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A small team brings moral victory to a divided town

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 23, 2004


The Devil Pups from Camp Lejeune - the sons of marines and sailors, traveling to games in a bus painted with sword-toting troops in full regalia - are an athletic powerhouse among the small-town teams of rural North Carolina.

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The Jordan-Matthews High School Jets of Siler City turn heads, too: Mexican boys who tumbled out of white vans on Saturday, arriving at the small-school Class 1-A championship to face the Devil Pups. Their own bus had broken down on the way to the game, discomfiting the boys until coach Paul Cuadros spoke up.

"We were standing at the side of the road, and ... they're anxious about what we're going to do," he recounts. "I ask them in Spanish, 'How many of you have crossed the border?' A few raised their hands. So I said, 'This is nothing compared to that. We'll get there, don't worry.' "

The Devil Pups outspent and towered over their opponents. But they lost the hardscrabble 2-0 match, making the Jets the first Hispanic high school team to win a North Carolina championship. In the process, the tight-knit squad brought together a farm town, if only briefly, that's struggled with the impact of an influx of Hispanics and become emblematic of the region's enduring divides, as a bunch of guys with nicknames like Fish, Mosquito, and RoRo rallied the town in a way that neither the media nor union organizers could.

"This is huge - for the kids and for our town," says Gloria Sanchez-Lane, one of about 300 Jets fans, from Hispanic girls with painted faces to goateed white men pushing strollers, who made the journey to Cary for the championship game, sang, "Olé, olé, olé, olé!," banged on snare drums, and blew air horns in a grandstand carnival.

In Chatham County, where Siler City is abuzz with the news, there are already resolutions to add the win to town records. The team picture will hang alongside those of golf, tennis, and basketball champions in the Jordan-Matthews trophy case. But for townspeople and school alums, the Jets' success goes beyond the hallways.

"This is something which unites the community instead of something that causes splits, and it's a very positive thing," says Tommy Emerson, chairman of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners and a member of Jordan-Matthews's first graduating class in 1957. "We've struggled with this demographic shift, but there's been a big effort to meet the challenges, and this shows we're doing some things right."

The Jets are a major success in the short, strange history of Hispanic immigration to the South, which began in the early 1990s. Ten years ago, Siler City was a town of blacks and whites. Then came the Hispanic men, arriving in a trickle, then a torrent, to North Carolina's pine-covered plains. They were headed to Siler City, the center of North Carolina's poultry kingdom. In 1996, the families started coming to join husbands and fathers, catching off guard not just schools, but communities and small towns that hadn't expected a rush of new faces with an entire culture in tow.