A girls volleyball team goes to Nationals in Mexico with a secret.
NATIONALS in girls volleyball is a flurry of ribbons: orange ones, yellow ones, blue, green, even red and white polka dot. The girls from Sonora wore white ribbons with bright blue uniforms and looked so pretty and sharp the boys teams from Hidalgo and from Guerrero kept asking if they could pose for pictures with them; one boy from the Yucatan went even further, and in classic, preadolescent style, threw part of his lunch at the team captain, then sent delegates to her table to work things out.
Half the team — the better half, the half with which this story concerns itself — is from Sasabe, a town so tiny there’s neither a high school nor a working gas station; (legal-ish) economic options here might best be explained by noting that due to the dearth of the latter, some especially resourceful folks cross the border twice daily to fill up their tanks, come back, and then siphon and sell the gas from their homes, a hand-painted sign announcing GASOLINA out front. Of course the girls did not, for the whole of the season, have uniforms or, in some cases, sneakers with adequate support. The school they play for, Juan Escutia Elementary, ranks among the lowest in the state, a grade no doubt made obvious every time the girls arrived at other schools for games with battered, several-times exploded volleyballs patched with nails. “Ohhh…” the other teams would say.
And so the girls from Sasabe got to Nationals in that great, against-a-lot-of-odds way that small town sports teams so rarely do: They won. They beat Caborca, Magdalena, Puerto Peñasco. They beat all the teams in their area. Then they beat all the teams in their region. In the finals, they faced last year’s state champions, private school girls with matching backpacks and neon-colored Nikes, girls who regularly practiced in gymnasiums. The girls from Sasabe practiced outside, in the sun, in the elementary schoolyard, frequently diving for balls on the concrete. It was a long and arduous final match, going to all three sets, with a final set score in the high teens, but in the end, the girls from Sasabe beat them too. Whatever celebration followed — there were hugs, cakes — was well-deserved: This was the first time a girls team from Sasabe had won a state championship in anything.
Preparations for the National Games began immediately. The girls practiced every day after school and sometimes on weekends with their coach, José Pedro Marín Flores, and his assistant, Fabian Valenzuela Ayala, and several times drove to Hermosillo to train and take physical fitness tests with the state’s office of physical education. Coach Fabian is also the school’s fourth grade teacher; Coach Pedro is also the school’s third grade teacher, principal, and soccer, basketball, and baseball coach. And he organizes the town’s annual cockfights.
The kids leave town on a dirt road so rocky and merciless in its topography that Coach Fabian twice kisses the cross around his neck before embarking on it. In Hermosillo, they switch to a government-chartered bus with the rest of the Games competitors from Sonora, and get, at long last, uniforms and matching athletic bags and backpacks (from the government), which they debut the next day at the Christopher Columbus School gym for their first match. They arrive wearing their hair in ponytails, bangs bobby-pinned back, and perfume all over — packed, along with a hair straightener, for what is, for many of them, their first trip out of state — and they take the court looking more or less like all the other teams at the tournament, like respectable competition. They’re carrying only one small secret, which is that almost none of them are who they say they are.
IT had not been a difficult decision. In fact, it had been a very easy decision. Basically, it hadn’t even been a decision. Years ago, Coach Pedro had gone to Nationals to help with Sonora’s boys volleyball team and had noticed that the kids there were big, too big to be in primary school — a not uncommon observation among those who go to the Games; at Nationals this year, a little boy from Sonora’s soccer team ran off the field and onto the sidelines, yelling to his coach that one of the players on the other team had a mustache. And leg hair!
Coach Pedro was hardly fazed by what he’d seen, or by what the little soccer player had seen (his coach later relayed the story); in fact, it matched most of what he knew to be true about the way the world works. Pedro was raised near the small city of Huatabampo on the Sonoran coast by a single mother who cleaned houses and struggled to support them. As a kid, he wanted cookies, but there wasn’t ever enough money, so he foraged for chucata, the sap of mesquite, with a sweet, sticky consistency. There also wasn’t enough money for pants, food, or books for school. “You need to be flexible,” his mother told him. He was willing to work, though he knew, even then, that children weren’t legally allowed to do so in Mexico. I have to, I have to go and do it, Pedro said to himself. If you can’t do it the right way, you can do it another way. And so at seven years old, he started working in the fields, picking tomatoes and cotton and chili peppers, and never did he meet a boss who cared about how old he was, so long as everything was collected on time.
