Probation Officer’s Love of Soccer Saves at Risk Kids

Probation officer Gina Castañeda in action, coaching the young men of the Aztecs in Watsonville, Calif. Photo: Lily Dayton.
Probation officer Gina Castañeda in action, coaching the young men of the Aztecs in Watsonville, Calif. Photo: Lily Dayton.

Coach Gina Castañeda stands in a player box at the edge of the indoor soccer arena, yelling above the cheers of the crowd to the teenage boys in purple jerseys darting across the playing field. A player in mis-matched soccer cleats makes a swift pass to a team mate, who shoots the ball past the goalkeeper and into the net. Castañeda claps wildly, shouting “Good job you guys! ¡Sí se puede!

Though this event appears to be like any other soccer match at the Soccer Central Indoor Sports arena in Watsonville, the players are different. All the teens in purple are members of the Aztecas Youth Soccer Academy—a team made up of high-risk youth, most of whom have been on probation and have varying degrees of gang affiliation. Many of the players are from rival street gangs—the Norteños, who claim the color red, and the Sureños, who claim the color blue. As a symbol of unity, the Aztecas wear purple because, as one team member said, “Red plus blue makes purple.”

A deputy probation officer in addition to a soccer coach, Castañeda started the Aztecas in 2008 as a diversion program to get high-risk juveniles from her caseload off the streets, away from gangs and involved in a pro-social activity that gives them support and teaches them life skills. In addition to youth players, the program includes peer mentors who’ve been through the program, as well as adult mentors and college interns.

Today is the fourth annual fundraising event, “Aztecas Challenges the Law.” The opposing team is made of local law enforcement and probation officers—many of whom have encountered these boys on the streets as juvenile offenders. Among the crowd that packs the stands are four superior court judges. The savory scent of carne asada drifts into the stadium from the small stand outside where players’ parents sell tacos to help raise money for the program that may have saved their sons’ lives. But more than just a fundraiser, this annual event is a way for the Aztecas to connect with law enforcement—and the community—in a positive way.

“If you give kids an opportunity to be successful, they will take advantage of it,” says Castañeda, a woman with a determined gaze behind dark-rimmed glasses who commands a deep respect from her players. “These kids now identify not as gang members—they identify as soccer players.”

Growing up amidst violence

The soccer stadium is located in Ramsay Park, a place that has been a stage for gang violence in this Santa Cruz County farming town. Almost an ominous reminder of the path these kids have escaped, a shrine sits out front: a spindly tree sapling, supported by a stake and surrounded by vases of plastic flowers and votive candles depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe. A metal plate on a stone is engraved with the name of a boy who was killed just last year in a gang shooting.

Like much of the Central Coast, Watsonville is caught in a web of gang activity, and the city’s youth are the most vulnerable. Young people are often used by gangs to commit crimes because they are viewed as having a “free ticket” out of prison—even though the law changed in 2000, with Proposition 21 giving prosecutors the power to directly file charges against juveniles in adult criminal court.

Though Norteños and Sureños are the two main gangs in Santa Cruz County, each is broken up into smaller factions by neighborhoods. A 2013 Criminal Justice Council report counted approximately 25-30 gang factions in the county. More than half of the youth in Watsonville report having a friend who is in a gang and slightly less than half have a family member who belongs to a gang.

Castañeda knows this life all too well. Born and raised in Watsonville, she was the third of six children—five of them from different fathers. Her mother was involved in gangs and drugs, and physically abused Castañeda and her siblings. She used belts, whips and kicks to punish them, sometimes ripping hair from their scalps. She emulated gang culture, teaching her children the language and hand signs, showing them which colors to wear—and which not to wear.

“Truthfully, I think my mom had learned those skills to survive,” says Castañeda, sitting in a small conference room at the probation office in Watsonville. “She was just teaching us to survive also.”

The children followed “like a family of ducks.” As soon as they hit adolescence, Castañeda’s two older brothers began the path of delinquency that would continue throughout their lives: gangs and drugs, fights, suspension, juvenile hall, probation, group homes, jail and eventually, prison. One of her younger sisters would follow in their mother’s footsteps, becoming pregnant by a gangster at age 13.

