Which international soccer team to play for can be difficult choice for players from immigrant families


Manassas Park High’s Junior Flores has played for the U.S. youth national team and has drawn interest from El Salvador. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)
December 23, 2011

Junior Flores has never been to El Salvador. When asked, however, he says it’s where he’s from. Born in Los Angeles to Salvadoran parents and raised in Manassas Park, Flores, 15, deals with issues of ethnic identity common to many children in immigrant families.

The difference for Flores is that he is an elite soccer talent with the potential to compete at an international level. Such status can force athletes to confront questions of ethnic and national identity at an early age, often by making very public declarations: In international competitions, do they play for the country they were born and raised in, or for the country of their parents?

For Flores, it’s a choice that could loom on the horizon. This fall he was invited to join the U.S. soccer development academy in Bradenton, Fla., and earlier this month, he was considered by many to be the under-17 national team’s top player during the Nike International Friendlies. He has also been courted by the Salvadoran national federation, which invited him to training when the senior team was in Washington for a CONCACAF Gold Cup match in June.

“It would be difficult [to choose] because my family is Salvadoran and they probably want me to play for the El Salvador national team,” Flores said. “But I’m used to the U.S. I’ve already played with the youth national team.”

Flores knows his parents’ homeland only from how he was raised inside a small red brick house tucked in a neighborhood just off Route 28 in Manassas. He was brought up on traditional Salvadoran food — his favorite is elote loco, a grilled corn dish — and in a Spanish-speaking environment. He was taught to love El Salvador.

Yet in other ways he is a quintessentially American teenager. He went to Manassas Park High School, where as a freshman he led the varsity team to its first state championship. His Facebook profile page is filled with the interactions common on nearly every teenager’s page and tags interests in the MTV show “Jersey Shore” and the rock band The Fray. He smiles in his profile picture, white hat turned backward, giving a thumbs-up sign.

When asked where he is from, Flores said he says El Salvador, if only because if he answers that he is American he is often asked again, “Yeah, but where are you from?”

Otherwise, Flores said he doesn’t feel a need to make a distinction. He is both Salvadoran and American.

“You can be ethnically [one country] and nationally American and be proud of that,” said Tomas Jimenez, assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University, whose research and writing focuses on immigration, assimilation and ethnic and racial identity. “But when you have to make decisions where your kind of ethnic ties cross with your parents’ national ties or are forced to make decisions about things that really do have national identity overtones, like playing for a national soccer team, that . . . forces them to think of ethnic identity in national terms. That’s where things get tricky.

“My guess is a lot of them haven’t thought of ethnic identity in these ways. . . . It’s about the food you eat and the customs you practice, and now you’re being forced to make decisions that really have overtones that are much more to do with national identity than ethnic identity.”

Examples to follow

In many ways, the pull from the two federations appears to be a distant concern to Flores. He shrugs off questions about what he would do if made to face a decision. At 15 years old, such a decision could be three or four years away, if it comes at all.

Older players with similar backgrounds to Flores, however, are facing such issues now.

FC Dallas goalkeeper Richard Sanchez, born in Mission Hills, Calif., started for Mexico’s under-17 World Cup champion team. In the same under-17 World Cup tournament, players such as midfielder Alejandro Guido and goalkeeper Fernando Pina, both Mexican Americans, starred for the U.S. national team.

Defender Edgar Castillo, born in Las Cruces, N.M., initially chose Mexico but switched his allegiances to his country of birth. Houston native Arturo Alvarez was part of the U.S. youth national teams but committed to El Salvador when he fell out of the U.S. senior pool. Jose Torres, born in Longview, Tex., was overlooked by Mexico, where he plays professionally, and played for the U.S. World Cup team in 2010 in South Africa.

The issue became even more prominent when Jurgen Klinsmann took over as the U.S. national team coach in July. In his opening news conference, Klinsmann set forth his goal to involve more Latin American players in the U.S. pool.

“There’s so much influence coming from the Latin environment over the last 15, 20 years,” Klinsmann said in his introductory news conference. “It also has to be reflected in the U.S. national team, and you have so many kids now with dual citizenship, Mexican or other Central American countries and American, so that will always be a topic to discuss.”

Conflicting emotions

One name at the center of the debate is Joe Corona, a 21-year-old forward born in Los Angeles. Corona lives with his parents in Chula Vista, Calif. His father is Mexican, his mother Salvadoran, and Corona commutes about 25 minutes each day across the border to play professionally in Tijuana, Mexico.

Over the past two seasons, Corona has excelled on the field, and both the U.S. and Mexican soccer federations are scouting him as a potential senior team candidate.

The walls in Corona’s room mark some of his accomplishments, and also paint a picture of how Corona identifies himself: as both Mexican and American.

There is a picture of Xolos, the professional team on which he plays in Mexico, a Mexico jersey from his under-22 national team call-up earlier this year and a poster of U.S. national star Clint Dempsey, a player whom Corona admires because they play similar positions.

Like Flores, Corona is bilingual. He said he is more comfortable speaking Spanish and only truly improved his English skills upon enrolling at San Diego State University to play soccer. Also like Flores, Corona’s soccer education occurred here in the United States. Both Flores and Corona played for youth travel teams, and both played high school soccer. Corona went on to play two years of college soccer.

Despite that, Corona said he was raised in a household with such deep ties to Mexico that he feels a connection to the country and a strong desire to represent it on the field.

Jimenez said that is a common sentiment for children of immigrants.

“When you grow up in an immigrant household but are born in the U.S., the way you grow up in many ways is formed by your parents’ dual frame of reference,” he said. “Their frame of reference both of life in their country of origin and life in the U.S. It informs how they raise kids, how they discipline them, what food they cook, expectations for what children do for work. The children have just one frame of reference. They are born in the U.S., but in that household, and there can be some conflict.”

Corona has clearly felt the pressure. In media reports, the 21-year-old has bounced back and forth in his decision.

“It was a big, important subject,” Corona said. “My parents and family asking who I wanted to play for. Since the first culture that was introduced to me was Mexican because of my parents — my dad is Mexican and we always watched Mexico play — that’s why it was my priority [to play] for them. But since I was raised here, I really do identify with the U.S. team as well. . . . You always have to have your doors open. It’s a tough question to decide, but I would play for whoever is willing to give me the opportunity.”

For Flores, it may come down to that as well. Oscar Flores once dreamed of playing for the Salvadoran national team. Should Junior have that chance, the father said he will not force his son’s decision.

“I always had the dream to play professional and now the dream is coming true on him,” Oscar Flores said. “I was so happy when I saw the e-mail [that] he had been selected to play for the [U.S.] national team. It was a good feeling for us: my wife, me, my daughter and my other son, everyone in the family. . . .

“We go how far the U.S. wants to take him. If they take him all the way, we’ll put the U.S. jersey on and follow him wherever he goes.”

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