Latinas Welcomed on NYC Soccer Pitch

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A soccer league in New York City caters to women who grew up in Latin America and were forbidden to play soccer when they were children in their home countries.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Another sports story now; this one from New York City. Reporter Elena Cabral introduces us to a league of Latina soccer players who--they're getting a chance to play away from the stigma female athletes face in Latin America.

ELENA CABRAL reporting:

As the commuter train shuttles workers home along the Hudson River at the end of a workday, Mildred Burgos and Celene Sanchez chat on a patch of grass in a Manhattan park while they blow up soccer balls.

Unidentified Woman: Ow.

CABRAL: Burgos, a thin muscular woman at 36, is the founder of a team called HondurMex(ph), so named because of its original mix of Honduran and Mexican players. Burgos was born in Honduras and her story reflects the experience of many in this league.

Ms. MILDRED BURGOS (Soccer Player): (Spanish spoken)

CABRAL: As a teen-ager, Burgos says, she first became intrigued by the sport watching her older brother play. When she tried to join the game, however, Burgos was called a (Spanish spoken), a mannish woman. So she mostly played out of sight.

Ms. BURGOS: (Through Translator) It's frustrating because when you want to do something, and you can't, you get frustrated. That's how I felt. I felt marginalized in something I knew I could do, but wasn't allowed to try.

CABRAL: Burgos' team plays with more than 200 women, mostly from countries throughout Latin America. Many of the women are recent arrivals who come alone or with family members looking for work.

(Soundbite of game)

CABRAL: They come to the soccer fields to practice between jobs and school, some of them with their children in tow.

(Soundbite of whistle)

Mr. MARCO BURGOS (Coach): (Spanish spoken)

CABRAL: When they take to the field, the women play fiercely, vying for the ball in a series of drills. Mildred's brother, Marco, is the team's coach.

Mr. BURGOS: (Spanish spoken)

CABRAL: He urges the women to hustle and to keep the ball moving, using both legs.

Mr. BURGOS: (Spanish spoken)

CABRAL: Though many of the women yearn to play this way as youngsters in their home countries, few had the chance.

(Soundbite of whistle; game)

CABRAL: Juan Carlos Martinez(ph), the husband of one player on the league, blames negative attitudes about the idea of women competing in sports like soccer.

Mr. JUAN CARLOS MARTINEZ: (Through Translator) I think the governments in our countries, they are not as interested in women's sports because they still have that machismo that women are for the kitchen, for being in the home caring for the children. Today, I think, women have the same rights as men because women take on as much as men and maybe more. They work outside the home and still are taking care of the children.

CABRAL: Marco Burgos endured some criticism from his male friends when he was asked to leave team HondurMex four years ago. Some men didn't like the idea of their wives playing in a league.

Mr. BURGOS: (Thorough Translator) My friends wondered what I was thinking training women. I saw that they wanted to learn and I liked the idea.

CABRAL: Since then, many more men have become team trainers.

(Soundbite of game)

CABRAL: Now games like this one are well-attended by husbands, brothers and sons. Though HondurMex has not had a winning season, Burgos says that every minute on the field is a moment to learn from, a moment long fought for.

For NPR News, I'm Elena Cabral in New York.

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