October 9, 2021


The unstoppable dreams of USMNT prodigy Ricardo Pepi (Roberto José Andrade Franco, 10/06/21, ESPN)

EL PASO IS about 83% Latino, most of that of Mexican descent. But decades ago, the city was a lot whiter. And back in those days, Alameda Avenue was a sort of dividing line. If you were white, you likely lived north of that street. If Mexican, you stayed south. Between that avenue and the Rio Grande, on the eastern part of El Paso County where land is cheaper and it becomes clear that this is life deep in the Chihuahuan Desert, is San Elizario.

San Eli is what everyone here calls it. That's where Ricardo's childhood home stands about a mile south of Alameda Avenue and double that distance north of the Rio Grande and the rust-colored border wall that scars the soul of this place. The overgrown weeds, the still-hanging Christmas lights, the empty rooms and the white car with deflating tires parked in the back, make it feel like the home was hastily abandoned. As if an opportunity came up that couldn't be passed.

Like many houses in this neighborhood, the Pepis' former home looks like it's still in the process of being constructed. Good enough to live in -- the doors and windows lock, the water and electricity work, the roof doesn't leak -- but still unfinished.

"I built it," Daniel, Ricardo's father, says in Spanish. Whenever extra money came in, it went to the house. Little by little, working on the weekends and after long weekdays doing construction, Daniel built this with his hands.

"When Ricardo was growing up, the conditions weren't the best for us," Daniel says. "That was part of the reason we lived in San Eli. It wasn't because we wanted to. I didn't grow up in a rural area where the roosters wake you up, where the neighbors have cows."

Ricardo grew up in San Elizario, near the Texas-Mexico border, and did drills with his dad near this old Spanish Colonial church. Digital Light Source/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
From this house, Daniel and his wife, Annette, raised their young family. It was a life common to many El Pasoans. Monday through Friday, while working or at school, they stayed on the north side of the Rio Grande. On weekends and the random weeknight, the Pepis returned to the south side of the river to spend time with family still living in Juárez, Mexico.

"We consider it one city, one community," Daniel says of El Paso and Juárez. "It doesn't really matter if you live in El Paso or live in Juárez, you cross that bridge as much as you can."

From this house, Ricardo -- the oldest of the three Pepi children -- started playing soccer at 4 years old. He'd grown up watching his father play, and Daniel coached him for a few years. Apart from practice, they'd sometimes do drills on a field in the shadow of a church that traces its roots as far back as the U.S. Constitution.

Daniel put his son in leagues a year or two above Ricardo's age. Yes, he did it to push him. To challenge him. But he also did it because Ricardo was always bigger than his peers. His family nickname had once been Gordo. Outside of El Paso, Daniel had to carry his son's birth certificate to show that he wasn't older than the competition, he was actually younger.

Ricardo had, what Daniel says in Spanish, "el olfato de gol." Some words or phrases lose their beauty in translation. This is an example. But the idea is that even at a young age, Ricardo had a nose for goal. Like he could smell it. Like he could feel it. Like he could seemingly score at will -- which he often did -- even when his father had him playing defense. And as he did that, the opponent's parents doubted Ricardo's age again.

"QUINCEAÑERO!" those parents screamed, implying the young boy was 15.

"¿CUÁNDO ES LA BODA?" they yelled, sarcastically asking when he was getting married.

Daniel laughs when he remembers those days. But he turns serious when asked if he feels like he pushed his son too hard. Like during those games when Ricardo didn't feel like running because sometimes that's the last thing 7-year-olds want to do. When that happened Daniel would take Ricardo out the game, then drive him home. It's a long, lonely drive out to San Eli. It's a perfect stretch of road for a proud man to brood in silence.

"Yes, I was hard on him," Daniel admits.

"I'd make him take his uniform and cleats off and put them in the trash. I'd tell him, 'Look, if you don't want to play, that's fine. Don't play. But you're not going to be wasting my time and much less, my money.'"

WHEN YOU'RE THE child of immigrant parents, you often feel as if you've got to make their struggles and sacrifices count for something. Calling it a burden is too much. Call it that feeling you get when you look at your father or mother and wonder what dreams they had before life shook them awake.

Because sometimes your mother is 16 years old when she had you. And sometimes your father pawns the family car and borrows money because those can become tomorrow's problems if it means everyone's eating today. And sometimes, you live in a place like El Paso and Juárez that are often neglected by their governments, and it feels like you must escape.

Posted by at October 9, 2021 7:33 AM


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