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Kicking aside a social taboo

Women in soccer are frowned upon in Guatemala. But here, three hardworking immigrant sisters find freedom on the field.

June 30, 2008|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writer

Celestina "Celes" Lopez strode out from under the shade of a battered palm tree in a corner of MacArthur Park, entered the makeshift soccer field of dirt and gravel, and called to teammates in Spanish.

"Don't be afraid of the big ones," said the 40-year-old mother of two, shoulders thrust back, head as high as she could manage on a 5-foot frame.

Her sisters, Francisca, 34, and Elda, 30, walked with her.

"Be like the men -- aggressive," Elda called out. During the week, the sisters spend their days like scores of other illegal immigrant women in Los Angeles: Wedged behind Singer sewing machines, they feed pants and shirts under the needle until their shoulders grow stiff.

But on the weekends they play a game that was off-limits to them in Guatemala. It is on the soccer fields that the Lopez sisters feel like American women.

Growing up at the foot of the Sierra Madre in northwest Guatemala, the Lopezes didn't need to be told that soccer was forbidden. Women did not wear shorts. They did not play games that required machismo.

"The indigenous people didn't like women to play," Celestina said while making tamales for dinner at her Westlake apartment one Thursday after practice. "There were evangelicals who didn't like it either."

There were six children in the Lopez family, three boys and three girls. The oldest, Juan, made the family's first soccer ball out of spare fabric when Celestina was small. She and her sisters were not allowed to play with it.

Her father, Francisco, an evangelical Christian, was a cattle and sheep farmer. He frowned on women playing rough sports like soccer but shared his countrymen's passion for the game. He attended the town's Sunday soccer matches and sold ice cream to spectators. He went to see the popular local soccer team, Club Deportivo Xelaju Mario Camposeco, "Los Superchivos," in nearby Quetzaltenango, where they filled the 13,500-seat stadium. He even took a few of his children to the game, including Francisca.

At night, Celestina would hear her brothers and other neighborhood boys calling to one another to play soccer.

She and her sisters would join them on the dirt roads, under the apricot, plum and palm trees. But the girls would never play.

"We would go and watch, only watch," Elda said.

On Jan. 20, 1994, Celestina left her small town of San Carlos Sija for the U.S., following the path of relatives. With no legal papers, she traveled by land, paying a coyote in Tijuana 15,000 quetzals, about $2,000, to guide her into California. It took her two tries to make it to Los Angeles.

Francisca followed the next year -- after five attempts over a dangerous route across the desert into Arizona. Elda arrived in 1996, again with the help of a coyote.

Life in L.A. proved harder than the sisters had imagined. The only jobs they could find were in garment factories, piecework that paid less than minimum wage with no benefits.

But they began building lives much as they would have in Guatemala: marrying, having children and joining an evangelical church, the Centro Cristiano Vida Victoriosa in Echo Park.

It would be years before they started playing soccer, almost by accident.

In the spring of 2006, after more than a decade of living in Los Angeles, Celestina heard an announcement at church: The minister was organizing a women's soccer league.

The sisters borrowed shin guards from their husbands. They bought knockoff Adidas cleats for $25, almost a day's pay, at Pepe's Sports near MacArthur Park because they knew the owner, a fellow Guatemalan. They persuaded their husbands to watch their five children.

Celestina had already practiced with her husband, Raymundo Hernandez, 35, who had played soccer in Guatemala since he was a child. But she felt awkward in the new cleats, "like a cow in shoes."

She and her sisters were nervous and scared to play. None of them had medical insurance in case they were injured.

But that was not their main concern. Their husbands had played without medical insurance for years and had never been hurt.

The sisters' biggest worry was that they might embarrass themselves by making stupid mistakes.

But as they played that first day at Belmont High School, and in the weeks that followed, Celestina grew confident. Not only could she and her sisters play, they looked forward to it. It loosened them up, relieved the stiffness in their shoulders.

Celestina and Elda felt less stressed. Francisca felt less depressed, stopped having headaches and breathing problems.

After about a year, the women's soccer games became so popular that the minister decided they were distracting churchgoers and discontinued them.

Celestina was secretly pleased. Playing under the minister's watchful eye, she felt she had to be on her best behavior. They would start their own team. For help, they turned to another Guatemalan immigrant.

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