Dreamer makes a difference in Pilsen

Gonzalez helps bring community together through soccer team he founded in 2013

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Saint Scrimmage is a documentary photo project created by Cami Thomas that highlights the underground soccer culture Pilsen F.C. is part of.

Cami Thomas/Provided Photo

George Gonzalez was 8 years old when he illegally immigrated to the United States from Ecuador.

The home he was coming to was a one-bedroom apartment in Pilsen shared with five family members.

“My parents came here first,” Gonzalez said. “They had to work for a whole year before they could bring me and my brother. They didn’t sleep, they told me.”

Everything was challenging at first, except soccer.

He had played since he was 4, and within weeks of moving to Chicago, Gonzalez was playing with neighbors in the alley behind his apartment building. They would use two garbage cans as a makeshift goal.

If it was safe, they’d make their way to Harrison Park.

“I remember walking from Damen to Ashland and Cermak on my way to school,” Gonzalez said. “There would be morning fights, gangs standing in the corners, all of that stuff. It was bad to see every day, but it became something normal to walk through. Little by little, the parks have cleared up here.”

As the violence in Harrison Park diminished, Gonzalez and his friends would play soccer there more and more. In 2013, Gonzalez founded Pilsen F.C.

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A photo from Cami Thomas’ documentary photo project, Saint Scrimmage that highlights the soccer culture in Pilsen.

Cami Thomas/Provided Photo

Every day after finishing class at Benito Juarez High School, Gonzalez and his teammates walked to the park to practice. They claimed space in their community and sent a message that Harrison Park was a safe place.

Someone with close ties to the soccer culture in Pilsen took notice — the owner of Ochoa Sporting Goods, Pete Ochoa.

“We call him ‘Ochoa,’ ” Gonzalez said. “He’s like a father figure. He would see us every day because his store is right by the park. One day, he said if you guys really want this, I’ll sponsor you guys with uniforms.”

Ochoa Sporting Goods’ storefront is on 18th Street in Pilsen, between Wood and Paulina, steps from Harrison Park. Since 1967, it has been a fixture in the Pilsen soccer community.

Gonzalez’s father purchased his first pair of soccer cleats in America there, and Gonzalez eventually would do the same.

Since the team was established, some of its members have left for Mexico to try to pursue professional careers. Gonzalez made his way to Los Angeles in 2016 to try out for the Galaxy of Major League Soccer.

But one way or another, the core unit that founded the team has made its way back home to Pilsen and Harrison Park. From the time Gonzalez arrived in Pilsen in 2004 until now, he has watched as the violence that once plagued their beloved park has subsided. He believes gentrification has a lot to do with it.

“The way I see it, it’s not bad at all,” Gonzalez said. “For us, [gentrification] creates a little bit of anger, yes, but it also creates peace. There are eyes watching all the time now.”

When Pilsen F.C. was founded, its goal was to provide a safe place for soccer players to play while staying true to the Hispanic roots that lie beneath every block in Pilsen.

This spring, Gonzalez was introduced to Cami Thomas, a documentarian from St. Louis who wanted to help with that goal.

“I was taking a drive around the city, and I ended up passing by Harrison Park,” Thomas said. “I saw these guys playing soccer, smiling, laughing, and I wondered who they were.”

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Cami Thomas shoots photos of Pilsen F.C. at Harrison Park in Pilsen for her documentary photo project, Saint Scrimmage.

Kayo/Provided Photo

What resonated most with Thomas was the idea that belonging to a community isn’t something to be overlooked. Thomas felt she had to help Gonzalez preserve the culture in the community in which Pilsen F.C. is embedded.

Together, Pilsen F.C. and Thomas created “Saint Scrimmage,” a documentary photo project that highlights the soccer culture in Pilsen that Gonzalez and his teammates are largely responsible for keeping alive.

“We’re all immigrants on Pilsen F.C., and we’re protected by DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] now,” Gonzalez said. “We’re trying to show people not all Hispanics are here for gang activity or to sell drugs. We’re here to make this country better, to give a little part of us to this country. That’s the message.”

“Saint Scrimmage” debuted on FTCTV-official.com on June 24. Thomas’ photos also will be displayed throughout Pilsen in a street campaign.

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