News / USA

Winning Team Breaks Losing Streak

High school players fight poverty, language barrier and immigration issues

The Woodburn High School boys soccer team practices for an upcoming playoff game.
The Woodburn High School boys soccer team practices for an upcoming playoff game.
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Chris Lehman

The Woodburn, Oregon, High School boys soccer team continued a remarkable streak this month: for the 25th season in a row, the Bulldogs reached the state soccer playoffs. But they had never won the championship... until this year.

Their victory on Saturday is also a symbolic win for their heavily-Hispanic hometown. Writer Steve Wilson spent a year chronicling the ups and downs of this determined team. His new book, "The Boys From Little Mexico," is a portrait of a community struggling with immigration and acculturation issues.

Boys from Little Mexico

Front Street in Woodburn, Oregon, is lined with taquerias, stores displaying Mexican-style cowboy boots and hats, signs in Spanish and a bus station that offers tickets to the heart of Mexico. Migrant farm-workers started coming to Woodburn about 50 years ago to work the harvest. So many ended up staying, the town became known as Little Mexico. But just a few blocks down from Front Street, at Woodburn High School, the scene is no different than any other American suburb.

Front Street in Woodburn is lined with businesses which cater to Hispanics.
Front Street in Woodburn is lined with businesses which cater to Hispanics.

More than a dozen teenage boys practice soccer, preparing for what they hope will be a deep run into the playoffs. Senior Jaime Velas is trying not to be over-confident.

"We're taking it step by step, game by game," says Velas. "We don't want to think too far because we don't want to get our hopes up, you know."

Velas had reason to temper his excitement. Despite making the state playoffs for an uninterrupted quarter of a century, Woodburn had never achieved its dream of winning the soccer championship... until this year.

Writer Steve Wilson thinks their perseverance is an apt metaphor.

"They had in one way an unparalleled level of success. They were getting to the playoffs every year. No other team was doing that. But they'd never won the state championship," he says. "And I was feeling like there was a parallel among the team's experience and the experience of Mexican-Americans in the United States."

Long odds

Like many Mexican-Americans, the boys on the Woodburn team faced long odds including poverty, a language barrier and immigration issues. Wilson wondered if those challenges were keeping the Bulldogs from making it over the final hurdle of winning a state championship.

Steve Wilson visits with Martin Maldonado-Cortez and Miguel 'Angel' Arellano, two of the players he profiled in the book, 'The Boys From Little Mexico.'
Steve Wilson visits with Martin Maldonado-Cortez and Miguel 'Angel' Arellano, two of the players he profiled in the book, 'The Boys From Little Mexico.'

After deciding to shadow the team for an entire season, WIlson got to know the players, coaches and supporters. His book, subtitled "A Season Chasing the American Dream," was the result.  

One of the players profiled in the book, Martin Maldonado-Cortez, says he and the other boys on the team were well aware that Woodburn had a rough reputation. The town of just 22,000 people still faces many big-city problems, such as gang violence and drugs.

"We'd go to games and people started acting different, and we kind of noticed that as we were growing up. 'Hide your wallet, Woodburn's coming,'" says Maldonado-Cortez.

Woodburn High School in Woodburn, Oregon
Woodburn High School in Woodburn, Oregon

Don't mess up, his coaches told him. And not just on the field. Don't confirm anyone's preconceived notions about what being an Hispanic kid means.

"At first I didn't know what to think. And then you really think about it, and you still don't know what to think," says Maldonado-Cortez. "You know, you can only do what you can do and hopefully people get to know you and see you in a different way."

'Pocho'

Maldonado-Cortez was born in Los Angeles. His family moved to Woodburn when he was three. He found that the American suburbs weren't the only place he was treated like an outsider. He learned that lesson during a summer playing club soccer in Mexico.

"They gave me a nickname. It was...called me Pocho. And I didn't know what it meant until I actually asked them," he says.

He found out that Pocho is slang term used in Mexico for Mexican-Americans and refers to someone who has lost touch with his roots. Maldonado-Cortez found he wasn't  fully accepted in the white towns or in the Mexican towns.

"Yeah, it was pretty difficult. They really saw you differently. They saw you like if you were some rich kid that can just cross over the border like nothing."

That Maldonado-Cortez sometimes blended in better with his American classmates than with Mexican kids comes as no surprise to Wilson.

"Most of the stuff that's important to them and that they're going through - problems with their parents, trying to find girls, doing your homework, having their aspirations on the field, thinking about college - all of that stuff is the same regardless," says Wilson.

Still chasing the dream

Martin Maldonado-Cortez was one of several seniors on the team during the season chronicled in The Boys from Little Mexico. The Woodburn Bulldogs once again fell short of the state championship that year, but Martin graduated and headed off to college.

Then, in another setback, he had to quit when his parents lost their jobs. He now works at a local retirement home, but he's still chasing the American dream. He follows his old team closely, and coaches a youth soccer team.

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