By Ana Aguilera-Juarez
You may see her on ESPN as a soccer analyst and sideline reporter, but Monica Gonzalez’s unofficial title is “Guardian of the beautiful game.”
That’s because when not in front of the camera diving deep into rosters and game strategy, the former Mexican National Team captain known as “Gonzo” can be found empowering young Hispanic girls through the Gonzo Soccer Academy, her non-profit organization that’s rapidly gaining traction in communities from Texas to Mexico to Colombia.
The 38-year-old from Corpus Christi, Texas is a pioneer of sorts. During her freshman year of college at Notre Dame in 1998, she was invited to be part of Mexico’s very first women’s national team. She saw action in the team’s first appearance in a World Cup, and she led the country to the 2004 Olympic Games. Before that though, soccer for women in Mexico was nearly invisible.
“I can tell you in the 90’s, we would be on the team bus and [head coach] Leonardo Cuellar told us, ‘Look out the window. I want you to look at the soccer fields as we’re driving by. Tell me how many times you see girls in uniforms playing,’ and we never did. He said, ‘You are the first ones,’ and that’s how he made us realize we were pioneers.”
Now Gonzalez is using her successful career to inspire young girls in a culture where women often sit in the shadows. She’s letting girls know that it’s okay to play soccer, be a strong athlete, and aim high in life.
Playing Against The Boys
Gonzalez grew up with three brothers and played on an all-boys soccer team in Corpus Christi due to the lack of girls’ teams. At first, she was intimidated by the fact that she was the only girl, but her father gave her a necessary push.
“I remember on day one, he drove me to practice, but I didn’t want to get out of the car because I saw 10 to 12 boys there,” Gonzalez said. “I said, ‘Dad, it’s all boys!’ He told me to look at them like I’m better than them. He said, ‘Get out there,’ and he didn’t give me two seconds to think about it. I looked out the window again and saw who the boys were, and realized I knew them from school, and I knew I was better than them.”
She went on to play soccer and basketball for her high school in Plano, Texas, just north of Dallas. Then it was on to the pitch at Notre Dame, where she earned All-American and All-Academic honors, and a bachelor’s degree in management information systems and Spanish.
She was drafted 11th overall by the Boston Breakers of the Women’s United Soccer Association in 2002, and went on to be a WUSA All-Star.
As the years passed, Gonzalez’s success on the pitch slowed, but her life took on a new purpose.
The Gonzo Soccer Academy
Gonzalez failed to make the roster for the Chicago Red Stars in 2009, so in order to make some money, she and then-marketing director of the Red Stars, Alyse LaHue, hosted a one-day soccer clinic in Chicago’s Latino community. It was so successful that the mothers of the girls were calling in asking when they would be back. That led to weekly training sessions in soccer, but it also led to an opportunity to discuss important life issues such as body image, nutrition, the dangers of drugs and alcohol, bullying/violence, and conflict resolution.
“At the time, a lot of girls were talking about joining gangs,” Gonzalez said. “It was kinda the first time I realized that, even though I didn’t end up playing soccer my whole life, this sport has the power to change people’s lives.”
The Gonzo Soccer Academy has grown over the years to include 12 academies in the U.S., Mexico, and Colombia. They provide tutoring before and after training, educational offerings such as how to properly set goals, and ongoing discussions surrounding some of life’s potential detractors, like substance abuse.
The organization has been funded by private grants, but recently Mexico’s President, Enrique Peña Nieto, cut a grant that provides support for anti-violence programs toward women.
That threatens to derail the Gonzo Soccer Academy south of the border — already a difficult place to convince Latino parents that their girls do need a program like this.
“I know for every 12 girls that are with me, there’s 200 in their homes wishing they could play,” Gonzalez said. “They’re crying because their parents won’t let them play because they think the girls are going to lose their femininity. That’s all a lie, and it’s something we need to educate everybody about. In the United States, people know sports are for boys and girls, but in Latin America, it’s ‘pink and dancing are for girls,’ and ‘blue and soccer are for boys.’ We have to change that.”
So, Gonzalez is pressing on with the continued hope that her soccer academy will provide an opportunity for girls realize their true potential. That’s really what it’s all about.