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'Little Mexico' Soccer Team Metaphor For Mexican-American Struggles

The Woodburn High School boys soccer team is on a remarkable athletic streak this month: For the 25th season in a row, the Bulldogs are in the state soccer playoffs.

One Portland author says that record is even more notable considering where the team comes from.

Steve Wilson spent a season chronicling the ups and downs of the Woodburn soccer team for his book The Boys From Little Mexico.

Chris Lehman / Northwest News Network
Front Street in Woodburn is lined with businesses that cater to Hispanics.

Front Street in Woodburn is lined with taquerias, storefront windows full of Hispanic-style clothing, 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 away at Woodburn High School, the scene is no different from any American suburb.

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 be over-confident.

Jaime Velas: “We’re taking it step by step, game by game. We don’t want to think too far ‘cause we don’t want to get our hopes up, you know.”

Velas has reason to temper his excitement. Despite making the state playoffs for an uninterrupted quarter of a century, Woodburn has never achieved its dream.

Portland author Steve Wilson thinks the contradiction is an apt metaphor.

Chris Lehman / Northwest News Network
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: “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. And I was feeling like there was a parallel among the team’s experience and the experience of Mexican-Americans in the United States.”

So Wilson decided to shadow the team for an entire season a few years ago. He got to know the players, their coaches and supporters.

The result is The Boys From Little Mexico, Wilson’s first book. One of the players he profiled, Martin Maldonado-Cortez, says he and the other boys on the team were well aware that Woodburn’s diversity gave it a reputation as a gang infested town.

Martin Maldonado-Cortez: “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.’”

Chris Lehman / Northwest News Network
Woodburn High School in Woodburn, Oregon.

Don’t screw it 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.

Martin Maldonado-Cortez: “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. You know, you can only do what you can do and hopefully people get to know you and see you in a different way.”

Martin was born in Los Angeles. He says he found that middle America wasn’t the only place he was treated like an outsider. Sitting in the Woodburn bleachers with author Steve Wilson, he says he learned that lesson during a summer playing club soccer in Mexico.

Martin Maldonado-Cortez: “They gave me a nickname. It was called me Pocho. And I didn’t know what it meant until I actually asked them.”

Chris Lehman: “So what does it mean?”

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

Chris Lehman / Northwest News Network

Steve Wilson: “It’s a slang term used in Mexico for Mexican-Americans.”

A “pocho” is said to have lost touch with his roots.

Steve Wilson: “So you’re not welcomed in the white towns up here and then you’re not welcomed in the Mexican towns.”

Martin Maldonado-Cortez: “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 Martin sometimes blended in better with American kids than with Mexican ones should come as no surprise, says author Steve Wilson. In fact, he finds it almost silly to have to say it out loud. On the soccer field it doesn’t matter where your family’s from.

Steve 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.”

When Wilson was following Martin and his teammates a few years ago, the Woodburn Bulldogs once again fell short of the state championship.

Martin was one of several players to head off to college. But in another setback, he had to quit when his parents lost their jobs. He now works at a local retirement home and follows his old team closely.

The Boys From Little Mexico website

Follow the Woodburn High School boys soccer playoff run