Soccer, the sport of dizzying footwork and high-flying bicycle kicks, is not just "the beautiful game," as fans call it. It also can be expensive.
Recreational youth leagues charge about $130 for a single season, and kids' club teams can cost parents $1,000 or more. For this reason alone, children of poor Latino families in Orange County are likely to miss out on a beloved pastime that boosts fitness in the neighborhoods that are most vulnerable to youth obesity.
But in the low-income community of Oak View, a one-square-mile neighborhood in Huntington Beach, parents found a way to make soccer teams affordable and in the process built community pride and created an alternative to the mean streets.
Now in its fifth year officially — though games first began in 2001 — the Oak View Youth Soccer League has 750 players, boys and girls ages 5 to 16 who proudly wear the jerseys of popular pro teams like Real Madrid and Golden Chivas.
The annual cost? A $10 registration fee, a uniform and about $3 per game to pay for referees.
"This keeps him active," said Alejandra Hernandez of Anaheim, referring to her 7-year-old son Michael, who was taking a quick break on the sidelines during a game recently. Games take place at Oak View Elementary School, with some additional matches at nearby Ocean View High School.
Lacing up his cleats before taking the field, referee Eduardo Avila noted that "Hispanic people love soccer, and people are here because they don't charge much."
A 2010 study of the Oak View league confirms the importance of the low price. Ninety-three percent of parents surveyed identified the league as their only affordable sports activity. In addition, a vast majority of parents surveyed said the league keeps kids out of risky behaviors and helps them control their weight and watch less television.
League founder Jose Luis Rodriguez first saw the need for the league in 2001, when his kids, now in high school, were 5 and 6 years old. He found that families in Oak View could not always afford to join teams and that it was difficult to travel to different locations, either because families didn't have access to a car or parents had to contend with work schedules.
"Other leagues were expensive, and parents can't take the kids to Cypress one weekend, Costa Mesa the next," Rodriguez said. "For Hispanic fathers, our time is dedicated to work."
With this reality in mind, the games in the Oak View league are held at the fields within walking distance of the community.
Rodriguez was also concerned about youth obesity, which is epidemic in the U.S. but hits Latino and African-Americans particularly hard. "We have a lot of overweight people, and we have to fight against obesity and heart disease," he said.
One of Rodriguez's earliest supporters was Karen Catabijan, who at the time of the league's founding was the principal of Oak View Elementary. Catabijan worked to get permission from the Ocean View School District to play on fields and used the school to publicize the league as well as recruit and recognize players.
"We went to bat for the league and said it was needed in the neighborhood to get kids off the street, build family and team spirit," she said.
It also motivated kids academically, Catabijan said, because coaches could make participation contingent on doing better in school. Further, kids could later try out for the high school soccer team, having had the experience on the Oak View league, she said.
But the league wasn't only a learning experience for the kids, Catabijan said. "It taught parents in that neighborhood how to run an organization. It was a soccer league built from the ground up in that neighborhood."
The Work Behind the Play
Rodriguez and fellow parents do everything from lining the fields to organizing the teams to getting the trophies. His own kids referee games and help him keep up with the considerable paperwork — rosters, schedules and every week's wins and losses.
The league is so grass-roots that until recently it was using handmade metal goals that fathers of the players had welded together.
Another responsibility that Rodriguez handles is rule enforcement — no fighting, no profanity — and parent disputes. When adults show unsportsmanlike conduct at a match, he determines how many games they must miss as a penalty.
Rodriguez gets some assistance in his work from the Oak View Renewal Partnership, a community organization that recently helped the league obtain new goals, get additional fields and set up a workshop with professional coaches, which was a big hit among the parents.
Soccer has given the fathers of Oak View players a prominent role in a place where community-building activities tend to draw mothers, said Iosefa Alofaituli, executive director of the partnership.
"It can be very, very difficult to gather men in this community," he said. "But you see fathers engage with family and community out here on the soccer field. Nothing speaks to that more than the league's monthly coaches meeting in my office of 40 soccer coaches. It's hard to capture that many men in one place."
Not that moms should be counted out. Alofaituli said that last year a group of mothers took to a practice field and began dribbling, kicking and passing, eventually forming their own team.
Whatever the players' ages or genders, Rodriguez said, Latinos feel proprietary about soccer. "We Hispanics see this sport as ours," he said.
Amy DePaul is a freelance writer and lecturer in the UC Irvine Literary Journalism program. You can reach her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org