Abandoned as a 3-year-old on the streets of Guatemala City, Marlon Alexander Lux Bal ate what he picked from trash cans and curled up each night on a concrete stoop.
His friends, who also were orphans, never stuck around for long. Everyone seemed to want to steal what little he had.
You can only trust yourself. That's what life seemed to say.
Now, Alex, 18, is sitting around a dinner table at a Boyle Heights homeless shelter with six other young men, passing tortillas and tubs of butter on Easter night. All are immigrants whose lonely journeys took them from Central America or Mexico to the streets of L.A.
They are strangers, and, now, teammates. They've been chosen to represent Los Angeles in a national soccer league made up of players who are homeless.
Teamwork will be the key to their success, say their coaches, Johny Figueroa and Gerardo Gomez.
"We need to trust each other, and take care of each other," the coaches say in Spanish. "We need to grow together like a family."
For the players, these are unfamiliar concepts. But when the coaches ask, "Are you committed?" six heads nod.
Later, when the meal is over, Alex pulls a chair close to the television and sits alone, deeply absorbed in a soccer game on the screen. He dreams of playing professionally someday.
When Alex was 7 and still on his own, an American couple offered him a new life in the U.S.
Soon he and other street kids were on their way to Texas. If police hadn't intervened, Alex says, they would have been put up for illegal adoption. Instead, he was sent to live with an uncle who was living in Potsville, Iowa. Life didn't get easier there.
At age 8 he went to work at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant, cleaning the lunchroom and later working on the icy packing floor. He was 16 when authorities swooped down in one of the nation's biggest immigration raids. Alex testified when the plant's owners went on trial for violating child labor laws.
Placed in foster care, he bumped through several programs and temporary homes, eventually ending up with a foster family in Riverside.
When a classmate asked one day if he wanted to kick around a soccer ball, Alex said no. Chronic malnutrition had stunted his growth, and he was embarrassed. He stands just over 5 feet tall, and while he has the neck and head of a man, his hands, feet and arms are the size of a 10-year-old's.
Eventually, though, Alex agreed to try. Soon soccer became the best part of his life.
"When I have that anger, I go and kick the ball and I feel ease," he says quietly. "It's like when you have hunger and you eat."
When he aged out of the foster system at 18, his foster parents directed him to Jovenes Inc., a residence and career center that helps young people move from homelessness into independent life.
Soon he was living with strangers in its small transitional housing program in Boyle Heights. Many had endured lives as hard as his.
In the 1980s, thousands of Central American children fleeing war arrived in Los Angeles looking for a small chapel near Olvera Street. You'll find sanctuary there, their relatives and fellow travelers said.
Father Richard Estrada and the other priests gave the children food and a place to rest, but Estrada knew they needed more. So in 1992, he opened Jovenes Inc.
The center is now headquartered on a sun-baked cul-de-sac overlooking the 101 Freeway. Its current director, Andrea Marchetti, decided to form a soccer team there three years ago.
He told the young men they could join the team if they took positive steps in their lives — signing up for English classes, getting their GEDs, or looking for jobs. Each year, he decided, the whole team would be new so as many young men as possible could play.
The first year, Jovenes placed second in the national homeless tournament. The next year was different.
In the fourth game, the goalie simply gave up, letting ball after ball sail past him. Coach Figueroa, who still winces at the memory, wasn't aware of the boy's history of mental illness. He vowed to know his players better.
He's pleased by this year's crew, especially Alex, whose speed makes up for his size. Alex is hungrier than the others. When the others walk to practice, he runs.
Every Sunday, they pile into a van to scrimmage and run drills on fields in Monterey Park, Montebello and Rosemead.
Figueroa, 26, drives with one hand on the wheel. Arms laced with tattoos, hair slicked up in a mohawk, the Jovenes caseworker is a laid-back guy with an easy laugh.
But on the field he stands legs apart, feet turned out, hands clasped behind his back.
"Do you want to practice or do you want to go home?" he shouts if a player doesn't follow directions. If someone flubs a drill, he's ordered to drop and do push-ups.
All spring and summer they prepare to travel to Washington, D.C., for the Street Soccer USA Cup, an annual tournament of the nation's homeless soccer teams.