuquerque, New Mexico's largest city. Participation fees and the cost of traveling and staying in Albuquerque (the only place practices were held) prevented many of those Hispanic players who were picked from participating. "It was like ODP was only for the rich," says Lara.
But reform in the New Mexico Youth Soccer Association (NMYSA), and the dedication of people like Lara, has greatly altered the state's soccer scene. A number of Hispanic players, many of them poor immigrants, are now excelling in the ODP and helping their teams win state high school and club titles. "The people on the board of directors [of the Albuquerque-based NMYSA] fought tooth and nail against some of the changes," says Bob Bigney, the association's former director of coaching who's now a club coach in Las Cruces. Adds Mark Paffett, the NMYSA president, "There are some people who don't want to give up the power. Albuquerque had always been the big dog and made all the rules."
The big dog in Las Cruces is Lara, though she hardly looks the part. The 48-year-old elementary school counselor stands just over five-feet tall and never played soccer. She started a team called Strikers FC when the first of her four sons began playing 20 years ago. She now manages five teams at varying age levels—a total of 78 boys and girls, a third of whom each year are recent immigrants.
"Linda is like a fairy godmother," Paffett says. "She puts up thousands of dollars a year to help these kids play, to keep them in school. She is allowing them the opportunity to better their lives."
Lara doesn't ask if a family can afford registration or tournament fees or travel costs; she only requires that her players make practice on time, stay in school and earn solid grades. She rarely loses a player at a time when the high school dropout rate for Hispanic immigrants in New Mexico is more than 40%. "Linda is the support system for a lot of the families," says Scott McClanahan, whose son, Ryan, plays for Lara's under-17 team.
At a recent practice Lara was more into bragging about her players than talking about her generosity. She ticked off the college prospects of each player. Patrick Jurney, 17, started playing with the Strikers FC but moved to Albuquerque when he was eight years old because his mother changed jobs. For the past couple of years he has driven more than three hours to Las Cruces for practice most weeks. "I tried playing for a club in Albuquerque, but no one cared for each other," Jurney says. "Playing for Linda and the Strikers is more meaningful."
The meaning isn't lost on Edgar and Noel Castillo, brothers who have greatly benefited from Lara's generosity. "These two were born here but made the transition to English after they joined the Strikers," she says proudly. They have developed into two of the state's best players. Edgar traveled to Chile last month with the District IV all-star team and has been invited to Adidas's Elite Soccer Program, a collection of the top 150 youth players in the nation.