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The Journal News (White Plains, NY)

Not Just For Kicks: Hispanic Women Embrace Soccer League

By Franziska Castillo

December 9, 2003
Copyright ©2004 The Journal News (White Plains, NY). All rights reserved.

NEW YORK - Two years ago, Mildred Burgos would not have been doing this on a Sunday afternoon - shouting cell-phone orders to a late-arriving teammate, making sure everyone's hamstrings are stretched, and shooing two of her children, 11 and 9, away from the white-sprayed grass of the soccer field sideline.

Two years ago, her title would have been spectator - watching the men play - not coach and captain.

Back then, soccer in Van Cortlandt Park's Latino immigrant soccer, or futbol, leagues was still a male-only sport, and the Hondumex women's team was just a crazy idea Burgos and a couple of friends had dreamed up while they were kicking a ball around the edges of a men's game.

But there Burgos was, tall in her cleats, ready to whip the Cruz Azul women's team in the Bronx-based International Soccer League's second annual women's championship tournament.

"I feel so happy," Burgos said in Spanish. "This is what I, and so many people, have dreamed of."

Burgos, a 34-year-old power forward, is part of a fledgling effort - one the league's organizers believe may be the first of its kind in New York - to bring soccer to Latinas.

Beginning with six women's teams in May 2002, and growing to 12 squads this fall, the league now fields teams from Yonkers, Mamaroneck, the Bronx and Manhattan, league President Vicente Mena said. It is the sister organization to the men's International Soccer League, formed in 1974.

Among the roughly 250 players are women and girls from Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, Honduras, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Chile and Guatemala, most of them immigrants who have arrived in the United States within the past 10 years, and many of them playing organized ball for the first time.

The teams have already competed in two Copa de la Raza contests - Heritage Cup in English - and two league championship tournaments, during the league's competition season, which runs from March to December. And interest keeps growing.

"We've never gone out and looked for (women players)," Emilio Rios, the league's treasurer, said in Spanish. "They are just coming to us."

For Americans steeped in decades of girls' soccer competition, all the buzz surrounding the league may seem hard to understand. But for Latina women, long discouraged from playing the sport in their countries of origin, the league and its growing fan base are practically a miracle, some said.

"Normally, Mexicans preferred women to stay in the house, nothing else," said Dulce Gonzalez, 23, a member of Yonkers' Cruz Azul team.

"But now they yell and support us," she said, beaming, as several members of the men's Cruz Azul team cheered and waved a giant blue team banner on the sidelines of a recent women's game.

The banner had originally been sewn by the women for the men, but now, Gonzalez said, they were proud to play under it as well.

The feeling for many players, she said, is one of long-deferred liberation.

Travel to any little hill village in Latin America, even one with 200 inhabitants and more chickens than children, and soccer will be there. On any field flat enough to kick a ripped old ball straight, a herd of little boys or teenagers or young men will shout "Andale" or "Orale" or whatever the slang of the place is for run, kick and shoot.

And in the great stadiums of Latin America, the soccer gods reign - all of them male - idolized by millions in a sport considered as testosterone-driven and macho as American football is in this country.

But while men's soccer is as much a part of the culture as rice and beans and Catholicism, Latin American women's soccer is still in its infancy.

National women's teams have won some support and popularity in the four years since the ultra-talented stars of the 1999 Women's World Cup, such as Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain, appeared on television, inspiring legions of girls around the world to break into the sport. In 2001, Mexican soap operas, long a genre dominated by weepy women waiting to be rescued by muscle-bound male heroes, even began to feature women soccer players as starring characters on "El Juego De La Vida," or "The Game of Life," and similar shows

But women's games are still far less televised and less followed than male matches in the Spanish-speaking Americas. In most of those little hill towns, women are still barred from the sport.

Girls are for sewing, not slide tackles, their mothers tell them, and most of the time the girls listen.

Modesta Cruz must have plugged her ears. In the village of San Lucas, Mexico, just far enough outside Mexico City for sprawling smog and noise to give way to cornfields, Cruz grew up a secret futbolista, always sneaking to play in her brothers' pickup games until her mother would catch her and yell, "¿Estas loca?" ("Are you crazy?") and order her back into the kitchen.

It took immigrating to Yonkers for Cruz, 20, to make her dream real this year, by setting up her own futbol team, Necaxa, thousands of miles from her mother's admonishments.

Under the coaching of her brother, Javier Cruz, Modesta and her sister Maribel, 17, have now built a squad of about 15 women, ages 13 to 30, many of them new to the sport.

"It's here that she found liberty to play," Javier Cruz said in Spanish.

Initially, Javier Cruz said, many of the players had to overcome years of ingrained "ladylike" timidity and male players' perception, as Yonkers fan Arnulfo Esteban, 24, put it, that "women are more weak in their bodies ... they play with more caution."

"At first, they would run to the ball and not kick it," Javier Cruz said. "They were afraid of bumping heads and they would move to the side. If they fell, they would stay on the ground two minutes complaining of the injury. Now, they get up right away and keep playing."

From the looks of a recent body-crashing, head-butting Hondumex versus Cruz Azul game, the women are quickly proving wrong those who say they play too gently, and showing them, as Gonzalez yelled on the sidelines, "Futbol is not just for men!"

The league has won a large number of male fans and warm support from most male players on brother teams, Gonzalez said.

But not all the men are happy, Javier Cruz said. A few husbands removed their wives from his team after the women's newfound devotion to soccer began to interfere with their cooking and cleaning at home, he said.

"There still exists a little of that machismo," Cruz said.

It is perhaps that kind of lingering attitude, said Susan Zieff, a professor at San Francisco State University, that contributes to the continued lag in Hispanic girls and women participating in sports in the United States.

Nationally, only 3 percent of female college scholarship athletes in 2001 were Hispanic, according to NCAA statistics. And research by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed just 40.1 percent of Hispanic female students having ever played on a sports team in 2000, compared with 53.3 percent of Anglo girls.

"There may not be outright discouragement, but there is less overt encouragement than for other groups," said Zieff, who has written extensively on both immigrants' and young women's participation in sports.

But for those who do play, experts and players agree, the benefits include increased self-esteem, better health and better performance in school.

Burgos said she hopes, with time, teams like hers can spread soccer, and self-confidence, to whole new generations of Latina girls.

"If a person can run the length of the field and has the desire, my team is open to (her)," said Burgos, who once endured taunts of "marimacha" or "dyke" as a girl trying to play the sport in Honduras in the 1980s, and now balances work, motherhood and college with the training the women of Hondumex.

"Above all, I want to help the youth. I open the door for them."

A new tradition is already forming, Rios said.

"All these women who are playing now have families," Rios said. "The young girls are watching their mothers, cousins and aunts playing, and that instills the desire to play soccer in the children too."

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