Discovering a sisterhood in sports

With children on the sidelines, a group of Latina immigrants form friendships and sharpen their skills as literal soccer moms

Maryland Journal

September 26, 2005|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

Jahaira Zuniga, out of breath, ran over to her fussy 3-year-old daughter Natalia Carranza, pleading in English and Spanish for her to behave.

"QuM-i pasa, mami?" said Zuniga, asking what was wrong. She then squatted beside Natalia and her friends who were playing with dolls on the soccer field's sidelines. "Are you sharing?"

Natalia whimpered, tugging at her mother with one hand, insisting that she stay.

"No. Mommy's playing ball," said Zuniga, a 22-year-old nursing student, as she ran back to the Patterson Park field. "I'll be back in a little bit."

In much of the United States, soccer mom has become synonymous with a suburban lifestyle where mothers shuttle their children to sporting events. For women like Zuniga, mothering never stops, not even for soccer, but they are the ones on the field. And these moms in cleats relish the moments between timeouts when there's nothing between them and the ball.

"It's a distraction from home, from the kids," said Aided Gonzalez, 23, in Spanish. "And from my husband," she said, laughing.

Not quite a league, the soccer group consists of about 20 women who play against each other three times a week. They are all members of a women's empowerment organization affiliated with the Latino advocacy group CASA of Maryland. Most are recent immigrants from more than a dozen countries, from Panama to Peru, who now call Baltimore home.

During one of their Friday meetings about four months ago, the women made an observation: Baltimore's burgeoning Latino community had dozens of soccer teams but none for women. Many in the group had never played the sport before, but wished they had learned it back in their home countries, where soccer, known as futbol, is insanely popular.

Zara Urgiles, a fellow at the Open Society Institute who launched the women's group at CASA of Maryland, found a volunteer who offered to coach. Soccer seemed to fit perfectly in her overall design for the group, known as the Associacion por la Superacion E Iqualdad de la Mujer - the Association for the Self-improvement and Equality of Women.

Urgiles wanted to create what she saw as a much-needed space for women to meet, share and grow. Many of the city's recent Latina immigrants shared a common existence, shuttling from job to job, caring for children and husbands while trying to navigate their new surroundings and struggling to grasp English. They seemed to have no time to focus on their own needs, let alone make friends.

"Many women, not all of them, play traditional roles at home," said Urgiles. "For a lot of them, they are busy with the house and kids and they don't have the time even to go to the park. But for this [soccer], they will make the time because it's important to them."

The organization began by providing credit counseling, home ownership workshops and discussions on such topics as the struggles of raising an adolescent. Before long, a social network emerged and women started celebrating birthdays, baby showers and, eventually, the success of scoring a goal.

On a mild night last week, about 12 women showed up at Patterson Park wearing blue and yellow jerseys, their children, husbands and boyfriends in tow. When they have smaller groups, someone's son or boyfriend stands in as goalie so all the women can play the field.

And in a delightful role reversal for many of the women raised in traditional Latin cultures, the men looked after the babies. Between plays, the women laughed and joked. But when the ball was in motion, play was fast-paced and intense.

"It's too hot," said Urgiles jogging off the field. "I need a break," she said, then cradled a teammate's infant son in her arms.

Felix Gonzalez, 31, stood on the sidelines with his son Miguel, 3, to watch his wife, Cecila Gonzalez, score.

"She's good, and she never really played before," said Gonzalez, admiring his wife's skills. "She prefers basketball."

In their hometown in Guerrero, Mexico, Cecila Gonzalez, 26, and her sister-in-law Aided Gonzalez played in community basketball leagues. Aided was a solid forward, while Cecila was a killer guard with a fantastic three-pointer, boasts Felix.

"Yes, I have a good three-point shot," Cecila agreed, smiling.

Soccer reminds her of those days, she said, when nothing else mattered but the game.

"My head forgets everything," she said. "My son, he isn't even in my thoughts."

The Gonzalez women look forward to games because it breaks the monotony of home life. Neither of them work, choosing to care for their small children at home.

It's a tough transition from life in Mexico, where a network of grandparents, siblings and neighbors always pitched in to help out with the kids.

"It's hard," said Aided Gonzalez. "But we have each other."

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