COACH PEDRO starts every volleyball season with an open invitation, asking anyone who wants to play to come to the elementary schoolyard. He has no formal tryouts, he made no official cuts — but then the girls won State, and were asked to represent Sonora at Nationals, at the primary level. (The event is officially called The National Sports Games at the Primary Level. There is also The National Sports Games at the Secondary School, which takes place the following week.) As is custom, the coach of the state champions gets to be head coach of the state team at Nationals, for which Pedro completely looks the part: his daily uniform, almost universal to the profession, is a polo, a pair of belted jeans, and a whistle around his neck that he likes to run conditioning drills with. (At the Games, he’ll wear a new track suit, with ENTRENADOR (COACH) spelled out across the back in the state’s color of blue, and matching blue suede slippers.) Sonora’s state team will include just six of Sasabe’s players; the other six will come from teams in Hermosillo and Navojoa, who placed second and third in state competitions for a team total of 12. (This is the same math which brought four Sasabe boys volleyball players to Nationals, who placed second in State.) Of the six girls Coach Pedro selected, four are in seventh grade at Telesecundaria 54 in Sasabe, Sonora, one is seventh grade at San Fernando in Sasabe, Arizona, but lives in Sasabe, Sonora (she was born in Arizona), and one, ironically the tallest of them all, is in sixth grade at Juan Escutia, where they all once went and now roam the campus as if they still do. In fact, the San Fernando student has only been in school in Arizona long enough to know a few phrases in English. “Shut up, be quiet” is her favorite, though she occasionally mixes it up and says, “Go to the office!” I once asked her if she knew anything else in English, anything at all nice, which she answered by turning to one of her teammates to say, “You are so beautiful.” Then she collapsed in a fit of giggles.
The organizing bodies behind the Games — Mexico’s federal department of education, national commission of sports, and national council for the development of physical education and sports in primary schools — have a system for verifying players’ ages and identities. They ask for a copy of any participating school’s official enrollment, and copies of each players’ birth certificates and unique personal ID codes — requests Coach Pedro easily circumvented by providing the birth certificates and ID codes of actually enrolled elementary school students, all of whose parents signed notes saying it was no problem to use their kids’ names and information, they just wanted the girls to keep playing.
And they would, as: Darina, Karen, Lenny, Samantha, Yarlin, and Yoccelyn.
THE first team Sonora plays at Nationals is Tabasco. They are huge, loud girls who huddle before the match in a thunderous take on the can-can, kicking their knees up and back while chanting Chicas unidas, jamas serán vencidas! Girls, united, will never be defeated! Their mothers too are among the loudest at the tournament, arriving with noise makers and synchronized chants and traditional, floral skirts to whip around with each new point their girls get.
Coach Pedro knows his girls aren’t used to playing in front of crowds, and he worries they’ll freeze under the pressure. So he puts, in his starting line-up, four girls from the cities and only two from Sasabe, who seem, as he suspected, a little self-conscious. Yoccelyn, for example, always serves underhand in the schoolyard in Sasabe, but here, perhaps sensing this new, national level (some of the other teams even have their jump serves!) suddenly decides to try serving overhand. She misses and the ball goes straight into the net, twice. The city girls are even worse, hitting the ball out of bounds and other times letting it drop to the floor, unclaimed, then looking at each other like: Wasn’t that yours? They lose the first set 15-25.
Then the mainly Sasabe six take the court. They too play a little timidly at first, putting the ball over the net often with more relief than power, but even still, they have something going for them that the first group did not and that is that they know how to play together. There is such an ease in the way they pass to each other, such confidence in the way they claim each ball: Mine! Karen calls out and the other girls trust her that it is. The Sasabeños know each other in that sort of complete, small-town way city people can’t ever quite get, where it’s not just you they know, but everything around you, everyone before you: One of the girls’ dads is Pancho; she’s, therefore, Panchita. Yet it’s a closeness that doesn’t quite make it to the entire team; the girls from Hermosillo and Navajoa don’t even know their teammates real names.
