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What barrio are you from?
by Sofia Larkin

“¡Qué milagro!" we say when we haven’t seen each other in a while because here, we don’t take people for granted. 

I was born on a cold and snowy El Paso day in 1969 to a Chilean mother who came here on a Fulbright to get a Master’s Degree and an American father, a UTEP professor who wrote my name on the chalkboard when he taught his class that morning. I would spend much of my childhood on the University campus, watching generations of feral cats from my father’s office window or climbing out of dumpsters as I walked up the ramp to the Fox Fine Arts building and into the ballet studio that was my second home. I practically lived at Magoffin Auditorium, doing homework and eating dinner at the theater while we rehearsed “The Nutcracker," “Sleeping Beauty," “The Firebird," “The Unicorn, the Gorgon & the Manticore," “Pineapple Poll," “Scheherazade," “Cinderella," and so many more. Those were great days for Ballet El Paso and in all my years at the San Francisco Ballet School I never saw a dancer so breathtaking or exquisite as our very own Renee Segapeli, and I had seen some of the very best in the world.

Growing up behind Chelmont Shopping Center I was one of many kids in the neighborhood who spent their summers at the Chelsea Pool or their evenings talking and laughing at Chico’s Tacos. Going to Juárez for groceries or a nice dinner was just another Saturday. It was a childhood full of reading, classical music, recycling in the desert, enjoying menudo with my Mexican friends, and learning how to properly “saludar," eat an artichoke, and set a table, from my Chilean mother.

My dream from childhood had been to dance and I lived and breathed ballet but the funny thing is that after all those years of hard work and dedication I found my calling when I was working for a temp service on the East and West sides in the ’90s. People would come in to our offices looking for work because they had been transplanted here for one reason or another. I couldn’t help but tell every single one of them about the many treasures in El Paso, especially the people. Have you been here? Have you eaten there? Have you seen that? I would write things down, make reservations for them, I would do anything to make sure they remembered El Paso the way it should be remembered: as the warmest, friendliest, richest place on earth.

In 2006 I got the job as the executive director of Community Scholars and I happily moved in to my office upstairs from Cinco Puntos Press where I purchase kids’ birthday gifts mostly so I can stop by and chat, look at those colorful books, and smell Cactus Mary soaps. A stroll Downtown to grab some coffee or a sandwhich, taking a different route each time so I can study every single building or run into an old friend, is one of the highlights of my Downtown life. I get to work closely with smart, engaged young men and women and I meet people from our community, ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Steve Yellen is one of those people.

I received an email from him inviting me to preview “Basketball in the Barrio" at the Plaza Theater and I gladly accepted because you can’t resist Steve’s positive attitude or his passion for giving back to this community. I sat watching the documentary with tears of joy streaming down my face because I was inspired by the many faces and voices on the screen in front of me. The next day I recounted the story of Basketball in the Barrio as if I had witnessed a birth because this wonder truly is one more precious facet of this jewel I call home. “¡Qué milagro!" we say when we haven’t seen each other in a while because here, we don’t take people for granted. 

What barrio are you from?


Don’t miss

“Basketball in the Barrio 2017"

Sponsored by Price’s 

June 16-18, 2017 

The Armijo Community Center

Text or call  Steve Yellen 915-300-5970 to help, volunteer, donate, participate or just be a part.

Sacred Hoops
by Dave Zirin

Top-ranked boxer Juan “Hispanic Causing Panic” Lazcano didn’t know what hit him. The lightweight contender returned to his El Paso, Texas neighborhood to encourage a room of young children to “follow your dreams.” Lazcano was sharp as a tack and surefooted as a saint on Sunday. But a simple question stunned him like a stiff right cross.

“Why do you box?”

It was asked by a nine year old boy named Mateo and it’s a question that could perhaps only have been asked at a jewel of a camp called Basketball in the Barrio.

Now in its tenth year, Basketball in the Barrio is an annual living demonstration of how sports can develop the best angels in our nature. It’s also the story of how a shoestring basketball camp can be a bulwark for change.

