The Other Side of the Fence
It’s December, a month since they lost the state soccer championship. Coach Paul woke them at 4:30 a.m. and fed them burritos, and now he’s driving them to visit a college. Eastern New Mexico isn’t a big school, but it’s the only one some of the boys will ever see. He puts the Suburban into gear and heads north past the harvested chile fields of this small town of fewer than 2,000 in southwestern New Mexico. He’ll take the long way up I-25. It’s safer, and the kids’ mothers are worried. Pinche Migra might be out there, and two of the four boys in the truck have no papers.
Pinche Migra is what they call the Border Patrol. If Pinche Migra stopped the truck, they wouldn’t care that these boys had played a nationally ranked high school team to within a goal of the state title. Pinche Migra wouldn’t care that the team did it without set plays, just by going balls out for 60 minutes. Pinche Migra would care only whether the kids are here legally, and Camel and Catuy aren’t. If Pinche Migra stopped the truck, they would put the two boys on the white bus back to Mexico, and never mind that Camel was driven here by his grandparents when he was 1, or that a relative tossed Catuy over the El Paso border fence when he was 6, or that these boys consider themselves as American as anyone.
The coach’s bus was boarded once. In 2001, he was on his way to Alamogordo with a middle school football team when Pinche Migra came looking for aliens who lurk beneath shoulder pads. No one was taken, but the experience shook him, as did the story of an El Paso coach who sat with a Border Patrol gun to his head as two of his players were checked.
Pinche Migra has several inland checkpoints: There’s one on I-10 between Las Cruces and El Paso, another on I-25 by Truth or Consequences, a third on U.S. 70 near Alamogordo. The first two lie ahead, but they’re never open at the same time, so one of the boys called ahead before deciding that the long way up I-25 was safe. Still, it’s a gamble.
When the checkpoints are open, every car is stopped, but cars are searched only if their occupants look suspicious. Suspicious is too much eye contact-or not enough. Being too respectful-or not enough. Mostly it means being guilty of DWM: Driving While Mexican. So he takes the back roads. Coach Paul (his last name and identifying characteristics of the boys have been omitted to preserve their anonymity) is a squat, tobacco-chewing man originally from the mountains in Colorado. He’s known these kids since they were in eighth grade-first as their math teacher, then as their track coach. Before coming to New Mexico, he was an Army medic, but teaching these past seven years has mellowed him. He believes in these kids. So although he’d never coached soccer before, they begged, and he agreed. Now he buys them uniforms, shoes, breakfasts, lunches and dinners.
The kid in the front seat is called Roids because he’s thick like The Hulk. He’s class valedictorian and an all-state defender. After graduation, Roids is headed to New Mexico State. He wants to become a teacher, just like Coach Paul. Roids has the keys to the kingdom: residency papers.
Back when he was in elementary school, his mom’s employment record got them both listed as legal residents. That status, and the card that goes with it (which Roids has been told cost $7,000 in application fees), means Pinche Migra can’t touch him unless he does something wrong. And it makes him eligible for financial aid for college. Roids’ cousin Pepe sits behind him. He’s got papers too. Rail thin and with a dead-sure leg, Pepe is an all-state midfielder. He and Roids, both team captains, are the lucky ones in the truck today.
The third captain-next to Pepe-is Catuy, the all-state forward with unbelievable footwork but no legal ID. On track to graduate in the top 10 in his class, Catuy has signed up for the ACT but has yet to take it, though he won’t say why. He’s not worried about the checkpoint. Pinche Migra won’t be there, he says. And if they are, he’ll speak the good English and spin elaborate stories about where his resident card is. Or, as he told Roids before they left, “I’m ready to run.”
And that’s Camel in the back, nicknamed for the big bump on the back of his head. He’s six feet of solid muscle with dark, smooth skin and product-coated hair, a joker and the best natural athlete of the crew. Camel’s room holds shelf after shelf of soccer, football and track trophies. Even without training for track, he is one of the state’s fastest quarter-milers. He’s an all-state soccer forward, wide receiver and sprinter in a state where high school athletics is just this side of a religion.
Even before they asked the inevitable question-Do you have papers?-Camel turned down a football scholarship to Western New Mexico. He doesn’t want to play football. He lives to play soccer. Where he comes from, fútbol is a point of pride; football is just something to do.
