Latino student athletes find support, relief from life’s pressures through sports
For Santa Rosa High’s Braulio Juarez-Rico, playing point guard for the Panthers basketball team was one of the few times the teen felt in control and insulated from the constant worry of where his family was going to live and where he’d be going to school the following year.
With the shot clock winding down, Juarez-Rico’s job was to advance the ball up the floor, tuning out the deafening roar of spectators and sometimes his own coach barking in his ear to focus on directing the assault on an opposing team’s hoop.
Most people would wilt in the harsh glare of gymnasium lights under that kind of pressure. But Juarez-Rico thrived in moments when nothing else mattered but putting points on the board.
“To step out on the court and go to work, the only thing I have to worry about is making a shot or playing defense, and making my teammates better,” he said.
For legions of Latino youth in Sonoma County and beyond, high school athletics offer more than outdoor exercise and an opportunity to earn a trophy. For those like Juarez-Rico whose lives are marked by struggle, team sports can offer crucial, potentially life-saving, support — so long as the many barriers accessing extracurricular activities for this vulnerable population can be overcome.
Now, 17, and a senior at Santa Rosa High, Juarez-Rico can begin to look back on his tumultuous high school years and the critical role his teammates and coaches on the Panthers squad played in helping him stay focused and afloat.
Since his freshman year, Juarez-Rico has moved four times amid his parents’ struggle to afford Sonoma County’s high cost of housing. He’s attended three different high schools and worked as a laborer to help support his family, all the while maintaining a high grade-point-average.
To his own surprise, basketball became Juarez-Rico’s go-to for coping with his many personal challenges. He’d fallen in love with the sport after a fateful moment at a different school when someone handed him a basketball and Juarez-Rico arced a beautiful floater through the rim, hitting nothing but the net.
“My friends were like, ‘Dude, that was cool,’” he recalled. “That made me happy so I decided to pursue basketball.”
Coach relates to young athletes
Every high school kid who dons a uniform stands to benefit from the experience of being part of an athletic team. But Sonoma County athletes and coaches report that Latino youth in particular stand to reap those benefits, a view supported by national data.
But many obstacles exist for Latino youth to be involved in sports. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Latino parents report more barriers to their children’s physical activity than do white parents, including transportation problems, concerns about neighborhood safety and the expense and availability of local recreation opportunities.
Other studies have found that Latino children do not participate in after-school sports as much as children of other ethnicities and races. The trends are even more striking among immigrant Latino children of immigrant parents.
“There are kids who have to work to help support their families, and even if they don’t, there’s a lot of pressure,” Jim Flores, Piner High School’s track and field coach, said. “You can tell their minds are elsewhere. They’re not completely focused on attacking hurdles today.”
He added, “I get a lot of texts from athletes saying I can’t come to practice today because I have to watch my younger siblings.”
Flores relates to this from personal experience. A former track and field star at Piner and Santa Rosa Junior College who set records in the late 1970s and early 80s that still stand today, Flores said sports were a refuge from living in a house with parents who were both alcoholics.
“I enjoyed being away,” he recalled.
But fewer Latino adolescents play sports on a regular basis than White and Black youth, according to Project Play of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, which partners with USA Olympics, the NBA and other organizations.
Finding inner drive
Juarez-Rico said he was the only Latino player on the basketball team at Sebastopol’s Analy High School. At the time, his family was living in a rented trailer.
The teen’s father is a landscaper. His mother is a hotel janitor. The family now rents a home in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park.
When he’s not at school or on the court, Juarez-Rico works with his dad to help pay for things such as gas and insurance for an older-model car the pair share.
“A lot of people don’t know my struggles growing up,” the teen said. “It kind of pushed me to work hard, not necessarily to feel I should be given things, but because I pride myself on just working hard.”