At the cost of one dollar per person, Basketball in the Barrio opens its doors to the youth of the Segundo Barrio in El Paso. But like the root of a Texas Cedar, basketball is only the foundation. The camp also exposes kids to flamenco dancing, muralists, mariachi, and even ballet. These are all aspects of what is called “border culture” — or culture of the “fronterizo.” Border culture is the dynamic mix of the US and Mexico that merges in El Paso and it’s neighbor city, Juarez, Mexico. In much of Texas, “border culture” is looked upon with racist derision; something to sneer at, to shun, and to treat as if unclean. Basketball in the Barrio teaches kids to revel in it, like the dry heat of the desert sun.

This is the guiding philosophy of the camp’s director Rus Bradburd. Rus is not someone who, upon first glance, resembles a fronterizo. He’s also a living example of why books shouldn’t be judged by their covers. Rus was an assistant men’s basketball coach for the University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) from 1983-1991, under legendary head coach Don Haskins. It was there that he came to the conclusion that Basketball in the Barrio needed to happen.

“I couldn’t stand that most of the kids in El Paso couldn’t afford to go the basketball camps in El Paso,” says Bradburd, over the surrounding shouts and steady thumping of 100 basketballs. “All over the country, big time college coaches, who are already overpaid, are making a fortune off of kids with these deluxe basketball camps. I wanted a camp that was not only accessible, but where we could play a role in talking about border culture and cultural traditions, where these kids could see that their culture is nothing to be embarrassed about but something they could wear as a point of pride.”

The kids at the camp span the gamut from expert dribblers, somehow pounding the ball with electric speed through their spindly legs, to those who look like they might trip over the foul line. But all treat the game, and each other, with tender respect.

Amber Avila, age 10, has been attending the camp for three years. She is typical of the children here in that she loves basketball but also holds it in a perspective that would shame many adult sports writers and armchair strategists alike. When asked what position she plays, Amber says nonchalantly, “Oh, I can play the 1,2 or the 3.” [Basketball lingo for point guard, shooting guard or small forward.] She says proudly that her dream is to play in the WNBA, but likes the fact that the camp offers more, because, in her words, “not everyone’s dream is to play basketball and we kids need to reach for our dreams.” She also enjoys camp because “the boys aren’t rude.”

One of those presumably polite boys, Chris Travieso, 10, also loves Basketball in the Barrio because, “I can learn about my history and play basketball at the same time. Also it’s a great place to make friends and learn new things.”

Amber, Chris and all the young people embrace the border culture with the same gusto they take to the court. Perhaps the most stunning sight of this year’s camp was when a former dancer in the Mexican National Ballet made her presentation. Many of the children had never seen ballet in their lives and some of the coaches feared how a ballet lesson for 120 elementary age children would go over. But the kids took to it like the parched take to ice water. When this brave, flinty ballerina asked for volunteers, much of the camp, including many of the boys, stormed the court to take instructions on how to stand on their toes and plie.

This entire experience is shaped by a unique collection of instructors who descend upon El Paso from around the country. Doug Harris, a documentary filmmaker and former NBA draftee who travels to the camp from the Bay Area, calls his annual trip to El Paso “a pilgrimage.” The word fits because the adults arrive with a sacredly shared commitment to the idea that sports can be a force for social change.

Another coach, Debbie Weinreis, makes her journey from St. Paul, Minnesota. After playing college ball at near-by New Mexico, Weinreis was a pro for 15 years in Europe. She says that she returns because, “In many camps I’ve been a part of, there is just too much pressure on the bottom line. Most of these kids will not go pro, but they do have to go on in life. We want them to see that there are options.” She also likes teaching in an environment where boys and girls aren’t separated but work together. “This camp does a great job of making it a place where girls, who from ages 6-10 are more physically advanced anyway, can star.”

