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Hispanic Female Athletes Few and Far Between


November 6, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

The significance of their lives as athletes seemed to escape Kristy Aguirre, Felicia Delgado, Laura Rodriguez and Shannon Solis. At 21, they are cultural anomalies: Hispanic women who grew up in a predominantly Hispanic community where girls were encouraged by family members and friends to play sports.

Others may have been raised with the belief that they should avoid unfeminine endeavors like competitive sports, but Aguirre, Delgado, Rodriguez and Solis grew up in San Antonio playing softball, volleyball and soccer with their fathers, brothers and sisters.

The one thing that may have changed the course for these women is that their parents enrolled them in church sports programs as preschoolers. They say their fathers were an integral part of their athletic development.

The four girls played softball in citywide leagues and for the Holmes High School varsity before ending up together at Schreiner University in Kerrville, Tex., where they are seniors. The Schreiner team has since attracted other Hispanic players.

Neither the lack of Hispanic female athletes nor the unpopularity of sports among their peers strikes them as particularly odd.

"A lot of Hispanic girls are more into makeup, hair and nails," said Aguirre, who has two older sisters. "In my whole family, I was the only girl who played a sport. I was the only one outside playing with boys."

Her experience pointed to a larger truth: 30 years after the passage of Title IX prohibited sex discrimination in federally funded education programs and opened the doors of competitive sports to women, Hispanics have yet to seize the initiative.

While the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Federation of State High School Associations and the Public Schools Athletic League in New York City do not maintain ethnic breakdowns of female athletes, the anecdotal evidence indicates that Hispanics are largely missing from the female sports boom. In nearly two dozen interviews conducted over the last several weeks, athletes, coaches, educators and sports psychologists confirmed that the number of Hispanic girls and women participating in sports was relatively small compared with the numbers of non-Hispanic whites and blacks.

Certainly, Hispanic girls grow up with few athletic role models. There are no Jennifer Lopezes, Selenas and Christina Aguileras on the soccer fields and basketball courts. Only Lisa Fernandez, a pitcher for the national softball team, which won Olympic gold medals in 1996 and 2000, was mentioned by Aguirre, Delgado, Rodriguez and Solis.

They are not alone. Not one of those interviewed could name five female athletes of Hispanic ancestry without a struggle. Even then, the same names kept coming up: Lisa Fernandez; Nancy Lopez, the L.P.G.A. Hall of Famer; Jennifer Rodriguez, who won two speedskating medals in the 2002 Winter Olympics; and Mary Joe Fernandez, the former professional tennis player.

"I really had no idea that there were so few out there," said Jennifer Rodriguez, whose father was born in Cuba. "Come to think of it, there weren't too many Hispanics I grew up skating with. There were the boys but not many girls, and those that were were in high school. It's really baffling."

Experts cite social pressures and ethnic and cultural traditions that often shape girls' attitudes about feminity, competition and aggression as factors discouraging Hispanic girls, and to some degree African-American girls, from participation in athletics. Other factors also keep the numbers down, including poverty, language barriers, a high incidence of obesity and diabetes among Hispanics, and a high dropout rate.

Julio Pabon, president of Latino Sports Ventures, a sports marketing firm in the Bronx that represents Latin athletes, said Hispanic families tend to have an old-fashioned sensibility about men's and women's roles that reaches across region, generation, class and subgroups within the population.

"In the Latino community especially, girls have to be home," Pabon said. "If you have three siblings in the house all about the same ages, 17, 16, 14, the girl is doing more chores than the guys. It's the girl at home doing the cooking while mom is out working; the girl who is taking care of the sick grandmother or aunt."

Pat Mills is the first-year athletic director at San Bernardino High School in California, a school of 2,600 students, 70 percent of whom are Hispanic. He noticed that a lot of freshman and sophomore girls joined sports teams but that few juniors and seniors did.

"That's because so many of our girls, as they get older, get jobs to help out their families, so they're not playing sports," said Mills, adding that the pattern applied to Hispanic boys as well as girls.

Esme Bermudez, 21, never thought about playing sports. From the day her family arrived in Whittier, Calif., from El Salvador nearly 20 years ago, she was taught that the only way out of poverty and the life the family left behind was through education.

