Sports is often said to be a metaphor for life. For Carlos Ramirez, soccer has been a thread that has followed him through poverty, war, immigration and prison.
For those familiar with the San Quentin soccer community, Ramirez is a beloved figure; a streaking, goal-scoring forward, appropriately nicknamed “Venado,” which in Spanish means “Deer.” What most don’t know however, is that Carlos has been running, on and off the field, long before he ever saw the San Quentin lower yard.
Ramirez came of age in a 1980s El Salvador that was embroiled in a violent civil war. The youngest of six brothers and six sisters, raised in a poverty-stricken family, Ramirez had aspirations of being a professional soccer player.
For a lot of kids his age, the dream was to be a soccer star, but the reality was that most would either go to fight in war, or, like Ramirez, quit school and work to help feed the family. Growing up, Ramirez idolized “Chelona” Rodriguez, El Salvador’s most famous soccer player, who led the nation to its only World Cup appearance.
Ramirez continued to hone his game, moving from street matches to the Juvenile League pitch. As he puts it, “Soccer was a distraction and kept us away from trouble,” adding, “Most gangsters don’t play the game.”
Eventually though, the reality of life in El Salvador would catch up with Ramirez. Decades of war created an unstable political situation, with the MS-13 gang controlling the streets.
Ramirez would flee El Salvador in 1994, escaping the call of MS-13, and spend almost a year journeying to the United States in search of a better life.
Upon his arrival in 1995, soccer would help ease the transition into his new surroundings and new culture.
In Orange County, California, Ramirez was able to play with a junior team, and there he found community and a support network.
However, not being able to speak the language and having little marketable or hirable skills would ultimately lead him down the path of trouble to prison.
Incarcerated, Ramirez continued to play soccer, and get better as a player. He would also begin to work on himself, improving his English, going to church every Sunday, and completing several self-help groups like IMPACT, Kids Creating Awareness
Together, TRUST, Narcotics Anonymous, and Restorative Justice programs.
When he arrived at San Quentin, Ramirez said there was little equipment and that the soccer program was somewhat unorganized. In the intervening years however, he would see the competition level increase, see the team get jerseys and cleats and battle talented outside teams like the San Jose Earthquakes staffers.
Having players and teams from the outside to play against helped Ramirez and his fellow teammates, as he puts it, “see how the game is supposed to be played.”
Ramirez elaborated further saying, “San Quentin is different than other prisons. I can connect on the field with teammates and there is no arguing. There is a respect for the game and fellow players.”
Ramirez, who says that he has spent half of his life in prison, expects to be sent back to El Salvador upon his release.
What he will take with him is the knowledge that soccer has helped him become a more positive person, and when focused, has allowed him to create connections and community.
This knowledge and passion he hopes to pass on to the youth of El Salvador.
“When they play sports, they feel free and have a sense of direction that keeps them out of trouble,” Ramirez said.
He currently passes those lessons on to his nephew, who lives in Nebraska, and is a young soccer phenom who Ramirez hopes will one day become a pro.
For Carlos Ramirez, this journey feels like it is in the final stretch, the last minutes of a back and forth game. His team is up, and he is holding on for the victory that is surely close at hand.