Salvadoran Builds a Soccer Community

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SPRINGDALE, Ark. - Cesar Aguilar calls the adult soccer league he helped start in 1993 in the nearby town of Rogers the "pulse" of the community.

Cesar Aguilar
Cesar Aguilar (Photo by Leonard Sparks)

He points to the league's growth from eight teams to more than 60. Each team averages about 20 players, he says, making a league a reliable marker of the Latino community's growth in northwest Arkansas.

He has participated in the transformation and watched it progress. Forced to leave war-torn El Salvador in 1985, he landed in Arkansas at 17. Since then, he has married, become a father and U.S. citizen, and seen Latinos flood job-rich northwest Arkansas.

He can also be credited with turning a love for soccer into a gathering point for Latinos. "I see the good and the bad, and I hear the good and the bad," Aguilar said of the league.

In the last few years, the "bad" has included laments from coaches about players arrested and subsequently deported after Rogers and neighboring Springdale decided to participate in a federal program known as 287(g), which enlists local law enforcement agencies as partners with U.S. immigration and customs officers. According to Aguilar, that decision to allow local police officers and county sheriffs to enforce immigration laws has slowed the community's "pulse," which peaked at 62 teams in 2006 but fell to 48 this year.  

The deportations are part of the decline, Aguilar says. But fear alone is keeping many of Rogers' Latino residents indoors, he adds.

Now Aguilar is using the league as a bridge to the larger community. He is inviting community leaders to league meetings so that coaches can learn more about the town's services.

"I tell them, 'If you're the coach, I see you as a leader because you have contact [with] the players,' " he says. " 'And those players, they have family. They got wife, kids, they got brothers, moms and sisters in the area that will benefit with this information that you have.' "