Raul Macias, left center, coaches some of his young charges including goalee… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles )
The Los Angeles city councilman wanted to preserve an old bridge. He called "Don Raul." A young politician running for office needed votes. He walked up the stairs of a dreary beige apartment and paid a visit to "Don Raul." The environmentalists wanted the city to build a park on an old rail yard. They got a well-placed assist from "Don Raul" -- the soccer guy.
Some who know Raul Macias, 55, say he deserves the title "don" not just as a simple sign of respect, but because of the political clout he built on an unlikely base: the soccer fields of northeast Los Angeles.
In the late 1990s he took over a ragtag team of children and wound up creating a league. He scraped for soccer fields, and with every field he got -- like a politician plucking up a district -- his ranks grew.
"There's two things that Latinos on a regular basis attend," said Miguel Luna, a former Heal the Bay coordinator who joined Macias as environmental program director last year. "Church and soccer."
Macias began to turn out big crowds for all manner of causes.
"There's nothing like bringing 300 uniformed kids and their parents to make politicians salivate," said Lewis McAdams, a poet and environmental advocate for the Los Angeles River.
There were critics. But even the jibes testified to how far Macias had come.
Some called him "El Cardenal," comparing him to an important religious figure -- though not in a good way, he says. After all, it wasn't just any soccer coach who, fairly or not, could also be likened to a cacique -- a town boss.
Macias, a native of Guadalajara, arrived illegally in Los Angeles in 1976. He washed dishes in Chinatown and became a garment worker. Then, taking advantage of his training as a fabric maker in Mexico, he started his own textile factory. He became an American citizen.
One day, about a dozen children appeared at the factory. They asked if Macias would sponsor their soccer team.
Macias said yes, on the condition that they show up in their uniforms each Monday and report on how they did.
The first week, the report was not so good: a 7-0 loss in Lincoln Park. Over the next two months, lopsided losses piled up.
"You guys don't try. . . . I wouldn't stand losing so much!" a fed-up Macias said one day, raising his voice.
He showed up at their next practice and saw the coach, lounging on the grass with a beer. He took over the team. With an old white van, he drove the players to available fields. He started recruiting volunteers, and pretty soon he had more players and more teams. He named the budding league Anahuak, after an Aztec word for a place surrounded by water.
He butted heads with city Parks and Recreation officials, trying to get fields for games. When one official ran him and his players out of one park, Macias said he asked the man how he could get a permit.
"He told me, 'First, you have to go to school to learn English, and later you try to teach the kids something more positive,' " Macias said, carefully repeating the 11-year-old words in English. "I felt somewhat disrespected. But I started worrying a lot about learning English."
He met a retired teacher and activist, Nancy Smith. She not only helped him with his English, she introduced him to people she knew at City Hall. "We teamed up," said Smith, 64. "He called me 'the Godmother of Anahuak.' He needed someone to go to City Hall, to advocate for the children."
Macias invited city officials and politicians to parks to make the case for more soccer fields. He would hold meetings beforehand, telling soccer kids and their parents that they needed to show up because officials "want to see a good number of us there." Hundreds responded.
Macias and his league finally got permits to bring soccer to the grass fields of Glassell Park. For the first time, his growing league had a regular place to play.
Macias said he could not get over how he and his soccer players applied political pressure -- and got results. Smith told him he should think about his players and their families in a broader context. Maybe soccer was a base for something bigger.
In 2000, Macias and his growing legion entered the debate over what to do with Taylor Yard, an abandoned railroad site in Cypress Park.
Robert Garcia, director of the City Project, a nonprofit that advocates for open space, was a major figure in the fight to turn the yard into a park.
"Raul has 2,000 children, and people are more likely to support direct services to children," he said. "When I need numbers, I go to him."
The conflict began as a fight against warehouses, then turned into a battle over creating a park, then into a debate over what kind of park it would be. It dragged on for years, with countless meetings. Macias exhorted and organized parents and uniformed children to show up to as many of them as possible.
"I was saying, 'Look, there's going to be a meeting, or a protest. You have to come or there won't be any games.' So people went, " Macias recalled.