Hispanic Heritage Month: Youth soccer program hopes to save lives

Gina Castañeda will flat out tell you, soccer saved her life.


Hispanic Americans have built a legacy of activism and change in the central coast community. One program making a big impact is the Aztecas Youth Soccer Academy in Watsonville, California.

Gina Castañeda will flat out tell you, soccer saved her life. Even though a childhood of neglect and abuse, Castañeda learned the game, a sport deeply embedded in the Hispanic culture.

By her early teens, the high school team was her lifeline.

“By the time I got to high school, I was homeless and living on the streets,” Castañeda said. ”And people really didn't know me at that point. And then I just was this amazing freshman that got on the field and people were like, 'where did you come from?' And what they didn't know about me is that I was full of hurt and pain and like eating out of garbage cans and just really, really struggling in life. I kept working in school to get my grades up so that I could play on the team. And the team really became my family.”

Soccer helped her steer clear of the gangs that swallowed her brothers and so many of her friends. She became a probation officer, working with other kids in trouble.

“Soccer saved my life and I knew that I could use soccer to save their lives,” Castañeda said.

With that, the Aztecas Youth Soccer Academy was born. Run through the Santa Cruz County Probation Department, it is an intervention program for high-risk kids.

Castañeda remembers the first day she saw two rival gang members working together on the field.

“And I had the biggest smile on my face because I knew at that point what we had done. And it was the beginning as to what Aztecas is today,” Castañeda said.

Now, 13 years later Aztecas is still breaking those cycles and connecting with kids on the edge.

That caring extends beyond the soccer field, the kids are also required to attend tutoring sessions and life skills classes.

Watch the full story in the video above.