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Undocumented Americans find a cultural lifeline through soccer and social media

Guerreros sin fronteras is more than just a slogan to DREAMer Astrid Silva.

Democratic National Convention: Day One Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

Astrid Silva is a Guerrera.

She is a Santos Laguna fan through and through. Born right across the Nazas River from Torreón in Gómez Palacio, “I had no choice in being a Santos fan,” she told FMF State of Mind in a phone call recently. “It was just in my blood. My dad has always said ‘Santos came first, and then you came second.’ He tells me that I’m his second love. My family came to the United States when I was four.”

She is also a fighter.

Silva is an advocate for the rights of undocumented persons in the United States. She addressed the Democratic National Convention in 2016, gave a Spanish-language rebuttal to Donald Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress in 2017, and is the executive director of DREAM Big Nevada, which according to the organization’s website “was established in 2017 to provide aid to Nevada’s immigrant families through direct services and by empowering community members to advocate for themselves and others in similar situations.” Silva knows this fight, because she too is undocumented. It is a lens through which she sees the world, soccer included.

Her grandmother was a big connection for her and her father to both the club and the country they love. “She was able to travel to the United States. She had a visa. So she would bring him the newspapers and the clippings and all of those things that had Santos on them.” Sadly when she passed away in 2009, the days of Silva and her father being “a visible fan” as she describes it seemingly ended too.

Social media transcends borders

One of the things that has allowed Silva and her father to remain connected to both Santos Laguna and Mexico is the outreach that Santos Laguna does through social media. “I remember liking a (Santos) fan Facebook pages and stuff, and that’s how I would tell my dad ‘This is what’s happening’ because he didn’t have the (newspaper) clippings.”

Social media, be it through conventional sites like Facebook or Twitter or less conventional sites such as the Santos app, has literally changed Silva’s life. “I think one of the most amazing things was when they won the Championship two years ago actually being able to watch the parade because of the twitter feed. The real parade in the streets of Torreón - not just them walking across with their medals on the stage, the actual parade and the actual people celebrating - that was incredible. It just was - to a fan, it was just so amazing to watch because we felt like we were there.”

Social media “kind of supplements those newspaper clippings,” and other sorts of interactions, Silva says. It helps to bridge that gap for the fans who can’t go to watch their favorite teams play.

Astrid Silva’s Facebook post the day after her beloved Santos Laguna won their sixth championship.
Astrid Silva’s Facebook post the day after her beloved Santos Laguna won their sixth championship.
Courtesy of Astrid Silva

Sports and politics, despite the protestations of some, are always intertwined. Silva had a friend who worked at Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada)’s office that introduced her to twitter and to Kim Tate, Santos Laguna’s International Media Coordinator. “That was really the life-changing thing for me,” Silva says “because I would follow the feed, but I didn’t feel like I was a part of it. It wasn’t participatory. And when I met Kim and I really started following her tweets and she was always asking ‘What more things do fans want?’ I saw her actually answering tweets to people and people saying, ‘It would be nice if you did this.’ and I was like ‘Maybe I can ask too, you know?’ “

Silva started tweeting her ideas, and she said “that’s when my actual participation and being allowed to be a fan outside of the country felt (valid), and I think what they do incredibly is that. Guerreros sin fronteras (Santos’ international outreach) to me has always been - it really made me feel like I belonged. My family members (in Mexico) are always like ‘Oh we’re going to go to the estadio’ I don’t have that opportunity. I’m undocumented. My family can’t just say ‘Oh we’re going to go fly down there for the game,’ or whatever, even if it was something that economically was doable.” Silva credits Santos’ Guerreros sin fronteras program for making it easier for her and other fans to plan to attend events that are held in the United States. “If I’m able to go, I’ll go. What they’re doing is they’re making me feel as if I was a fan even if I can’t go to them. And they’re coming to us.”

Between Santos’ Guerreros sin fronteras initiatives and social media outreach, Silva feels like she and the other Guerreros in the United States are a part of the Santos family. “I think if anything they’ve made us feel as if we’re at home when we’re not. And there’s no price tag on that. There’s no way to actually put into words what it feels like when I’m watching a game and I feel like I’m there. I feel like I’m en la estadio en la cancha - I’m on the green, I’m there - because of how good their social media practices are. “

She continued “I think the Irarragorri family has made it such an important thing to funnel this kind of social media aspect because you can tell. You can tell that there’s definitely an emphasis on it. I (gave the Democratic Party response to President Trump in 2017) and they sent out a graphic that said ‘Astrid, sigue buscando tu sueño. Eres una Guerrera’ (Astrid, keep looking for your dream. You are a fighter.) and those kinds of things, you can’t take for granted.”

Forgotten both in the United States and in Mexico

Silva’s relatively high profile as a human rights activist isn’t the sole reason Santos congratulated her, and that matters. “I’ve seen them congratulate all kinds of people for things that they’re doing here in the United States. That emphasis on really making it participatory I think for me is what changes it. And some of my friends are like ‘It’s so weird that you’re tweeting with a soccer team!’” to which she responds, “It’s just (weird) because yours doesn’t do it. I have friends who are tweeting their soccer team, and there’s no conversation. I think that many of them sometimes forget that we exist because we are here. We’re not paying ticket members. We’re not season ticket holders.”