“In our home, we believed that this was all normal,” she explains. “This is what you see, this is what you’re living. You don’t understand that there’s a whole other world outside of this.”

Castañeda found refuge from the pain of her family by running through the strawberry fields that surrounded her home, dribbling a soccer ball. Her stepfather, Ernesto Medina, had played professional soccer in Mexico, so when he secured a foreman position on the strawberry farm, he made a soccer field in a fallow area of land. Medina started the Watsonville Men’s Adult Soccer League, and he named his first team the Aztecas. When the Aztecas trained on the farm, young Castañeda trained right alongside them.

But things worsened when Castañeda’s mother and Medina broke up. At age 11, Castañeda lived with her mother and younger sister in a silver Mercury Cougar, its side panels scarred with bullet holes. When the car broke down, they slept in abandoned houses, at the levee or in local parks.

“It’s kind of amazing because this story leads us back to Ramsay Park,” says Castañeda, her voice breaking and her eyes filling with tears as she describes how her family would have to get to the park early if they wanted to secure a warm, safe place to sleep for the night. “There was this huge monkey slide with arms. One or two families could stay in the head of the monkey.”

From wherever she’d slept, Castañeda would catch a transit bus, sometimes walking long distances to middle school. “School was warm, I had a place I could be for eight hours, and I got breakfast and lunch every day for free. So that was stability for me.”

But school also inflicted pain for Castañeda. She remembers an assignment in middle school: write an essay about what you want to do when you graduate and how you plan to get there. In brainstorming for the assignment, the other students said they wanted to be doctors, lawyers, teachers and homemakers. “All I could think about was where I was going to sleep that night,” she says. “I felt really angry.”

Castañeda failed the assignment. On her paper, she wrote only three words: love, identity, caring.

Saved by soccer

By the time Castañeda got to Aptos High School—still living on the streets, assaulted by gang members, bathing with scratchy paper towels in restaurant bathrooms and eating scraps of food that paying customers had left on tables—her pain had hardened into a shell of rage.

“As a freshman, I’m just like on edge,” Castañeda says. “So I get into my second fight in high school and it’s because a girl was calling me racist names. I just blew up.”

She recalls the principal laughing sarcastically as he filled out the suspension form and said to her, “I know your mom and your brothers. Make it easy for me—I don’t want you here. You obviously don’t want to be here.”

“I was like, ‘no one’s going to take one more thing from me,’” says Castañeda. From that point on, she vowed not to get in anymore fights. Soon afterwards, the athletic director, Mark Dorfman, saw her play in PE. When he called her to his office, she assumed she was in trouble. But, instead, he asked her, “What do you play?”

“I looked at him like he was talking in a foreign language,” she says, recalling how he repeated his words more slowly and loudly: “What sports do you play?” She told him she’d never played on a team, but that she’d learned soccer from her stepdad in the strawberry fields. When soccer season started, Castañeda became the first Latina student on the team, and the first freshman to make varsity.

Though Castañeda’s home life remained unstable throughout high school—vacillating between homelessness, staying with Medina, living with gang members and finally moving out on her own—Castañeda began to get support from her coaches, her teammates and their families, and from Dorfman, who she describes today as “my anchor.” She continued to play soccer, breaking school records as the team’s lead scorer. In her senior year, she earned the title “most valuable player,” a front-page spread in the local newspaper and a full scholarship to SFSU.

“This was the first time I was recognized for anything,” she says. “It was soccer that did it.”

But her fate would change direction when, on a rainy day during a game at the end of her senior year, she was slide tackled from behind. Falling onto the muddy field, she blew her knee out. SFSU pulled her scholarship.

Still on her own and taking care of her younger sister, Castañeda started working for a Watsonville health clinic as an HIV prevention educator, going to bars with a banana, condoms and a bottle of bleach to talk with migrant workers about safe sex and the importance of using clean needles. Soon she began running a pregnancy prevention program and working with local school kids on STD prevention, drug and alcohol education, and anger management.