This mostly-Sasabe group wins their second set by seven points, so Coach Pedro keeps them in for the third, but somehow in this final round, the girls’ nerves take over and they seem suddenly on the wrong side of the one-team-has-to-make-a-mistake-and-it’s-not-going-to-be-us strategy that had just given them a win. It’s 14-13, Tabasco. The Tabasco moms are shouting: One! One! The ball is served to Sonora, landing practically at eye-level with one of the city girls, who should shuffle back to receive it, but doesn’t — instead, she stays where she is, knocking the ball out of her way, almost as if to say: I didn’t like that one, give me another. It goes directly into the net, and there is no other — the game is over, 13-15. The Tabasco crowd booms from the bleachers! A mom in one of the floral skirts climbs the referee tower to lead a new chant, gloating in victory, while a curious, decidedly less acrimonious event develops below. The girls, now finished with the standard sportsmanship protocol of slapping hands under the net — good game, good game — start crossing the court to hug. It seems like it’s the girls from Tabasco who initiate the embraces, but honestly, it’s hard to tell, because in a minute everyone is not only hugging, but holding hands and singing a song together in a circle the size of the court.
FOR the game debrief, Coach Pedro tells the team not to feel sad. “You gave your best effort,” he says. “It’s a hobby, enjoy it.” The girls are sitting in a circle, on what is now day two of the Games, having just lost their second straight match to Chihuahua.
In light of yesterday’s performance, Coach Pedro had started all six girls from Sasabe together. They gave an excellent effort: Yarlin ran, several times, far off the court to save a bad touch, and Karen and Lenny dug balls spiked so hard and so low, their hands touched the floor while doing so. Also, Yoccelyn turned out to be quite a quick learner and never missed another serve (all overhand) in the tournament. But the Chihuahua girls were just too good. They didn’t hit the ball, they spiked it (hard), and almost always at the perfect angle, because they jumped to do so — something the Sasabe girls didn’t do. The setter set to the left side and to the right side; sometimes when her star hitter was in the back row, she set her up there too, where, astonishingly, the hitter could still deliver something really powerful. Chihuahua won the game in just two sets, though it should be noted that the Sasabe girls lost by the smaller margin — only six points. (The city girls from Sonora lost to Chihuahua by 17; in a day, the team from Tabasco would lose by 11 and then 13 points.
Like the girls from Tabasco, the ones from Chihuahua are big. They are much taller and more developed than the girls from Sonora, a discrepancy most of the Sasabe moms in Tepic for the Games take as evidence that everyone is doing what they’re doing. There seems to be no bitterness about this, no bad feelings that even when they bend the rules, they still don’t win — the moms from Sasabe, who raised money to rent a van and drove all this way to see their girls play want just this: to see their girls play. “Nah, none of those girls were in primary school,” Darina’s mom says of the Tabasco team, but she says it light-hearted and laughing, having long ago resigned herself to the fact that sometimes (often times) you have to break the rules just to play the game.
The folks in charge, not blind, also see the disparity in size among participating teams at the tournament, but dismiss that it implies any kind of breach of the rules. Instead, they explain the discrepancy as a simple riddle of geography. “The girls from Oaxaca are going to be very short,” one of the event coordinator’s, Dony Encarción Ocampo, said. “The girls from Chihuahua are very tall.”