Usually, Camel is in the back of the bus making jokes and cawing like a crow about all the goals he’s scored. But this morning, as the Suburban rounds a curve and the checkpoint comes into view, he quiets. They all do. There’s always a moment of dread. What if it’s open after all? Not today. Everyone can breathe again.
GRADUATING FROM high school gets you nothing if you’re illegal. Without papers, you’re destined to work the fields, picking chiles for 50 cents a 10-gallon bucket. Chances are you’ll continue to live outside of town in a trailer that looks like it’s been blown against the bottom of the brown hills, where indoor plumbing is no given and daily postal delivery is the only sign you’re not in the third world. You’ll live in limbo, unacknowledged but working just the same.
You’re a statistic, and this town is full of those. Percentage of families under the poverty line who are Hispanic: 90. Percentage of high school students who are Hispanic: 87. Percentage of Hispanic students who don’t speak English as their first language: 85 Only 48 Anglos are enrolled in the local high school of 400.
This is an agricultural town in need of cheap labor, which in these parts means Mexican immigrants. Those who arrived more than 20 years ago are some of the 2.7 million who were granted amnesty and lawful permanent residence by a law passed by Congress in 1986. Since then, a new crop of migrant workers has materialized, to be paid by the basket. Those with fast hands can pull in $100 a day from August through November. For most, it’s half that-still more than they’d see in a week if they toiled in Mexico.
In towns like this, just 60 miles from the border, there are times when it feels as if you’re still on the other side. But never more so than after dark. Each night, the Hispanic kids come out to play soccer under orange lights on the patchy field behind the school, shooting goals between railroad ties. There are so many of them that they created leagues to keep straight who’s got next.
The four on the bus all started here: Catuy, Camel, Pepe, Roids. They played every night and before school. They played during lunch and after fieldwork, and then in the night again, sometimes spilling into morning. By the time they were seniors, they’d played together for more than 10 years.
Last year, their senior year, was Coach Paul’s first season leading the team. The previous coach didn’t want to re-up, and no one wanted to replace her-it was a thankless job in a town and a school crazy for football. But Coach Paul had known the kids forever. How could he let them down? Soon, he was spending late nights scouring the Internet for training drills. At the first practice, his stars took the lead. Roids addressed the team in English: “Paul is here to bring us discipline,” he said. Then, in Spanish, which Coach Paul didn’t know: If Coach tells you to run five laps, run five laps. If he tries to teach you about corner kicks, ask Catuy.
In August, they went to a preseason tournament in Alamogordo. They won their first game 2-0 against a small public school much like their own: underfunded and represented mostly by the kids of migrants. The second game was embarrassing: a 5-1 loss against a school from outside El Paso. But in their third game, the boys came into their own. Against a much larger school, they took it to a shoot-out. Seven other matches were going on, but a crowd formed to watch theirs. They lost 3-1, but they learned a lesson: We can do this.
They won their next game, a blowout against a JV squad from a much bigger school in Las Cruces, and went on a roll. Before they knew it, the boys from the chile fields ended the season with just three losses, Camel on his way to 46 goals and 60 points in 24 games, one of the top-10 scorers in the state.
But there was more than soccer and school. The harvest was on, and there was always work to do in the onion shed, a sweatbox in which vegetables are prepped for shipment. After school and before practice, Camel and Catuy worked at the shed for $7.25 an hour, while Roids and Pepe worked at the chile farms. Coach Paul made allowances for the kids who worked. And they did their fieldwork in the morning before Saturday afternoon games.
At the tail end of October, when the harvest was over and the air smelled like roasted chiles, the boys hosted their first playoff game, against a school from a truck-stop town between Albuquerque and the Arizona border. They won easily, 5-0, holding their opponents to a single shot on goal, but only 30 supporters watched from the stands, and that included half of the girls’ soccer team. Everyone else had football fever. But the win sent the boys to the quarterfinals in Albuquerque, and a busload of administrators, teachers and students came to cheer them on. The president of the school’s booster club gave Coach Paul $1,000 with instructions to “treat the kids the way they should be treated.” The boys steamrolled a Christian school with a teamful of Zuni and Navajo players, 9-1, then beat a private school from Albuquerque in the semifinals, 5-3. Next stop was the school’s first appearance in the state finals. But the athletic director wouldn’t be there to see it. He attended the first round of the football playoffs instead.