Eventually, Castañeda got a job as a gang intervention specialist, working as a counselor for youth in juvenile drug court. She had such good rapport with the kids that one of the deputy probation officers, Julia Feldman, told her she would make a great probation officer.

“What I noticed was her heart, her endless energy and passion for working with kids in the community,” says Feldman, who is now the probation supervisor. “I saw her potential to be able to do even more and have more authority working with the kids.”

“I looked at her like she was crazy,” says Castañeda. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding? Probation officers arrested all my family. I want to help kids—I don’t want to put them in custody.’”

Feldman says, “She was thinking that because of her background she wouldn’t be a good probation officer. I had to convince her that, no, actually, that’s what will make you an even better probation officer because kids can relate to you.”

A rough start

By 2008, Castañeda had been working as a deputy probation officer for three years, and her caseload was almost all gang members. In an effort to find alternative activities to divert them from gangs, she asked, “What do you do for fun?”

The majority of kids said they liked to play soccer. But when she asked where they played, the answer was invariable: “I used to play; I don’t play anymore. I’m a gangster now.”

From her own experience, Castañeda knew the motto “once a soccer player, always a soccer player.” So she set out placing the probation kids on local teams. But when they met with her afterward, they echoed a similar experience: they weren’t connecting with their coaches, they didn’t fit in, they wanted to drop out. So Castañeda started going to their games, cheering them on. But with different teams playing in different locations several days of the week, Castañeda was spending too much time away from her own family.

It was her husband, Patricio Castañeda—also a soccer player—who suggested, “Why don’t you put them all on one team? You can be their coach.”

Though the probation boys weren’t very enthusiastic about the idea, their parents were on board. A local teen had recently been killed in a gang homicide and everyone was worried their son could be next. Castañeda remembers, “They were like, ‘Sign them up!’”

There was no funding available for a soccer team of juvenile delinquents, so Castañeda began her efforts as a volunteer. Starting with a shoestring budget that consisted of proceeds from parents’ taco stand and donations from fellow probation staff, she was barely able to pay the registration fees for the Watsonville Men’s Adult Soccer League—the same league Medina had started when Castañeda was a child. She named the team the Aztecas.

It was rough in the beginning, Castañeda remembers. She had both Norteños and Sureños on her caseload—and she couldn’t make separate gang teams—so rival gang members were teamed together from the start. “There was a lot of tension because some of those guys had assaulted each other previously on the streets,” says Castañeda. “That first year was the hardest year. It was always about conflict resolution, anger management, being consistent, holding them responsible.”

The boys tested the rules. Though they weren’t supposed to wear gang colors, a player would show up with a glimpse of red underwear beneath his shorts; another would come to practice under the influence—offenses for which Castañeda would ask them to leave. Over time, the boys learned to respect the rules. And they started to bond as a team.

Home team list

Soon after Yoni Hernandez joined the Aztecas, he went for a jog on the streets of Watsonville. He’d been involved in gangs for years and had recently made the decision to disentangle himself. But he still wore his gang’s color—the protective emblem that kept him safe in his barrio. On this day, however, a group of teens wearing the rival gang’s color strutted toward him. As they drew near, they called him out, using street slang to refer to the side of town he came from.

“I thought they were going to jump me,” Hernandez recalls, several years later. “Then I saw one of the Azteca players in the group.” His teammate told the others that Hernandez was on his soccer team—that he didn’t “back a color,” and that he was just a regular person. The rival gang members turned away.

As the Aztecas program has grown, stories like this have become common—with team unity often replacing the group affiliation troubled youth seek from gangs.

Hernandez joined a gang after he and his mom immigrated to the U.S. from war-torn Chiapas. While his mother worked long hours in the field, he was often unsupervised and lonely. Kids at school made fun of him because he couldn’t speak English and because of his dark-skinned, indigenous look.

“The only group that accepted me was a gang,” he says. “I felt like I was part of something big. Inside, I felt like I was loved. They were like my new family and they respected me and liked me for who I was.”

