STORY BY BRIAN FRESKOS, DESIGN BY KRISTI WALKER & PHOTO BY PAT DAVISON
When journalist Paul Cuadros tried starting a soccer program at Jordan-Matthews High School in Siler City, North Carolina, the town fought back. To critics in the community, soccer seemed like another capitulation to the Latino immigrants who seemingly began to transform the area in the early 2000s. Such hostility underscores the struggles facing immigrants as they try to assimilate into American society, even as Latinos make up a growing share of the nation’s population.
Last July, a documentary series about Cuadros and his soccer team premiered on NUVOtv to wide acclaim. The six-part series, Los Jets, was co-produced by singer and actress Jennifer Lopez and her sister, Lynda Lopez. Viewers were taken inside Cuadros’ life as a coach and shown how immigrant students grapple with their undocumented status.
The series was inspired by Cuadros’ book, A Home on the Field: How One Championship Soccer Team Inspires Hope for the Revival of Small Town America, published in 2006 by HarperCollins. Today, Cuadros is working on another visual adaptation, collaborating on a scripted movie he hopes to show on the big screen.
Before coming to North Carolina, Cuadros, 51, spent years covering race, poverty and other policy issues as an investigative reporter in Chicago and Washington, D.C. So it was perhaps only natural when he used the story of his soccer team as a catalyst to tell the broader narrative of how Latino immigration is reshaping the U.S.
Off the field, Cuadros teaches journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also directs the Scholars’ Latino Initiative, a program that prepares high school students for college. Cuadros says that helping Latino youth succeed will help the nation succeed, which is why he feels so passionately about equalizing access to education.
Cuadros sat down with Twang to discuss his work and immigration in general. Here are a few excerpts from his interview.
A documentary series featuring Paul Cuadros’ soccer team premiered on NUVOtv in July 2014.
PHOTO BY SIMON GRIFFITH
Q: You moved to North Carolina in 1999 as part of a fellowship to report on the poultry processing industry. What sparked your interest in that topic?
A: I was working on a chapter for a book called The Buying of Congress about worker safety issues and companies on the [Capitol] Hill that were spending money to crush new regulations to protect workers from injuries… And when you research into that, what you find is the food processing industry is one of the biggest industries that suffers from these kind of injuries.
Q: In your classes at UNC, you lecture on Latino immigration. How is that phenomenon going to change Southern culture and politics?
A: It will probably be as dynamic and impactful as the Irish who came to this country. The Irish started off at essentially the same place. They were denigrated and hated, and then they grew in large proportion and found avenues into government.
Q: After the fellowship ended in 2000, you stayed in North Carolina and started the soccer program at Jordan-Matthews High School. How did you overcome pushback from the community and school administration?
A: Many people thought that this would be a challenge to football and the culture of football, which is very American, and this was an accommodation they didn’t want to make because they had already made a lot of accommodations for the workers and their families.
Q: What is the message that you hope viewers of the documentary drew in terms of the challenges that young immigrants face?
A: Really the main thing is having a chance to give Latino youth an opportunity to present themselves as they are. You don’t see that in the media. Latino youth are portrayed as criminals, as gangbangers, as drug dealers, anything else but winners.
Q: What are some of the obstacles that Latino youth face in trying to get a college education?
A: The big obstacle is the financial side of it. How does a kid like this find the finances to be able to afford to go to school, especially in a state like North Carolina where they’re treated as out-of-state residents? … If your parents are poultry workers and you have no access to financial aid, and you can’t apply for scholarships because you don’t have a social security number, it’s never going to happen.
Q: The documentary series received rave reviews. Will there be a second season?
A: I don’t know. There’s been some talk of that. That also depends on me and the school.