Meanwhile, the tournament’s other rules are rigorously enforced. Chihuahua, in fact, had had to forfeit its first game, when upon arrival the referee noted that they were not carrying their player IDs. Puebla, Baja California Sur, and Veracruz suffered similar fates, though the nature of the offenses varied. In the case of Veracruz, the team played Nuevo León to three sets, all of them close, winning in the final set by just four points. The girls were getting ready to board their bus, back to the hotel, when the coach found out that event officials repealed the results and reversed the win. Apparently, Veracruz’s team captain had not been wearing the armband team captains are supposed to wear during games to identify themselves as team captains. Photographic evidence taken before the game was introduced, but ruled inconclusive. The final scores would be recorded as 25-0, 25-0, Nuevo León. The girls were perplexed by the decision. The papers in their home state seemed less confused, declaring in headlines the following day: Delegada de CONDEBA roba triunfo a la selección bicampeona de Veracruz en la rama femenil de voleibol, debido a intereses políticos, dando el triunfo a Nuevo León. (CONDEBA representative (Mexico’s national council for the development of physical education and sports in primary schools) steals victory from two-time girls volleyball champion, Veracruz, due to political interests, giving the win to Nuevo León.)
Nuevo León would go on to take third at Nationals; Chihuahua second. Colima won.
ON the morning of their final match, the girls are lounging in their hotel room, sleeping and snacking and reviewing videos they’d recorded the night before, mainly of each other dancing on the beds, when Coach Pedro comes by for a pre-game pep talk.
He asks that they sit up, get out from under their blankets, and turn off their cell phones — a real test for the girls who at 12 and 13 so constantly text, they sometimes need to recharge their cell phones at hotdog stands on the side of the road. “Shut up, be quiet!” Karen yells, helpful, and then Coach Pedro begins: “We need to play today as if it were the first game. We need to fight.” He cites various heroes from wars in Mexican history who fought bravely and never lost their honor. Then, of their last volleyball game at 4 p.m. that afternoon, he says, “This is about our honor.” The girls are completely quiet, seemingly still with him. “We’re here representing our state,” he tells them, “and we want to go home proud.”
Yet it isn’t just pride that Coach Pedro is referring to; there is something else at stake here and he speaks about it frankly, first addressing only the girls in the room from the cities. “You may have other opportunities in the future to come back to another national tournament,” he says to them. “But we won’t.” The Sasabe folks are from a different class, he tells the city girls, and then to no one in particular, he sighs: “Always, the economic issue.”
What he doesn’t say, but what is probably true, is that the girls are about to play their very last game. Volleyball season is over. Coach Pedro will coach basketball this summer, and when it’s time again for volleyball, the girls will be too old, or they will look too old, to play with him. He could continue to coach them at middle school and try to make Nationals at the middle school level — the principal, Leonel Velázquez says he’d welcome it and representatives from Sonora’s office of physical education say this is all the permission he’d need — but Coach Pedro so dislikes Telesecundaria 54 that he sent his oldest son away, all the way to Pitiquito, to stay with relatives and study there, rather than send him to the middle school in Sasabe. “They don’t invest their time,” he says of the middle school teachers. (Coach Pedro typically starts his work day at 7:15 a.m. and arrives home around 8:30 at night; Leonel admits that his work day is slightly shorter, though laments that this breeds such animosity. “It would be nice if all the teachers and the principals were more united,” he said, “for the kids’ sake.”)
And so, there is no team at the middle school. And there is no high school. Some of the girls have plans to go away and study — they have aunts in Hermosillo or family in Caborca — but these are just plans; only about half the students who finish middle school in Sasabe actually go on to high school and of those that do, many of them, including some of the girls’ older siblings, don’t finish.
In fact, the only girl on the team who is confident she’ll keep playing is Karen, who goes to middle school in Sasabe, Arizona, and who will one day go to high school in Tucson, where her brother lives. There, sports at least have the chance of meaning something else, for it is an enduring part of the American story that if kids are good enough at the sports they play, scholarships will be offered and doors will open. It doesn’t happen all the time, or even often, but it does happen enough to give us legends like the Williams sisters (and Lolo Jones, Henry Cejudo, Claressa Shields etc.) and provide a visual for what a pathway out of poverty via sports might look like.