The title game unfolded like a movie: on one side, the migrant kids who had outscored their opponents by more than 100 goals, freelancing all the way; on the other, the powerhouse white prep school from Albuquerque-the only New Mexico school to make Newsweek’s list of America’s best high schools-with four straight titles and a perfect record. Their side of the parking lot was filled with BMWs and Lexuses; the other, beat-up pickups and fans waving Mexican flags, though many of the most ardent supporters didn’t even make the trip, kept away by the checkpoints.
At first, the migrant kids had success with their kamikaze brand of soccer. They crashed into the offensive zone, fed the ball to Camel and his cousin Diego, and let those two beat the prep kids with their speed. It was 2-1 at the half.
But the game slipped away. A penalty kick missed by inches. Camel was double-teamed and hacked. The other side, with their perfectly tailored uniforms, pulled ahead. As the seconds ticked away, two things became clear to Roids:
1. His team was going to lose. 2. This game could be the greatest moment of their lives.
Hold your heads high, he yelled in Spanish. We have done something no one else has done before.
Coach Paul cried. The boys cried. All except Camel. The other team’s coach walked to midfield, where the immigrant boy sat stunned by the loss. “You want to play for me next year?” he asked.
But he was too late.
THE EASTERN New Mexico coach wants them. He’s just returned from a recruiting trip and saw no one to compare with Paul’s boys. So this could be the kids’ big chance. Coach Paul knows Camel and Catuy have no papers, but he can’t help feeling there has to be a loophole, some way to reward their talent with a scholarship, a ticket out.
The foursome climb out of the van and the college coach buys them lunch in the cafeteria. He wants them all. But first he has a question, and it isn’t about soccer: “What are your board scores?” he asks. “If you get 18, we can offer a scholarship.”
Camel falters, his tongue thick with the English he speaks only in school. He hasn’t taken them. Truth is, he’s spent all year goofing off. Catuy hasn’t taken them either, but Coach Paul pipes up to say what a good student he is. Then another question. And for this one, there is only one correct answer. “Does he have his card?” Coach’s heart is breaking. He knew this was coming, though he’d never stopped hoping. “No,” he says.
“Any papers at all?”
They take the fast way back. Pinche Migra doesn’t care if you’re headed south.
IT’S EARLY spring, and both Camel and Catuy take the test. Camel scores a 13 out of 36 - not good enough, even with papers. His plans change weekly, each dream flowing into the next. He’s going to walk on at Eastern New Mexico; he’s going to try out for a semipro team in El Paso. Camel’s favorite movie is Goal!, about a barrio kid who gets to the English Premier League. Camel says that will be him. Could happen, right?
Catuy scores a scholarship-eligible 19. If only he had papers. His mother says she filed the paperwork 10 years ago but hasn’t heard anything since. Coach could take him to visit every college, and they might love his grades and his footwork and the shy smile that blooms to show his teeth, but it wouldn’t matter. He has no Social Security number, no status.
So for now, Catuy will keep playing under the orange lights as hip-hop and tejano music blare from the cars in the lot. He plays to forget. Catuy has an elderly mother and a sister who’s a freshman at the high school. He has to keep working at the onion shed. But he wants out. Unlike Camel, he has ambitions beyond soccer. He wants to be a teacher, like Coach Paul. He wants the good life, the life of an American. In his mind, he is an American. He just doesn’t have proof.
After graduation, he’ll go to Florida and work with his brother at a golf course. His brother says maybe he can play semipro soccer in his off hours.
PEPE SHINES his shoes for his June graduation. Roids sticks a gold soccer ball pin in his tie. Catuy wears ripped jeans and a black long-sleeve shirt. Camel, who’s just found out he was named the region’s top athlete, forgets his robe and mortarboard and has to wait for his brother to bring them over.
Graduation is on the football field, under a sky dotted with watercolor clouds. Coach Paul runs around, ushering families to their seats. Members of the team tease him about his purple shirt. Forty of the school’s 99 seniors receive scholarships, some athletic, most academic. It should have been 42. As the boys walk across the stage, they look happy. All except Camel. He takes his diploma but doesn’t smile, his dark face blank.
Soon, Catuy and Camel will be back at Camel’s house, eating a tres leches cake that’s as creamy as churned butter. With each forkful, Camel and Catuy fade a bit more into the background, where, if they’re lucky, Pinche Migra won’t find them.
ESPN The Magazine
June 19, 2006