Unfortunately, some teams from Liga MX and elsewhere seem to host friendlies in the United States for the sole purpose of selling tickets or building a brand instead of trying to re-connect with fans who live in the United States. Global soccer loves American dollars, but few teams look to help cultivate and invest in fan culture in the United States.

This underlies an issue with the undocumented people in the United States — they’re often overlooked in United States and forgotten about in Mexico. Silva says she understands this but is working to fight it. “I wish that more clubs would understand the connection that we have as undocumented people (to soccer) is so strong.” She peaks about how important that sense of belonging is, “I’ve worn my Santos jersey to Capitol Hill. I’m not ashamed anymore of liking a Mexican soccer team like I used to be when I was little. Growing up as a kid and being undocumented, it makes a difference. Now I feel like my roots are so connected and I’m proud of wearing my soccer jersey. I’m proud of saying Santos won.”

Interactions through social media help with feelings of invisibility and being forgotten. “These conversations create this sense of community that would exist if I was sitting in my house in Gómez Palacio,” she says. “I think it helps their Mexican fan base in Mexico, but I think to those of us outside of Mexico it creates an entire community that wasn’t even a thing.”

The harsh realities of being an undocumented person is never far from her mind. “Look, realistically we’re living here in really difficult times right now as undocumented and unregistered residents of the United States. Life is not easy. You’re living looking over your shoulder. You are constantly worried about where the food is going to come from, or if you’re going to be able to pick up your kids from school because you don’t know when there’s going to be a migra raid. You don’t know if there’s going to be an ICE check-in. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. So the one thing, the one distraction you have is coming home and fighting with other people on twitter about (soccer) or if you have this sense of ‘Oh I entered a raffle to win a jersey.’ And you’re patiently waiting to get told that you’re winning - that’s one highlight of your day, or of your week, or of your month or whatever. So I think that if anything, these teams need to understand that for many of us, they’re a lifeline to forgetting the horrible things that are happening.”

Democratic National Convention: Day One
Astrid Silva walks on stage to deliver remarks on the first day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 25, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

“I get it,” she continues. “To them, it’s soccer. It’s contracts and media and these things, but to us it literally is that ability to stop thinking about these problems for those 90 minutes and then go on twitter or then go on the app.” Social media helps bridge that gap. “It just makes you feel like you’re a part of this team,” Silva tells me, even if “you’re not necessarily able to be there all the time.”

It’s not just about Silva or her generation either. “My nephew is three years old and he has every Santos jersey from the past three years. This child is being raised to be a Guerrero like I was. And how many children are now in the United States who are playing in these soccer camps - I know, I drive by these soccer camps. You see the América shirts. You see the Chivas jerseys. You see Pumas, León, you see all of these jerseys on these little kids. This is not just an investment in my dad. This is an investment in me. This is an investment in my nephew. This is for years and years to come.”

Communicating to fans in English is part of that investment. It can also help bridge generational divides between children who are predominantly English-speaking with parents who are predominantly Spanish-speaking. “I’m fluent in Spanish,” Silva said. “but there are a lot of my friends who aren’t, and this has given them the ability to be like ‘I can talk to my dad about this.’ Because sometimes they do just the direct translation which is very helpful, but then other times there’s specific tweets in English. It does make a pretty hefty difference for me to be able to see these stats and to see the graphics in English (and) to be able to see videos, and again it makes me feel like I’m a fan too. It’s not just my dad. I feel connected because it’s in a language that I speak more dominantly.”

Elevating women

It’s not just Santos’ first team either. Like other teams in Liga MX, Santos has a team in Liga MX Femenil (Mexico’s professional women’s soccer league). Santos Femenil is Santos’ women’s team, and Santos treats their Femenil team as an extension of the men’s team - which unfortunately isn’t the case across the rest of the league. The popularity of the league has only increased since the first season a mere three years ago, with attendances setting records for women’s professional soccer and the games being broadcast in both Mexico and the United States.

Silva points out that the coverage of Santos Femenil also “being in English has been so awesome for me to share with my friends, because a lot of times you think soccer is a machismo culture. It is what it is. Me sharing these stories, like when Santos will share profiles of their female players and when they’ll do press conferences with them and I’m like ‘Look, they’re getting the same treatment as the male soccer players.’ ”

Silva understands the importance of visibility women within the Santos Laguna organization, the Femenil players included. “If we don’t support them, there’s no reason for anybody else to support them. And so I share the (Femenil) stuff a lot because I want people to see that soccer isn’t just this man’s sport. Santos Laguna has been cultivating women, and like I think for me I think it was (the Guerreras al 110 event) in La Laguna, and they did a webinar. It was like two hours but I sat there and watched the entire webinar because it was so awesome to see all of these women within the ranks of the team sharing (their stories). There’s so much of an ability to do this kind of female empowerment through Santos Laguna - and through all of the teams realistically, because no matter what our families go back to soccer. So when you’re empowering these women and you see like Chivas or you see whoever it is saying ‘Here’s how important our female counterparts are,’ it really does make a bigger stance than just playing soccer.”

Sometimes, soccer is just soccer. Often, it’s much more. It’s a link to your culture. It’s a bonding moment with a parent. It’s empowering women and it’s standing up for the dignity of all people.