In 1999, an investigative reporter with a passion for soccer traveled to North Carolina on a journalism fellowship to chronicle Latino migration to the Southeast. The story brought Paul Cuadros to the Chatham County town of Siler City, where he would focus on the immigrants’ search for work at the various poultry processing plants and the changing demographics of the area.
Along the way, Cuadros decided to stay in Siler City. When he discovered there was no organized soccer outlet for Latino youths, he helped establish soccer programs for boys and girls at the local high school in 2002. Two years later, with Cuadros as volunteer head coach, “Los Jets” of Jordan-Matthews High won the NCHSAA 1A boys championship with a 2-0 victory over Lejeune and became the first predominantly Latino team to win a state high school title in North Carolina.
Cuadros would author a best-selling book, “A Home on the Field,” in 2006 about his experiences with the team, and in 2014 the book was adapted by Jennifer Lopez’s Nuyorican Productions into a six-part series on NUVOtv entitled “Los Jets.”
The latest recognition for “Los Jets” will come Friday, when the North Carolina Museum of History opens an exhibit entitled “Los Jets: Playing for the American Dream.” The exhibit, located in the museum lobby, runs through Oct. 2. It includes various items from the Jordan-Matthews team, including the state championship trophy, the game ball, uniforms, and a steel chain the players would grip before each game to signify both the figurative and literal bond running through their team.
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“I’m really happy about this exhibit,” said Cuadros, 53. “It’s been my job to write about history, the history of the day. It’s what reporters do. It’s very humbling, and I feel very honored that I could contribute to history here.”
Cuadros and several of his former players will attend the exhibit opening at 5 p.m. Friday. The exhibitwill feature a screening of the first episode of the NUVOtv series at 7 p.m. Cuadros and several team and family members will also discuss their experiences. He remains the head coach of the boys’ team at Jordan-Matthews but gave up the girls’ team, which he led for 10 years, in 2012.
After five years working in Time magazine’s Southern bureau, in 2007 Cuadros became an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he also chairs of the UNC Scholars’ Latino Initiative and co-founded the Carolina Latina/o Collaborative and the Latina/o Caucus.
It was much like you see today in the presidential campaigns and immigrant communities. You see that expression of anger as to why the country is changing so rapidly and looking for scapegoats.
Journalist, teacher, soccer coach Paul Cuadros
The combination of teaching journalism and coaching soccer dovetails nicely for Cuadros. “The way I approach educating is through coaching – being able to have time with the students, to have time to work with them on their stories. But I’ve never asked any of them to run laps,” he joked.
His success on the soccer field has been noteworthy. In 14 years with the Jordan-Matthews boys team, Cuadros has compiled a 216-68-14 record, won six conference championships, and earned 13 trips to the state playoffs. He won conference coach of the years honors five times, regional honors seven times, and the state honor once (2008). Six of his players have gone on to play college soccer. And yet he got into coaching soccer because he was looking for something to do in his free time.
“I grew up in an immigrant family in Ann Arbor, Mich.,” he said, playing soccer with his brothers and cousin as a youth and later in high school. As an undergrad at the University of Michigan, which didn’t offer soccer as a varsity sport, he played on club and intramural teams. “I became a coach mostly because I was bored. I had no family or friends here. Coaching on the weekends occupied my time.”
His players were mostly sons of immigrant poultry workers, but as they grew up they noted the absence of a soccer team at Jordan-Matthews.
“I got involved with creating that program so that they would have a chance to play in their community,” Cuadros said. “It wasn’t an easy effort to get the program established. We had to break through the intransigent mindset of a rural community. Soccer was still seen as a strange, foreigners’ kind of sport. We certainly ran into that in Siler City.”
There was also the negative reaction to the growth of the immigrant population in the community.
“It was much like you see today in the presidential campaigns and immigrant communities,” Cuadros said. “You see that expression of anger as to why the country is changing so rapidly and looking for scapegoats.”
However, Cuadros found support among the teachers and a new principal at the school as well as people in the community. “They helped convince the Chatham County Schools that this would be a good idea, especially for the Latino population,” he said.
“I realized it was a story when we won the state championship. I wasn’t working on it as a story, I was living it. During the championship season, things were happening as if they were fictionalized. But you’re wrapped up in the story as things come together, what it represented to the community. Like when the championship day comes, and your bus breaks down on Highway 64, and people in the community show up to take to us to our game in Cary. It hits you that something is going on here beyond the events of the day.”
If you go
Los Jets: Playing for the American Dream
What: Lobby case exhibit
Where: N.C. Museum of History, 5 Edenton St., Raleigh
When: April 1 through Oct. 2; museum hours Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m.
Cost: Admission to the exhibit is free.
More information: http://ncmuseumofhistory.org/ or 919-807-7900