The end of the year has a way of stirring things in your memory, from family to heroes, to all kinds of inspiration.
I have been inspired by books and by movies, and more importantly, I am always inspired by unique individuals who have struggled and came through to the other side strong, and yet kind. We see that in movies, although Latinos did not see themselves in the most favorable light in movies until recent years.
Such is the case of McFarland. A movie about young Latino immigrants whose parents worked in the fields and had no hope for a better future, yet they succeeded. More than just physical prowess drives the teens; their strong family ties, incredible work ethic, and commitment to their team all play a factor in forging these novice runners into champions.
A coach too can make a difference, inspire, and that is Maria Alonzo to me, and a quote from that movie reminds me of her: “The odds are stacked against us. You guys are super human, there’s nothing you can’t do with that kind of strength, with that kind of heart.”
After coming with her family to America, Maria overcame many obstacles to get a college degree, find work in jobs where she helped others in crisis, and then helped start up a sprawling soccer league that brought communities together. This is her story.
Maria and her three siblings moved to El Valle, Texas in 1986 when she was only 12 years old, following their dad who was already working there in the fields.
“Right away, we became seasonal migrant farm workers, moving through different states like New York, Colorado and Iowa,” she said.
Approximately one to three million migrants leave their homes every year to plant, cultivate, harvest, and pack fruits, vegetables, and nuts in the US, and they are often called “our Nation’s invisible population”.
The entire family moved constantly for about five years until her father decided that Muscatine, Iowa was a good place to settle down in.
Looking back and reflecting, Maria said that when they moved to this country, it was extremely difficult for her to adapt; she missed her grandparents and also her school. She missed being the best student who always competed and excelled academically and won. She also missed spending time with her grandparents who she considers to be the greatest influence in her life.
Maria used to tag along with her grandpa when going to farmer meetings, a farmer himself; he was a leader in their community, and used to say “Mija, (my child) you pay attention because you are going to go far—you are going to be someone great.” Even when school was hard for her because of her limited English skills, she always remembered her grandparent’s words of advice of “you study and become somebody in life.”
Maria graduated from high school in 1991, and wanted to attend Iowa State University to study social work, but her dad, being a traditional Mexican man, had strong views about gender roles in society, and would not allow her to move to a different city on her own. She instead enrolled at Muscatine Community College.
“The night of the graduation, I was so excited,” Maria said. “I never thought that I was even good enough to graduate from high school, let alone to graduate with a Liberal Arts degree in college.”
Unfortunately, due to family conflicts, her family was not able to attend her graduation. This event was followed by additional family differences, which led Maria to ultimately leave home. The following weeks, Maria moved from one friend’s home to another, until a couple that led the Bible study she attended took her into their home.
Even with all these obstacles, Maria later applied and was accepted at Iowa State University. She graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in social work in 1996.
After graduation, Maria moved to Des Moines, landing a job at HER (Hispanic Educational Resources). She later worked at the domestic violence shelter, until finally getting a position as a counselor at Crisis and Advocacy of Polk County in 1999, where she still works.
Reflecting on her past, Maria said, “Since I was born, I believe God has positioned really good people that not only have helped me, but have rescued me. This country and people have given me a lot and that is why I have to help others. I feel I have been given many privileges. Not everybody has been blessed with the same opportunities as I have.”
Now married with three wonderful kids, and a Master’s degree in counseling from Drake University, her next goal is to work towards her PhD, but that will have to wait. Maria has a full plate currently helping victims of violent crimes, and also leading an organization called “Giant Pekes Soccer” under an umbrella nonprofit organization, Guardian Angel.
Here is the connection of inspiration by sports.
When I asked about how it all started with the program and its organization, she explained, “I wanted my kids to be active and involved in sports and a positive activity, but it was too expensive to enroll them in a club. It was also hard for me and my husband to take them back and forth from all the activities. One day discussing these issues with my husband and a friend, Lorena Luna, we came up with the idea of creating a soccer league. We all knew parents with kids and in some way, those parents were in the same situation as us. So, we did it.”
They started small, but soon enough, they had twelve teams and three different divisions. This wasn’t about making money, but rather about eliminating financial barriers for families and helping kids achieve physical wellness. With what families paid, it was enough to help pay for the rent of the soccer fields.
Latino parents not only work many hours, but sometimes work multiple jobs that don’t pay that much. It is hard for many to make extra money for their children’s extracurricular activities, particularly if more than one child wants to participate. So, Maria worked to make this activity accessible to any child in the family that wanted to be engaged.
It has been seven years since this program was created, and it has grown so much that they had to add a division for women and one more for girls only, having six divisions. There are six to twelve teams per division, and ten to twelve players per team. The program has impacted hundreds of young people and their families and is run year-round.
“It’s important to show that you care when one of your teammates falls down,” Maria said. “It’s priceless to see children stop and help one another. It’s also powerful to see families come together and support when someone in the community experiences tragedy.”
As a community, they plan tournaments to help families in need and are vulnerable. Maria said that besides encouraging physical activity, these families are able to create strong relationships. Many are marginalized families that are always working and have tight schedules, but soccer brings them together.
“This is an incredible platform that I have tried to utilize to provide awareness to participating families about various topics with a focus on social responsibility and anti-violence,” she said.
We discussed the current and undeniable environment of violence against immigrants. She stated that sadly the attacks against the integrity of the community have affected Latino families. People are fearful, but we are also resilient. The desire to do and be better for our children moves us in remarkable ways. Every single day, families in our community show the “ganas” they have to be better. This is greater and more powerful than fear.
She hears about raids and deportations every weekend, about individuals being arrested as they stopped to get gas on their way to work, or kids talking about their parents being deported. Again, regardless of the constant fear, families have to keep going because they have no other choice. One of the moms told Alonzo, “Maria, my son is so excited to play soccer every weekend that he even sleeps with his cleats on. How can I tell him I cannot bring him to the game?”
Maria hears stories of physical, sexual and verbal abuse in their workplaces, people not getting paid for their work but afraid to denounce it because their bosses threaten to call immigration. Because many immigrants aren’t aware they have rights, Maria tries to inform them on how to defend themselves against these abuses.
Unfortunately, with the rhetoric of hate against Latinos these cases are now common.
“People have been encouraged to act out hatred and our community has become a target,” Maria said. She shared that she is afraid for her children and how the color of their skin affects them currently more than ever.
“Even in schools, teachers and peers telling students to go back to where they come from, calling them illegals and wet backs,” she said.
This fear is a reality, not just a feeling. According to an annual report by the FBI, the rate of hate against Latinos in the U.S is at its highest in nearly a decade, the report revealed 485 hate crimes against Latinos in 2018; that’s 58 more than reported the year before and surpassing those against Muslims and Arab Americans, the result of a president that has encouraged division and hatred.
When talking about the next elections and what she would like to see happening to the community, Maria expressed, “I would like to see our families not live in fear. The level of anxiety is so high now that it affects the quality of life of the entire family. I want to see people free of fear.”
She added that although she is not following the candidates closely, she only wishes to have someone who will truly take the needs of our community into consideration. “I am to the point of saying I will take anything at this moment. I’m so desperate because my community is desperate,” she said.
Hate and violence have stricken Maria’s family. Just last year her nephew was killed in a case that is still unsolved. Late this year, a family member was run over by a Caucasian woman because she “looked Mexican.”
Elections or no elections, violence and fear must stop. That is my Christmas wish.
by Claudia Thrane