As a boy in Tlaquepaque, the picturesque community near Guadalajara, México, Fernando Aguilera was gifted enough at fútbol to win the attention of a scout from the local professional club, Atlas. The talented and hard-working goalie joined Atlas’ youth team, playing nearly every weekend at the great Estadio Jalisco.
He worked with the professional players, developing skills from many of Mexico’s top fútbolistas. But, after just a few years, it became clear his future in professional soccer had reached its limit: By his mid-teens, he’d stopped growing.
While Aguilera remained passionate about soccer, at 17, a new goal caught his eye. It came in a movie. Though he doesn’t remember the name, it was an American movie, along the lines of Mexico’s bawdy ‘La Risa en Vacaciones’ series, and he was taken by the sight of so many beautiful girls. That was enough to have him pack up and head north.
“I came here for girls,” the 50-year-old Aguilera recalls, laughing. “I didn’t come for work because, back at the time, I was playing, I was studying and I was working in one of the best businesses in Guadalajara – Lechería Sello Rojo,” the region’s major milk producer.
“But, one Sunday, I was watching an American movie and boom! Monday, I was on the bus coming to the U.S.”
Aguilera quickly discovered life as an immigrant is no Hollywood dream. He dove into a variety of jobs and worked to survive. Over time, bit by bit, he built up his own businesses. Today, in addition to being an entrepreneur and community leader, Aguilera is perhaps best known as the president of the youth soccer club whose name recalls his roots: the Merced Atlas Soccer Academy.
1. What is the Merced Atlas Soccer Academy?
“The academy is a youth program serving the whole community. We have kids from age 4 to 20, including teams that are part of the San Joaquin Valley Soccer Academy. In Merced Atlas, we have more than 400 kids; with San Joaquin, 100. The best players from Atlas feed into San Joaquin. We play MLS academy teams that belong to the professional teams.”
2. What does the academy do besides soccer?
“Thanks to the city of Merced, we have use of the Stephen Leonard Park community center for two years. Besides soccer, we do programs for youth and adults. We have a program for kids ages 1 to 5, aerobic classes, Zumba, English classes, after-school programs. We’re trying to help the whole community, from 1 to 100 years old. Four times a year, the Mexican consulate spends a week here to give IDs, matrículas and passports.”
3. What role does education play in the academy?
“They have to make good grades. The Merced Soccer Academy is an organization that keeps the kids in school. We are working for scholarships. Our goal isn’t to create great, professional soccer players. Our goal is to create professional citizens. If a kid doesn’t go to school, we don’t take them. If they’re not in school, they’re not welcome in the academy. The academy is a step toward the kids’ education.
“Most of the kids who’ve gone through the academy, they’re in college. They are teachers, they are doctors. They go the right way.”
4. How did you establish yourself after immigrating from México?
“My first two weeks in Merced, I slept on the streets because I didn’t have any friends. ... One day, I was walking on 13th Street and I saw a group of people in a meeting. It was the Sacred Heart Church hall. I went in and explained my situation. They offered me a week in a hotel. They provided me with food, everything. Then, after that, I was looking for a job like crazy. Ramiro Coronado offered me a job on a ranch. He took me to his house, showed me how to drive a tractor. There was one time I got fired – the only time. I was on a cotton field and the cotton was a few inches high. I remember the mayordomo said ‘I want the field clean.’ So, I was cleaning. But I was cleaning everything! The cotton and the weeds! I didn’t know the cotton from the weeds. I was a city guy. I was looking at the other people and thinking, ‘Man, they’re leaving a lot of weeds!’ He came out yelling, ‘Hey! You, stupid kid!’ I never thought in my life that cotton came from a plant.”
Later on, Ramiro explained to me, “look, this is the cotton. This is the weed.” In the end, I learned and I was one of the best workers. ... I later worked with the Marchini brothers, Jeff Marchini, picking peppers. ... I worked in Foster Farms for one year, catching chickens. ... I spent 15 years working with Heather Vann at the Mansion House restaurant. Heather taught me how to be a business guy, she helped me with my first business, pagers, and taught me how to cook. Heather also encouraged me, saying “don’t give up.” That’s when I started the academy.”
5. What led you to start the soccer academy?
“I was thinking about all the kids who wanted to do soccer. They would do soccer, and then baseball would come. They had to wait for the season. So, that’s what led to the academy. Mayor MaryJo Knudsen told the parks and recreation supervisor, “you have to find something for this program.” That’s when they gave us McNamara Park - no one was using it. ... We keep at it, working hard and the program grows. We take a lot of kids to Mexico to play because I want those kids to know how I played. We take them to Club Chivas. they go on the grass at Estadio Jalisco and they watch the matches. They saw the match against América – over 80,000 people there. That way, they see that anything is possible. ... I visited MaryJo Knudsen with 20 kids and she asked if anybody wanted to be mayor and everybody raised their hands! She got up from the chair and let those kids sit in the chair. For me, it’s something I’ll never forget.
“Now, the city is talking with the Seattle Sounders about creating a partnership. We want to create eight to 10 soccer fields and a good facility. Our mayor and city manager are talking about creating the best soccer facility from here to Northern California. ... That’s what we need. We need a lot of facilities for our youth. That will be our prevention for problems in the future.”
6. How does soccer benefit the community?
“On the big picture, it’s something simple: Each kid that joins the academy, that’s one kid away from the streets. That’s the main thing. One kid that is playing soccer in the academy is a kid you don’t see on the street, being a troublemaker or getting addicted to something negative. That means fewer victims of gangs, fewer victims on drugs, fewer victims on alcohol and negative things. That’s how we’re helping the community.”
7. What have been the biggest obstacles?
“A lot of people still don’t believe in our program. We don’t have many sponsors. Right now, we’re planning on taking 40 kids to Seattle and it’s hard because, money-wise, we don’t have many supporters. That’s something I want the community to know, that this program has been working for over 18 years and it’s hard because we don’t receive support.”
8. What is the trip to Seattle?
“We’re planning the trip for June 2. We’re going to be in the Seattle Sounders’ facility. They’re going to meet the players, see the stadium and play with the Sounders’ program. Everything is to know that the city of Merced, that a lot of people think is not important, is really important. We’re in the best country-land because we have to think that. We are the same as anybody else and the Merced Soccer Academy is proving that. Bigger cities think only certain kinds of kids are allowed to do things like this. No. Merced has the best people, the best land and we have to be allowed the best opportunities, too. People from outside of Merced are not believing in what we are doing. Like, right now, we have the best young soccer player in the nation – Alfonso Ocampo-Chávez – the No. 1 prospect from the U.S. Soccer Federation. And, guess what? This kid comes from Merced County. That’s another proof that we have good people here, intelligent people here and we can get the best opportunities here, too.”
9. What have been your greatest successes?
“I’m trying to connect the community and leaders and the government because that’s something I think we need here. We need our mayors, supervisors to be connected with the community. That way, they can decide better for the community. That’s what I’m seeking – a good connection in a way that everybody feels that we’re equal. That, together, we can do better. Separate is going to be harder. I’m looking for a new union and that our leaders get in the mentality that the only way we don’t have problems is to prevent them.”
10. What are your hopes for the future?
“Long-term hope? That people see that the best step for youth is to be good citizens. When they’re talking about Merced Soccer Academy, I want to feel they’re talking in the best way to do good in life. That’s what I’m expecting. ... This is about the kids, about their future. It’s still really hard. But I’ve been blessed because a lot of good people are around me.”