Longform

Fish Story

Page 3 of 7

Gutierrez was so surprised she burst out laughing and told her husband he was out of his mind--but he persisted. "You watch," he said. It was a casual boast that could have been uttered in a million households in Guatemala, but in only one would it become prophecy.

The family lived in Zona 21 in Guatemala City, in a neighborhood called Bellos Horizontes, or "Beautiful Horizons." The hilly terrain on the southern outskirts of the city can afford some sweeping views, but the vast sprawl of rusting corrugated metal roofs and narrow streets is more known for limited prospects. "In my neighborhood, if you looked at the future, you would either go to jail, get killed, or do whatever you could to get out," Ruiz remembers.

As Ruiz was growing up, the civil war that had plagued Guatemala since the 1960s was slowly winding down, but the political strife took a back seat to the gangs that were beginning to make their presence felt all over the city. For many of Ruiz's friends, gangs seemed like the best hope of gaining respect and earning income. "Of all the friends I had in the neighborhood, I was the one that played soccer the least," Ruiz says. "They were all incredible soccer players. But for some, their families were so poor that it made them join gangs as a way to make easy money."

Through sheer hard work, Gutierrez kept Carlos and his two older sisters, later joined by a younger sister, from a similar fate. For two years the children lived with their grandmother while she worked in Chicago, and later she found a job at the Colgate-Palmolive factory in Guatemala as a machine operator, making soap and toothpaste, the same job she continues in today. "I've been with the company for 18 years," she says proudly. "It's a very prestigious company here in Guatemala." After her shift at the factory, she would sell food and clothing on the streets, putting in 18 hours or more every day but Sunday, when she would come home at 3 in the afternoon. When Carlos' oldest sister got pregnant at age 14, the household grew to six, and Gutierrez was forced to stretch the family budget even more.

All her efforts were directed toward allowing her children the chance to study and go to college--and certainly not so her only son could waste his time playing soccer. While his older sisters studied, Ruiz watched the two younger girls all morning and then took his turn going to school in the afternoon. "I'm a pretty strict mom," she says. "I'm like a tigress defending my cubs. Because I didn't have a man around I had to take over the role." Ruiz still winces when he remembers the iron discipline in his house. "I always listened to my mom, because if I didn't--whack!"

Ruiz snuck in pick-up games at school and in the street, but it was Don Pedro, an upstairs neighbor, who finally gave him a spot on a real team when he was 7. He proposed the idea to Gutierrez and she reluctantly agreed to let Ruiz play--but only on Sundays, and only if he'd finished all his schoolwork.

An ecstatic Ruiz suited up for the first time but found that organized soccer wasn't quite what he'd expected. "I didn't know what position I played, and everybody was so good, so I ended up starting out as the goalie," he says. "The team was so good that I wouldn't touch the ball the whole game." The scores would often end up 10 or even 15 to nothing, while Ruiz stood alone at the other end, scuffing his feet in the dirt. Eventually Ruiz worked up the courage to ask Don Pedro if maybe when the team was far enough ahead, he could play on the field for a bit. Don Pedro agreed to indulge his faithful goalie.

"The first ball that I touched, I scored a goal," Ruiz says. "I had never experienced any happiness like it. We won, like, 12 to nothing, but I had never felt anything like scoring a goal." Over the next few years, and despite his mother's best intentions, Ruiz began to develop a reputation as a soccer marksman. "Everybody knows each other in that neighborhood, but even more so if you play soccer," he says. "And if you're good, everybody in the area knows who you are." His friends in the gangs stopped pestering him to join and started to come watch him play. "Those were good times," he says. "I felt really secure."

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Rick Kennedy