Big changes start small — or with a soccer ball. That was the idea behind a soccer tournament held Saturday at George A. Rogers Park in Modesto's airport neighborhood.
Organizers see the soccer tournament as the first step on a road that could lead to residents banding together to solve neighborhood problems.
Emilio Martinez, who helped organize the event, said the tournament gave neighbors a chance to get to know each other. If residents keep meeting, Martinez said, they'll one day tackle problems that have long plagued the airport neighborhood, such as a lack of grocery stores, kids dropping out of school, even arson.
But the focus Saturday was on fun. Players on three fields streaked after soccer balls. About 70 children registered for the tournament.
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Winners received green ribbons marked "futbol para la gente," or soccer for the people.
Among the players was 10-year-old Fernando Silva, a fourth-grader at Wilson Elementary. "It's awesome!" Silva beamed. "We get to do corner kicks and play goalie!"
Martinez teamed with community organizers from Modesto's Redeemer Church to put on the tournament. A Boy Scout troop donated nets, Friends of George A. Rogers Park helped out and so did the Healthy Start site at nearby Orville Wright Elementary School. Neighbors brought hot dogs. One woman who said she would "bring some chicken" showed up with a vat of posole.
Martinez and the people from Redeemer have held weekly meetings in the airport neighborhood for about two months.
He often serves as translator between the Spanish-speaking airport neighborhood residents and the English-speaking Redeemer participants. The group hopes to hold a traditional Mexican posada — a Nativity scene — at Christmas.
Martinez, a 52-year-old artist who grew up in the airport neighborhood, said his life story is proof that positive change is possible.
When he was a child, his farmworker family lived in a windowless tin cabin and used tomato crates for furniture, he said. He ended up attending Stanford University and has taught college English and art history as an adjunct professor. Martinez's brother is a doctor in Long Beach.
"We did that within one generation, starting from tomato boxes," Martinez said. He gestured at the young soccer players. "I believe what's out there right now is philosophers, doctors and teachers. But we don't see that. We see ghetto youth."
About four or five airport neighborhood mothers regularly attend Martinez's community meetings.
One is 24-year-old Beatriz Gomez, the mother of a 3-year-old son. Speaking in Spanish, Gomez said she saw the soccer tournament as a chance to do something positive in a neighborhood known for gang violence.
"I was interested because this neighborhood has a negative image," Gomez said. "We wanted to show the positive side, not just the negative side."
Another mother involved in the newly formed community group is 25-year-old Karel Bahena, who has three children. She and her husband moved to the airport neighborhood four years ago from San Leandro in search of a house they could afford. Bahena's husband works construction in the Bay Area; she is a stay-at-home mom.
To Bahena, the soccer tournament was an opportunity to get the community united, she said. Bahena, who once registered voters in high school, said she's hopeful that she and others in the new community group can get more people involved and spark change in the airport neighborhood.
"You don't lose anything by trying," Bahena said. "The thing is to at least try to solve as many problems as we can."