I grew up in Texas, where football is bigger than life. In our Mexican household there, Jorge Ramos was a fixture on our television. My mom didn’t believe me when I told her I interviewed Jorge last year. Since it was for a podcast and I couldn’t show her video, she is still doubtful.
Before that and before politics took over my life, I used to be that person who watched SportsCenter three times a day. So when my compadre, who played football at Rivera High School in Brownsville, Texas, told me about a new ESPN E:60 special hosted by Jorge Ramos, titled “Southmost: Football and Life on the Border,” would be airing July 7, I went through great lengths to get a login to stream it. When I was done watching, I was left wanting so much more.
The one-hour special on ESPN follows four high school football players, Leo Ramos and another student from Lopez High school, and two students from Porter High school—Latino Rebels contacted ESPN and were told all names, except for Leo’s, were omitted for safety concerns. The two schools play in a big rivalry game each year.
That’s where the story begins, with these four players facing each other in a Texas high school football game. We see them in their pads and helmets, leading their teams out of the tunnel, making tackles, and scoring touchdowns. We see them basking in the glory of Friday night lights.
At this point in the show, I was so hopeful that the special’s entire focus would be their stories and how football provided a lifeline for these young men. Producer Jeremy Williams told ESPN, “We had to keep politics out and depict how football factors in for the young men. And do that while telling their stories correctly, and hopefully shedding some light on how difficult life on the border really is.”
And the life of these young men is very difficult. One of the players became the legal guardian for his younger siblings when he was 18 years old while his mother served time. Another player, who is undocumented, walks six miles to get to school. Leo has to cross the border each time he wants to see his mother and younger siblings. His mom has never seen him play in a game because she cannot enter the United States. Another student’s father was killed by a cartel in Matamoros, Mexico, the city on the other side of the border.
But we don’t stay on the football field very long, and politics do enter the picture, with talks of the Mexican cartels laid on us real thick.
White residents of Brownsville come on screen to tell us how their lives have been affected by the cartel in Matamoros. One resident tells us that he doesn’t have a strong opinion on immigration policy, but he does have a strong opinion about what happens to the students of Brownsville’s schools. But it’s worth noting that immigration policy directly affects the lives of said high school students. We are told by our host, Jorge Ramos, that this special isn’t a story about politics, but about the lives of four students living in the south most city along the Mexico-U.S border, Brownsville, Texas.
The lives of the students have clearly been deeply affected by the Gulf Cartel, which has operated in the region since the 1930’s. And while it is important to paint a picture of the consequences innocent people face as a result of the violent dealings of organized crime, the show could have quickly established it and moved on—back to the incredible lives of the four young men featured on the special.
Instead, the show insists on showing us violent images in Mexico, and after every commercial break, we come back to more cartel talk. While the state of Tamaulipas, the state where Matamoros is located, is on the State Department’s “Do Not Travel” list, Brownsville, Texas is last on the 24 crime metro areas ranked by the FBI. This is true of many border cities, with places like McAllen, Texas ranked #18. Odessa, which is 283 miles from Mexico-U.S. border, is the most dangerous city in the state. But from watching this E:60 special, you might believe the violence in Mexican border towns is everywhere in U.S. cities.
I know that the intention of so much cartel talk was likely to show that the reason these kids deserve to be in the United States is because of how bad and dangerous their lives would be if they were across the border in Mexico. But, where we needed an ounce of this logic, the show gave us a pound too much. The lives of the young men speak for themselves, and are enough to shine a light on the real faces affected by immigration policy, the border, and the poverty that exits in American cities.
My hope is that this is not the last special ESPN will dedicate to life and sports on the border, because there is so much more beauty and resilience to show along the Mexico-U.S. border.
Julissa Arce is a speaker, writer and nationally best-selling author of My (Underground) American Dream and Someone Like Me. She was named one of People en Español’s 25 Most Powerful Woman of 2017. She is a leading voice in the fight for social justice, immigrant rights and education equality. She tweets from @julissaarce.