Coastin’ on a Dream: How Ariana Martinez grew to cherish her Mexican identity

Kore Chan/Senior Staff

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Ariana Martinez closed her eyes for a moment, took a deep breath and then entered the huddle with the rest of the Mexican National Team inside the Miyagi Stadium locker room. It was Aug. 19, 2012, just before 7:20 p.m. local time, and Martinez was about to take the field for the first time at the FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup in Japan.

Despite never having lived in the the country she was representing and knowing only a little bit of Spanish, Martinez felt at peace wearing the green and red of Mexico. She had just spent the past nine months traveling to and from her home in California to Mexico for camps with the national team and had come to embrace her identity as a Mexican American.

“When I was at the World Cup, I felt a huge sense of pride being in that stadium and putting on the Mexican jersey,” Martinez says. “I felt like I was representing my grandfather, who came to the U.S. and worked so hard just to give me an opportunity to go to school and have a good life.”

Martinez’s grandfather, Jose Ismael Martinez, moved to the United States just before her father was born, in search of a better future for his family. He settled in Los Angeles and worked two jobs to support his wife and children. Even though Ariana’s father lived in Los Angeles for most of his life and raised his own children in the United States, he made a point of ensuring that Mexico was part of the family’s identity. This paved the way for Ariana Martinez’s decision to play for the Mexican National Team, a move that inspired a flood of emotion for her grandfather.

“My dad is 100 percent Mexican, and for him to see his granddaughter embrace the country where he’s from and where she has her roots … to see her wear that Mexican shirt … this man was reduced to tears,” says Jose Martinez of his father. “He told me to tell her that this was the proudest moment of his life.”

For Ariana Martinez, the journey ended in Mexico, but it didn’t begin there. In 2010 and 2011, she was invited to a series of camps with the United States Under-18 National Team. She had been a standout performer for Real SoCal, one of the best soccer clubs in California, and the national team coaches had taken notice. At three different camps spread across the West Coast, Martinez trained with the best young American soccer players in the country. The competition was fierce, nerves were high and the quality of play was second to none.

“Looking back, I was probably too scared and didn’t play up to my ability,” Martinez says about her performance at the U.S. camps. “They don’t necessarily call you and say you didn’t make it, but it was just implied. At the last camp, I realized I wasn’t going to be invited back when they announced the roster for a team that was going to be traveling to Spain and I wasn’t on it.”

She returned home and refocused her attention on the college game, but she still yearned to play at the international level.

As a second-generation American of Mexican grandparents, Martinez was aware she had the option of playing for Mexico if she chose to pursue it. But the Moorpark, Calif., native was born and raised in the United States, spoke only English at home and had never even set foot inside Mexico. Yet with her future with the U.S. team looking bleak and her international aspirations still strong, Martinez began to give the Mexico option serious consideration.

“It was a perfect opportunity to go, get out of my comfort zone and give it a shot,” Martinez says.

She emailed the Mexican U-20 National Team coach, Leo Cuéllar, to ask whether she could try out for the team, and he agreed. Over the span of just a few days, Martinez applied for citizenship at the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles, received her passport and hopped on a plane to Mexico City.

Upon arriving in Mexico, she quickly realized soccer would be the least of her worries. Despite being in a foreign country, surrounded by unfamiliar faces, it was still the same game she had played — and excelled at — since she was 6 years old. Martinez made the team, but it then became apparent that the real challenge was going to be fitting in.

For starters, Martinez’s Spanish was far from fluent.

“Playing a sport in a different language is hard,” Martinez says. “My Spanish was at a high school level, which isn’t good.”

The difficulty of communicating with her teammates and coaches was somewhat alleviated by the presence of other Mexican American players who, unlike Martinez, spoke both English and Spanish fluently.

“The good thing is a lot of the girls on the team are like me — they play college soccer in the U.S. and were born in the U.S.,” Martinez says. “So that’s probably why I survived.”

While the language issue was resolvable, Martinez ran into a more troubling problem. She took comfort from having other U.S.-based players around, but she also noticed a divide between the Mexican Americans like her and the players who were born and raised in Mexico. After living her entire life in the United States and having always been recognized by her peers as Hispanic, Martinez was suddenly being singled out as an American.

The overall environment around the team was affable, but Martinez struggled with the cultural division within the squad.

“It’s a very difficult subject,” she says. “For me, personally, it was hard to deal with because living in the United States, I was always one of the Mexican girls on my teams here. But then when I went there, it was hard for me to connect with the Mexican girls who were born in Mexico. At the end of the day, we all still loved each other and were there for the same reason, but that was definitely really hard for me … the whole identity thing.”

Although the cultural divide within the Mexican team still exists, Martinez has used it as a way to come to terms with her own identity. She has come to embrace her dual background, and now she feels pride in being both Mexican and American.

“Playing for Mexico serves as a reminder of where I came from and what my parents and grandparents have done to give me the opportunities I have,” Martinez says.

Martinez’s Cal teammate and U.S. National Team counterpart Emily Kruger finds it clear that playing for Mexico has been hugely important for Martinez not only on a sporting level but also for her growth as a person.

“In talking to Ari about her parents and her heritage and her identity, playing with that national team has allowed her to find that,” Kruger says. “She’s told me that previously, she hadn’t really felt too connected to her Mexican identity, so having found that by playing with the team is fantastic, that’s invaluable. That’s not soccer. That’s the experience.”

Josh Netter covers women’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].