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Story Publication logo April 15, 2024

Lasting Inspiration From a Texas Summer Night


The women’s team of El Salvador is a truly global group of players.


Texas State midfielder Victoria Meza heads the ball during a game against the University of North Texas in San Marcos in August 2023. Image by Víctor Peña. United States, 2023.

We were winding down at a bar next to a gun shop in September, on the last night of reporting for this story. The Astros game was showing on several screens, there was a “Big Buck” arcade game with two rifles, a guy shooting darts, a blonde bartender passing ice-cold beers, and a man with a designer belt. Dua Lipa was playing on the jukebox. I thought the scene summed up a lot of what we had seen in the Texan summer. I was satisfied.

I’ve been a reporter for over a decade now. I’ve covered gang violence and trailed migrant caravans, so I was stoked not to write about tragedies for once. Here I was with Víctor Peña—my good friend and the photojournalist who worked with me—toasting after exhausting road trips, on a happy story: Salvadoran women who are really good at soccer. More precisely, they were Salvadorans because of their parents, immigrants who established in the U.S. and raised bicultural women in Texas, California, Virginia, Maryland, and New York. The Salvi-Americans are now two thirds of the Salvadoran Women’s National Soccer Team. And they had helped the team do something it had never done before: win trophies.

We had touched down in Houston, gone up all the way to San Marcos, and driven to a small town in Louisiana, before resting for a night in New Orleans. We ate the famous Texas BBQ and tried gumbo. We also had our share of mediocre meals at roadside hotels. I felt we had packed a lot into a little over a week.

Maybe it was something about distances and spending that much time in a car, but it really highlighted for me how hard it is to stand out in such immensity. The athletes we were reporting on—really teenagers and young adults—came mostly from blue-collar families, from small towns, and a small Central American country. And they had really defied the odds to play at Division 1, the top level in American college sports. I was in awe.

Not only in awe of their achievements, but also for the responsibility to get this story right. In my mind, theirs are untold heroics. In the field, they had saved last-minute penalties, scored impossible goals, and turned around a program that had earned a little over a dozen games in decades. Off the field, they kept mostly to themselves, didn’t get much media attention, played for mostly empty stadiums, and celebrated victories only with their families and close ones. 

By now I know two things; first, they don’t need much help. “We’re a lot tougher than y’all think,” a defiant Juana Plata told me at Texas State University. And two: they’re more than capable of drawing attention on their own. But I still felt my burden to put them in the spotlight. To let their stories inspire more than a toast in that Houston bar. 

I wanted to use my privileges. This is such a bi-cultural story (half the Salvadoran team doesn’t speak very good Spanish or any at all) so it required a bilingual reporter. The story wouldn’t be complete in a single language. And it needed the traveling. I attended multiple training sessions in San Salvador, where I live, and was able to go to Texas and Louisiana thanks to the Pulitzer Center grant. They were also incredibly patient as I pieced together a draft that included over 100 pages worth of interviews.

I pitched the project as the women’s defiance of the system. But journalism being a two-edged sword also challenged my prejudices. I saw their effort, their athleticism, their commitment. As coach Daniel Velásquez told me at a personalized training session for center back Reina Cruz: “The problem with women’s soccer is one’s misogyny.”

There’s still much to do. Maybe they don’t need help, but they deserve every resource available. I saw how the Salvadoran soccer federation picks them up at the airport. Víctor, my partner and the one responsible for the beautiful photography of the project, lent his phone to one of them so they could call the driver. They should be getting special treatment, VIP lounges, crowds of fans trying to get their autographs, and partnerships, and so on. 

I hope that people who see the products of this story can also see the unlimited potential of these young women who are changing the face of Salvadoran sports. I also hope that journalists go more often beyond their comfort zones to tell not only the necessary stories on crime, corruption, and disasters, but those rare ones that offer hope and oxygen, which are equally necessary.

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