Teams from the free world pass through San Quentin’s gates to do battle on the dusty scrub of the lower yard — bringing with them a sweet glimpse of liberty.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Juan Espinosa, left striker for the San Quentin Earthquakes, used fancy footwork to steal the ball from between the legs of a visiting Hermanos Unidos (United Brothers) player. He blew past two defenders and kicked it to the wing to Carlos Meza, who did an amazing flip kick past the goalie, which put the ball deep in the corner of the net for a goooaaal!
Due to the pandemic, however, it has been a long time since the San Quentin Earthquakes have been able to compete. Instead, immigration, deportation and rehabilitation sit heavy on the minds of many San Quentin futbol (soccer) players. Espinosa and Meza represent two different sides of the same coin. Espinosa is a Mexican national and Meza is Mexican American, but each has found their solace on the pitch — the SQ soccer field — as did the rest of their teammates.
For many Mexican nationals who have found themselves in prison, the “American Dream” has been deferred after traveling hundreds of miles searching for the land of milk and honey. Some immigrants have instead encountered a language barrier, discrimination and a culture of materialism.
To process how their dreams turned into crime, the mostly Hispanic players seek camaraderie to mitigate the roughness of prison life. They form the bonds to help each other deal with childhood trauma and combat some of the toxic “machismo” [macho] ideas they grew up with.
The Hermanos Unidos, a group of Latino UC Berkeley students, were the first team to come in to play against the SQ Earthquakes. This broke a spell of not having an outside team come in to challenge and build fellowship with them — a common practice for other SQ sports teams, such as the basketball and baseball teams.
“We want to revive this tradition and do community work. All our communities have been affected by mass incarceration. A lot of us come from low-income families, and this is our way to show support and give back,” Marco Barrera, Hermanos’ head coach, said at the 2016 inaugural game.
“It felt like we were playing family out on the field. I love this game, and I leave all of my heart out there every time I play,” Julio Martinez, of the Earthquakes, added.
Before the pandemic, the Hermanos Unidos came in every other Saturday to play the ‘Quakes, under then-team sponsor, Andrew Crawford.
Then COVID hit and the prison suffered a 14-month lockdown. Espinosa was deported, and Meza paroled back to his city. Other players begin to dream again, this time to get back to the soccer field to replenish their hope and support network. Others focused on family while the coronavirus raged.
‘Quakes player Francisco Legorreta says that COVID took away the way he continues to bond with his daughter in his mind, despite being incarcerated. “Playing soccer in prison reminds me of my daughter,” he says. Legorreta says he is now living vicariously through his daughter, who is being trained by professionals to be a soccer player. Knowing that she is doing something that he can relate to makes him feel the bond he and his daughter may have if he was on the outside.
“I hope my daughter takes this great opportunity seriously,” Legorreta says. “Seeing my kids living the opportunity I had makes me feel a portion of the American dream.”
As the prison slowly returns to “normal,” incarcerated soccer players take to San Quentin’s tattered field and erect their collapsible plastic goal posts. The physical conditioning is not what it used to be, but in time the team will be weaving up and down the pitch as they train like they used to.
The potential of being deported after leaving prison still looms for some. But their love for the game reminds them to work hard, build for a brighter future and protect their goals — literately. Because just like in the game, too many penalty cards can force you to sit on the sidelines of life.
Hermanos Unidos are planning for their return. This may give the new ‘Quakes players a chance to reconnect to the community.
“There are way too many Latino men and women incarcerated, compared to those enrolled in colleges and universities,” Daniel Moreno, Hermanos Community Chair, says. “Our purpose is not to forget where we come from.”