"I played a little volleyball in junior high school, but that's it," said Bermudez, a senior at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. "Within our household, sports wasn't important, period."

Although Hispanic and black girls are less likely to play on a sports team than whites, black girls have more athletic role models.

"African-Americans have a particular relationship to sports that Latin Americans do not have," said Dr. Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. "Little black kids grow up wanting to be like Serena and Venus or Mike and Tiger."

Kane also noted that sports have historical relevance in black America. In the days of Jim Crow, blacks were excluded from competing.

"You have tremendous moments in sports within the African-American community: Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Althea Gibson, Tiger Woods," Kane said. "We don't think about that in terms of the Latin American community."

Others say the emphasis on femininity and beauty in Hispanic culture makes many girls reluctant to put on baggy sweatshirts and muddy cleats to play sports.

"All that's being promoted in our community is the beauty aesthetics," said Pabon, who has two daughters in their 30's and a young granddaughter. "We have this Latino explosion on the music, art and film side, but not on the sports side. Young girls see J. Lo on the magazine covers, or Salma Hayek, and that's what they go for. If you mention sports to the average young Latina from the streets, the rare ones would see it as a positive. Most would see it as a negative."

That may be so, but maybe not for long.

Donna Lopiano, president of the Women's Sports Foundation, believes that, in time, Hispanic girls will take their place on the nation's sports landscape as whites and blacks did before them.

"It takes 15 to 20 years to make a pro athlete," Lopiano said. "Title IX went into effect in 1975 and schools began to comply in 1978. Latinos are underrepresented in the pipeline, but the numbers have increased tremendously in the last 10 to 15 years as parents have become more educated. But it takes longer for the information to get to the Latino community."

The parents of Kristine Stone Cruz, 18, the 2001 Puerto Rican senior nationals figure skating champion, said they had stopped the typical gender-typing almost by accident.

"When she was 10, Kristine was doing ballet, cheerleading, like most typical little Puerto Rican girls," said Carmen Stone Cruz, Kristine's mother. "One day I took our oldest son, Owen, to play hockey, and on another rink they were holding a figure skating session for girls, and Kristine kept bugging me to let her go."

After that, Cruz said, she and her husband, Christopher, have fully supported their daughter's career. The family moved from the Bronx to Lodi, N.J., so Kristine could train at the Ice House in Hackensack.

Carolina Miranda, a contributing editor and director of public relations for Latina, a health, beauty and fashion magazine, said more Hispanic girls need to be told that participation in athletics can also include fitness benefits and sometimes a touch of glamour.

"We're starting to see a lot more active programs for Latinas and more Latinas who are seeing the benefits of participating in athletics," said Miranda, 30, who was on her high school swimming and track teams. "At the magazine, we've been looking for Latina athletes to feature."

A perfect cover girl would be Kristine Stone Cruz. To her, figure skating is a synergy of beauty, femininity and athleticism.

"I can wear the makeup, the sparkly outfits, and still do a double lutz," Cruz said.

She is comfortable enough with her body to joke about it.

"We Latina girls have hips," said Cruz, who added that she is carrying Jennifer Lopez's hips on her 105-pound frame. "Hey, I like to eat the rice, and the red beans."

Laughing, she recounted a recent conversation with her friend and fellow figure skater Sylvia Fontana of Italy. "We were talking about our bodies," Cruz said, "and she said because we aren't built like Sasha Cohen, we have to work harder to land our jumps."

Lisa Fernandez, whose father, Antonio, is Cuban, and whose mother, Emilia, is Puerto Rican, also mentioned Hispanic body structure and its influence on sports participation – in another context.

"Hispanics aren't built like blacks, and blacks aren't built like Caucasians, and Caucasians aren't built like Asians," said Fernandez, a compact 5 feet 6 inches. "Hispanics tend to be full-figured people, powerful, but not physically imposing. Genetics may change over time, but Hispanics don't always have the size to play basketball or football."

The Texas friends Aguirre, Delgado, Rodriguez and Solis have a simpler, more uplifting take on the whole subject. To Hispanic girls who think that being an athlete is a turn-off to boys, they say, think again.

"I never had a problem getting dates in high school or here at Schreiner," Rodriguez said. "To me being a jock helped me get to know more people and made me more popular with the guys."

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