Many of the coaches work with an organization called Athletes United for Peace. This movement spirit shapes the spirit of the camp as a bulwark for change. El Paso is a military town that will see an influx of 15,000 troops in the next year. Basketball in the Barrio, in the face of the billion-dollar weaponry the kids witness every day, tries to offer another perspective.

As Bradburd says, “It’s a camp that tries to teach peace and tolerance. This is not a flag waving camp. The kids get enough of that on TV and in school. It’s fine that this camp can be one place that doesn’t push patriotism down their throats… [Besides] how are we supposed to teach kids not to hit each other, to not be bullies, when it’s our foreign policy?”

And in El Paso, foreign policy colludes with the domestic like few other places in the country. The border has become militarized with hysteria over “illegal” immigration as well as fears that Al Quada will attack from the south. The specter of a “Juan bin Laden” has intensified an atmosphere of mistrust and racism. A Coors Light Billboard in El Paso says it all with the slogan “Always Cool, Aqui or There.” In other words, get it through your heads: you are either “Here” or “There” — but Coors can cross the border even if you can not.

The beauty of border culture is something unimaginable to the corporations that have stripped El Paso of jobs and made Juarez the home base for their maquiladoras. This makes those around Basketball in the Barrio all the more determined to help people remember and carry on the tradition of the fronterizo. Coach Steve Yellen, a former UTEP player and member of Athletes United for Peace says, “We want these kids to have pride in their community, pride in their culture, and pride in themselves.”

This consistent call for “pride” is not just a well-worn homily, but something all the instructors recognize as a necessary component for survival in El Paso. This is a city, in the words of Javier Diaz, that is “excluded, disconnected, and disrespected” throughout Texas. Diaz, a 75-year-old retired guidance counselor in El Paso Public Schools, speaks while watching the kids do a dribbling drill called “the impossible catch.” “We are an island in the state,” he says. “El Paso is a proud blue collar town, but we are promoted as being little more than low wages, cheap labor, and not worth giving a damn about. We have a political elite in Texas that wants to just strangle common people like us that live in Segundo Barrio. That’s why Basketball in the Barrio is so important. It teaches not just sports but self-respect. It can keep alive border culture, which to me means taking the best of Anglo and Mexican culture and combining them to educate our young about art, beauty, and tolerance. To be a ‘fronterizo’ is to be a whole person.”

It’s because the camp is forging whole people that led young Mateo to ask Juan Lazcano that simple question: “Why do you box?” It’s a question that defines the worldview of Basketball in the Barrio: why fight when you can learn, when you can play, and when you can dance?

DAVE ZIRIN’s new book “What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States” will be in stores in June 2005. Check out his revamped website edgeofsports.com. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing [email protected]. Contact him at [email protected].

Annual Basketball in the Barrio Camp Combines Arts and Sport in Tribute to Barrio Legend by Rus Bradburd

There’s a great poem I read recently about the narrator sneaking up on his unlearned neighbor and shooting him in the heart with a poem.

I taught English one fall to freshman at NMSU, which I looked forward to like a jail term, until the writer Don Kurtz told me a story:  Don was at a friend’s house recently for a cookout, and noticed his collection of books. There were fewer than a dozen, but they were all classics. Great books that spoke volumes about his friend’s good taste and refined intelligence. Turns out that those were the books assigned in his two college English classes. He read them all. Loved them, in fact. He hadn’t gotten around to reading anything since, though. Don Kurtz said he realized then how important it was to be a great English teacher. It may be some kid’s only exposure literary beauty and excellence.

We may only get one chance to shoot someone with a poem.

I couldn’t have articulated that when we started “Basketball in the Barrio” ten years ago at El Paso’s Armijo Center. Basketball was the lure, the bait really, to hook young kids. Most of the camp is spent exposing South El Paso kids to the unique arts and culture of the border.  There’s an abundance of culture in El Paso (ignore the growing sprawl and hundred-yard-high billboards) if you’ll poke around. When the folks at Price’s Creameries began donating those great Milk Chugs and some pretty generous funding it made it possible to pay local artists to appear at our camp.

