Latino student athletes find support, relief from life’s pressures through sports

For Latino youth in Sonoma County and beyond, high school athletics offer more than outdoor exercise and an opportunity to earn a trophy.|

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here.

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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.”

His sister, Kimberly Juarez-Rico, was a standout student-athlete at Analy High School and now attends Stanford University, where she continues to play sports.

Overall participation in high school athletics is on the wane, however. From 1989 to 2018, participation in high school sports climbed from 5.2 million to 7.9 million participants. Then, in the 2018-19 school year — the final full year before the pandemic – the National Federation of High School Associations reported a drop in sports participation for the first time in 30 years.

Experts believe the pandemic, which led to lockdowns, remote learning and everyday disruptions to routines and lives, likely exacerbated the downward trend. There’s hope the numbers will climb now that schools are back open and the pandemic appears to be at a more manageable level in most parts of the country, including Sonoma County.

Jasmine Caballero-Luna, a current sophomore on Piner’s track and field and cross country teams, said as the oldest daughter of immigrant parents, she feels pressure to graduate from high school, go to college and be a good role model to her two younger siblings, including one who has a disability.

For Caballero-Luna, running on the track or out on the road or trails is an indispensable source of stress-relief. She relishes falling into a rhythm and a feeling she associates with a runner’s high, which modern research reveals may be due to the body releasing endocannabinoids — biochemical substances similar to cannabis.

“Each time you take a step you get into this good runner’s high and you keep going and you forget about everything,” the teen said.

But real life often intrudes.

Caballero-Luna said Coach Flores, whom she referred to as a “father figure,” understands if she has to miss practice to help her parents with work or to care for her siblings. Her father works two jobs, including as a landscaper, and her mother cleans houses.

Grateful for his team

Victor Mendoza, a former sprinter on Piner’s track and field team, said his parents weren’t able to watch him compete because of work and family commitments. His dad works construction and his mom cleans offices at night.

“It kind of sucked,” Mendoza said. “I did invite them from time to time, but eventually I stopped because I knew they weren’t able to watch.”

Mendoza, who is now 19 and graduated from Piner last year, is now an assistant coach for the Prospectors, helping young athletes navigate the challenges he faced on the team, which he referred to as a family. He’s living at home and working as a house painter while considering going to college one day.

Coach Flores said COVID-19 lockdowns and remote learning ramped up the challenges for athletes who already were under pressure at home. Those restrictions have been lifted, but he said many athletes still struggle in particular with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.

He often sees a different side of them at practice, however.

“Definitely I feel like there’s an appreciation for just being able to be out of the house on a team, exercising. They’re pretty grateful kids,” Flores said.

Juarez-Rico credited Madison Lott, Santa Rosa High’s varsity basketball coach, for caring about his players beyond their ability to score points or defend a basket. He told them if they needed a break from the court, no problem.

“It really helped out knowing I had another family to count on and that I had Coach Lott there as a parent figure this season,” said Juarez-Rico, who will graduate this summer and has plans to attend a junior college. “It helped me a lot mentally being able to work out, get my shots up and just play basketball.”

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here.

Haz clic aquí para leer la versión en Español.

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