A home on the screen

When UNC journalism professor Paul Cuadros moved to North Carolina in 1999 to write about the Latino migration in the South, he never expected that he would form and then coach a high school state championship soccer team. He did, though, and then he wrote about the experience in his 2006 book “A Home on the Field: How One Championship Team Inspires Hope for the Revival of Small Town America.”

Now, the book has become a springboard for a six-part television documentary series called “Los Jets,” which will premiere at Carolina on Friday (June 27) at the FedEx Global Education Center and make its television debut on NUVOtv July 16. As the coach for the past 13 seasons of the Siler City, N.C., high school team, Cuadros has a starring role in the production.

The documentary, executive produced by Jennifer Lopez and Lynda Lopez, follows Cuadros and the players, all sons of Latino immigrants, through their 2013 fall soccer season. As much as the documentary looks at soccer, it also explores Cuadros’ life as well as the personal success and struggle the boys and their families face as immigrants.

Paul Cuadros on the soccer field.

UNC journalism professor Paul Cuadros. Photo courtesy of NUVOtv.

“It runs the gamut of immigrant life,” Cuadros says. “It gets into their lives. Several of the players came into the U.S. as unaccompanied minors seeking to reunite with their families here. You will learn and feel their experiences up close and see how these kids struggle and integrate into our society and the obstacles they face.”

Cuadros is an associate professor who started teaching in UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2007. As an investigative journalist who wrote about race and poverty in the United States, Cuadros won a fellowship in 1999 to report on the emerging Latino communities in rural poultry-processing towns in the South. He moved to Chatham County, N.C., to focus on the growing Latino community in Siler City, where the city’s population has grown from about 2 percent Latino to about 50 percent Latino in the past two decades.

While reporting, he founded the boys’ soccer team at Jordan-Matthews High School and just three seasons later, the team won the state championship, the first predominantly Latino team to do so in North Carolina. In “A Home on the Field,” Cuadros, himself a son of Peruvian immigrants, wrote about the team, the boys, their families, himself and immigration in North Carolina. He also wrote about the transformation of Siler City, where in 2000, hundreds of people attended an anti-immigration rally led by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, but by 2006, thousands marched through the streets in support of immigration reform.

Cuadros’ book was the 2009 selection for Carolina Summer Reading program, which encourages all new students to read the chosen book and then participate in small-group discussions when they arrive on campus.

Documentary filmmaker Mark Landsman, who produced and directed “Thunder Soul” about music educator Conrad O. Johnson, heard Cuadros discuss the book in a 2008 NPR interview and was drawn to the idea that the field in the book’s title represented more than just soccer to Cuadros and the players.

Team photo of Jordan-Matthews High School soccer team.

The Jordan-Matthews High School soccer team. Photo courtesy of NUVOtv.

“I was struck about the metaphor of a field,” Landsman said. “It represented a sense of presence, a sense of visibility, a sense of belonging that this town’s immigrant population previously had not felt.”

Landsman contacted Cuadros to discuss turning the book into a feature film. A script is currently being developed.

In the meantime, the Jets had a strong season in 2012, falling in the state semi-finals. Many of the players were returning and Landsman asked Cuadros if he could film a documentary about the season.

Landsman agreed. Filming for the documentary series took place over 33 days and focused on Cuadros and five key players whose personal stories are told in greater detail. Some of those players are mentees of UNC’s Scholars Latino Initiative, which helps Latino youth from under-resourced high schools learn about and prepare for college. One of the featured students has applied to Carolina and while the documentary is filmed, he is waiting to see if he has been accepted. Players from the 2004 championship team that Cuadros wrote about in “Home on the Field” also are featured in the documentary.

“What you are really seeing here in both these works, in “A Home on the Field” and in “Los Jets,” is the great Latino Migration of the 21st Century kind of played out step-by-step, over some time, and I think that is unique and interesting,” Cuadros said.

Cuadros hopes the documentary will show a true depiction of young Latino males and will provide a deeper understanding of the immigrants who are here and how they are integrating into society. Landsman says there is something quintessentially American in the story of Los Jets, even if not all of Cuadros’ players were born in the United States.

“I hope that people will watch Los Jets and feel like they see themselves in these boys,” Landsman says, “that people will recognize the common ground that is there.”

The UNC premiere of “Los Jets” will be held Friday in the Nelson Mandela Auditorium in the FedEx Global Education Center on UNC’s campus. A reception before the screening will start at 5:30 p.m. and the screening will be at 6:30 p.m. The television premiere will be July 16 on NUVOtv.

By Natalie Vizuete, University Relations

Published June 23, 2014.