But before he started high school, another gang member gave him a gun and a mission to kill someone from the rival gang. Holding the gun, he walked up to his target and looked him in the eye. “When I saw him face-to-face, I saw that he was no different than me,” says Hernandez. “He had the same color skin, he was a person just like me, probably with the same problems. That’s when I dropped the gun.”

Afraid for his life, Hernandez’ family relocated to Kansas City, where they stayed for six months. Soon after they moved back to Watsonville, he started playing soccer with the Aztecas. But kids followed him in the streets, trying to get him to fight. “People would tell me stuff and I just had to take it—I would get so mad,” says Hernandez. “I could let my anger out on the ball, on the field.”

Besides giving kids an outlet for aggression, Castañeda tries to fulfill some of the needs they were looking to fulfill by being part of a gang. She draws on principles she learned from her failed seventh-grade essay assignment—a list she has continued to modify and add to since high school.

“When I became a counselor, I began to see that these were things the boys I was working with needed,” she says, explaining that if they don’t get them from their family, they will seek them elsewhere. Gangs, she says, provide these same things to youth, something she calls the “homeboy list”: love, identity, affiliation, trust, respect, friendship, loyalty, fun, honor, duty, responsibility, discipline and rewards.

With Aztecas, Castañeda strives to help players fulfill these same needs—but from what she calls the “home team list.”

“It’s kind of brilliant, really,” says Feldman. “She’s actually showing them the positive things they’re getting out of gangs … The kids are able to see that they’re not bad. They want what every kid wants. And they also see, ‘Wow—I can get that here, in soccer. I can also maybe get that in college.’ It opens their mind to their whole future.”

Hernandez just graduated from Cabrillo College with his associate degree in sociology, and plans to attend CSU Monterey Bay in the fall. He still plays for the Aztecas as a goalkeeper and peer mentor. About the youth players, he says, “Most these kids have had a hard life—all their life they are failing. Playing soccer and being champions makes them feel like they’ve achieved something. Now they can make their life better.”

Rise of the Aztecas

As the Aztecas race around the indoor arena, their athletic prowess is impressive. The players control the ball with footwork so complicated it looks more like dancing than soccer. One gains so much momentum when he runs that he repeatedly sprints right up the side of the plexiglass wall. They beat the law enforcement team 7-1 in the first game, 6-2 in the second. It’s not surprising, says Chief Probation Officer Fernando Giraldo. “Everyone knew the kids would blow law enforcement away. But that challenges them and makes them want to come back again.”

The Aztecas now play in the second and third divisions of their highly competitive league and have amassed a tower of shiny trophies from championship games. But, as Castañeda often says, “This is not just a soccer team.” Since the Aztecas made it through that first rocky year, the program has continued to grow, incorporating health education, counseling, field trips, community service projects, and even yoga practice. This year the Lions Club is sponsoring the team to host their first summer soccer camp for kids in the community. Aztecas youth will mentor the younger kids.

“Aztecas really fits into what we’re trying to do, which is finding a unique and successful approach for public safety,” says Giraldo. “It fits into the positive youth development model that we embrace: providing pathways into adulthood through mentoring, re-engagement with schools, and opportunities to become involved with civic engagement.”

Castañeda has received numerous awards for her efforts, including the 2014 Tony Hill Award, the 2012 American Red Cross Lifetime Achievement Hero Award, the 2011 California’s 28th District Assembly First Annual Peace Award and the 2009 Jefferson Award for the Central Coast of California. Her work with the Aztecas was featured on ESPN during the 2011 Women’s World Cup Soccer Tournament and, in 2010, Castañeda was inducted into Aptos High School’s Hall of Fame.

But, for Castañeda, the work she does isn’t about the awards—it’s about the kids. Not all of them graduate from high school, and some don’t make it out of gangs. But for those that want to try, Castañeda gives them every opportunity to be successful.

“She changes people’s lives,” says Andres Perez, one of the Aztecas. “She makes a connection with us because she’s real. She tells you straight up so you have to take it.”

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