Here’s a great storyline. One that has everything: compelling characters, real-life struggles, a hero’s journey and victory in the face of incredible odds. This narrative has played out across America for years, but without a tidy ending.
It’s the story of new immigrants and their American children growing up in the small town of Siler City, North Carolina. Like in many small communities, Siler City’s newest transplants have come from Latin America, most commonly Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. In 1990, less than one-in-25 town residents identified as Hispanic; 20 years later, that figure hovered around 50 percent. Mirroring the national tension around immigration, these foreign-born residents exposed the community’s fear of change, bringing out the best and worst instincts in longtime residents and leaders.
Journalist Paul Cuadros documented Siler City’s dramatic transition in his 2006 book, “A Home on the Field: How One Championship Soccer Team Inspires Hope for the Revival of Small Town America.” I highly recommend Paul’s book, which captured this story of immigration from the unique perspective of a writer, documentarian, change agent and reluctant soccer coach. The book chronicles his own move to North Carolina and the journeys of so many new residents and their impact on communities.
What I find most interesting is how Paul was compelled to become part of Siler City’s story. Asking the question, “Why doesn’t Jordan Matthews High School have a boys’ soccer team?” led to his role as its founding coach. The school strongly resisted creating a soccer team. You can read the details in the book—but know that he fought against powerful forces to improve the lives for these new immigrant families through their sons. He gave a group of boys the opportunity to be part of something to take pride in, and that Siler City could be proud of in return.
Five of those boys have recently added their voices as new characters in this ongoing story. Thanks to Hollywood, and Jennifer Lopez (yes, “J.Lo”), we can learn about the real lives, challenges and small triumphs of immigrant families living in Siler City. Darwin, Martin, Cirilo, Jonathan and Daniel take center stage in NUVOtv’s new six-part documentary called “Los Jets,” which follows a season with the Jordan Matthews Jets boys’ soccer team. (The “sports reality” series’ narrative parallels and brings to life the one described in Paul’s book on the small screen.) Each young man’s poignant story illustrates the struggles faced by American teenagers but also the trials and encounters unique to immigrant families. The Los Jets filmmaker has matched the style and quality of other popular reality television shows, which makes it accessible as a drama series.
Like so many immigrants, some Jets live in poverty and face discrimination every day. On the field, they often play in uncomfortable, and sometimes hostile, environments in which opposing players freely use racial epithets while their parents chime in. Fortunately, the high school players have been able to play for their school since the team was born. Yet many parents face barriers to involving their younger children in youth soccer and other activities. For example, Siler City’s police officers operate regular checkpoints that target undocumented drivers. These checkpoints deter some parents from driving their children to cross-county recreational soccer leagues, opting instead to keep their kids at home.
I feel lucky for the chance to lend a hand to expand soccer in Siler City and nearby. After playing weekend pick-up soccer with Paul for years, I finally joined him to help the town renovate an old ball field. I watched town leaders resist, and eventually accept, the transformation of a baseball and football field into a soccer field of dreams that kids in Siler City can now walk to. Yet as a participant, it’s clear to me that we still make progress by taking two steps forward and one step back. Funding for scholarships that enable low-income kids to play recreational soccer comes and goes. Field irrigation systems fail. Important parks and recreation staff turn over.
In a town with well over half Latino children, only 10 percent of the parks department’s program participants were Latino in 2013. The absence of soccer programming had a lot to do with this. Fortunately, the non-profit Chatham Soccer League partnered with Siler City and now offers soccer programs, discounted registration fees for families and training for a growing cadre of Latino coaches and volunteers.
This scenario is not unique to Siler City. You likely have situations like this in your backyard. What role can you play as similar narratives take place in your community?
Healthy communities are also equitable communities. All children should have equal access to recreation, sports and other opportunities for health, development and engagement. First a journalist, and then Coach Cuadros, Paul pushed Siler City to grow beyond the status quo. Jordan Matthews students (boys and girls) now have the opportunity to represent their school and community through soccer. I’m excited to follow the stories of Jets as individuals, to see the impact the team has made on them and that they will make as adults. Siler City will be much better off as these young residents continue to compete and grow—and, hopefully, stick around as new leaders and maybe even coaches.