The girls in Sasabe don’t have this visual. They have no favorite famous volleyball players, or university-level volleyball players or even examples of girls in town who continue to play volleyball after elementary school, or after they appear too old to be in elementary school. This is harder than it seems for the girls, who are at exactly the age when their bodies can’t help but give themselves away: height is one thing, bra size another. The boys, in contrast, are showing only the faintest signs of facial hair, and tend to express their actual age in more subtle, behavioral ways: Manuel, who’s in seventh grade, blows kisses at Karen in the cafeteria, gets cheers when he scores a photo of just the two of them together; meanwhile, José Pedro, who’s in fifth grade, stares out the window on the long drive out of town and spontaneously starts cycling through his favorite rhymes: Hay pedos gordos, hay pedos flacos, todo depende del tamaño de los tacos. (There are farts that are fat, farts that are skinny — it all depends on the size of the tacos.)
Coach Pedro’s pep talk is almost over. He asks: Who’s nervous?! No one?! God bless sweet Darina who raises her hand (she even raises her hand nervously), and admits that yes, she’s still a little nervous.
She may feel this way, but she doesn’t play this way — at all. In fact, this last game against Quintana Roo, is the first game where the girls seem to play boldly, outside of and above any nerves. Darina hits the ball with real energy and so does Karen, who’d been mainly setting the ball over in the last two games. Yarlin finds little pockets of space the other team has left open and puts the ball exactly inside of them. Samantha’s serves are aces. They win the game in two sets, again the girls from Sasabe with a higher margin, but no one gloats or over-celebrates. Even Coach Pedro stays humble: “No one likes to be a loser,” he tells the girls. “But well, we won this time.” They take a few photos and then it’s the Sonoran girls turn to go to the other side of the court and give hugs, and man do these girls from Quintana Roo need it. Almost all the girls today do — it’s the end of the group stage of the tournament, and three out of every four teams will now be going home. The whole day has been explosive emotionally. One of the Tabasco players so lost it during their crushing loss to Chihuahua that the referee had to stop the game to see if she was all right to continue, and now there are so many girls from Quintana Roo crying that some of the boy volleyball players from the same state have stepped in, 11-year-olds — allegedly 11-year-olds, it’s true that at this point, we should remain circumspect that anyone at this tournament is actually in elementary school — or at least very small boys who seem like they could be 11-year-olds, hold girls like the one with BRENDA spelled out on the back of her jersey, while she weeps in his arms.
The girls from Sasabe never cried like this (or at all) when they lost, and now that they’re going out on a win, they seem to be in particularly high spirits, singing and dancing the whole bus ride back to the hotel. Coach Pedro gets on his cellphone with someone from the government and tries to negotiate another day in Nayarit, so he can take the kids to the beach. (He is, by the way, so constant a cadger that back home, at even the mere mention of his name, the mayor looks exhausted, describes the coach as a bit hard to please.) The government official on the phone says the orders from above are final: The kids have to leave that very night. On this politician and all politicians Coach Pedro throws up his hands and says, “They’re busy socking away money in their left pocket because their right one is already full.”
The girls gather their things and are off, on their way back to Sasabe an hour later. (The boys too — they won two games, lost one, and so got eliminated in the group stage as well.) All of them said, unequivocally, that they would continue to play volleyball if there was a team at their middle school, which there isn’t, or at their high school, which there likely won’t be, but there’s no point in dwelling on that now, when school’s nearly out for summer. Coach Pedro, meanwhile, is thinking a lot about the future. He’s awaiting a van from a very generous student-volunteer organization in Minnesota that earlier this year brought approximately $11,000 worth of donations to the school. (The van is for team travel, and will make its inaugural voyage to Chihuahua this summer for a boys volleyball tournament.) He’s pressuring state officials to in turn pressure the mayor to build him an awning over the schoolyard, so the kids can practice in the shade, out of the piercing Sonoran heat. (The mayor says he recently requested money for the awning from the state’s new fund of pipeline revenue.) Coach Pedro is also thinking about starting younger, so he can work with his athletes for longer before he loses them to middle school. There’s no indication that he wouldn’t again bring middle school students to a primary-level National Games though, because it’s just too sweet a chance, and too rare, to be able to give the girls from Sasabe this moment to travel to a new place and represent the state and play and compete at the national level and win, even just one game, and if you can’t do this the right way, you can always do it another way.