Most of the artists are El Paso natives, or have lived in El Paso for a long time.

Nationally known bi-lingual storyteller Joe Hayes is often our opening attraction. Viva El Paso ballet folklorico leaves the kids with their mouths hanging open. Muralist Luis Villega completed his mural that is a tribute to the camp’s inspiration, the legendary Rocky Galarza. Tex-Mex accordion wiz Steve Stacey’s corridos bounce the kids through their lunch breaks. Writer Ben Saenz reads from one of his enormously popular children’s books. World-renown fighter Juan “Ernie” Lazcano returns home each year to speak, and makes each child feel like a champ. Former NBA star Greg Foster’s 7’1” frame stuns the campers every summer. Each child is presented with a bilingual children’s book from the purveyors of literary soul, Cinco Puntos Press. One year’s book-presenter at the awards ceremony was an avid reader, then-Mayor Ray Caballero. And the Mariachis and Norteno trios that will leave the campers with goose-bumps and the janitors weeping. (The youth Mariachi used to let me sing with them until they found out they would get paid even if they didn’t.) Finally, every camper will receive a “Peace Poster,” with a quote from various historical figures like Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr, and Gandhi.

Coaches at the Basketball in the Barrio camp come from weirdly diverse backgrounds. We have university students and profs. An Air Force cadet, a poet, two high school players, a YWCA administrator, and a stockbroker. A political activist from Chicago, the head of the NFL Players Association, the president of Athletes United for Peace, a nutritionist, another poet (limit two), an orthopedic surgeon that learned the same dribbling drills starring for UTEP, a European women’s pro player, a labor lawyer, an editor, the NMSU Athletics Director, a TV sportscaster, a couple high school coaches, the UTEP head coach, a painter, an Australian tourist. And me. We work for free; the money goes to the artists and musicians. How about this for diverse? Shoshonna Johnson and Toni Smith (Manhattanville College) will both be at camp.

Ben Saenz says that kids on the border are bombarded by constant media images that show them what it means to be an American.  It never includes anything from la frontera. At Basketball in the Barrio, we tattoo the children with a single message:  It’s cool to be exactly who you are—a kid from the border.

By exposing the children to El Paso artists, working folks and weekend coaches, we try and open their eyes to possibilities that simply couldn’t fit on the confining space of a basketball court.

I wish that I could say this was all my idea, that I had an artistic vision, and I “Just Did It.” That wouldn’t be true. It grew from the ideas of a group of people. Sometimes a Rosa Parks or Cesar Chavez comes along and changes the world. More often an idea gets passed around between folks over a period of time, and… surprise! You have the world’s most unique basketball camp.

The truth is that we began having this camp in South El Paso because Rocky Galarza said it would be a good idea. Rocky grew up in the same barrio and dedicated his adult life to teaching El Paso teens discipline and self-confidence through his art—the art of boxing.

He was a coach in the purist sense of the word. He did it for free, six days a week, for the span of three decades. He was the most democratic coach in the world, which of course is why he never became famous or wealthy. Ability and potential meant nothing to him, an opportunity was everything. Kids were somebody special to Rocky just because they walked in the door. They immediately received personal instruction (from the man called “the best boxing coach in El Paso history” at his Hall of Fame induction) in his backyard “gym”.

Take it from me— I used to be a former ex-coach:  Great coaches are not teaching kids on a come-as-you-are basis, free of charge. But Rocky Galarza was.

We still have Rocky’s name on the camp shirts, and always will.

Shortly before Rocky died in 1997, we decided to make the world’s most unique camp the world’s most inexpensive camp. That was the way Rocky wanted it. The kids pay a dollar, if they have it.  That’s why I continue doing the camp: It’s my way of remembering Rocky Galarza and all he taught me. And maybe I’ll get to sing with the Mariachi.

Rus Bradburd is the director of Basketball in the Barrio and the author of “All the Dreams We’ve Dreamed: a Story of Hoops and Handguns.”