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Immigration, Sports, and Resistance: An Interview with Carlos Borja

After Carlos Borja built an award-winning track team, he was fired for refusing to oust his assistant coach, who was undocumented.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Juriah Mosin / Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

In the past few years, a rash of anti-immigrant legislation has pushed school officials into acting like agents of ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement). The toll of these anti-immigrant policies on students and their families is undeniable. Yet the issue is rarely discussed in faculty meetings. Fortunately, there are educators like Carlos Borja.

Borja is a middle school math teacher and a high school cross-country coach in west Phoenix—the same poor, primarily Latina/o community he migrated to at the age of 10. As a former undocumented student who attributes his success to his teachers and his involvement in sports, he has seen the potential of sports—when combined with caring coaching, a collective ethos, and an emphasis on education—to help students navigate the assaults they encounter as undocumented immigrants.

With his friend and fellow coach Miguel Aparicio, Borja spent eight years nurturing a group of Latino runners who earned three state championships. When ICE officials arrested Aparicio for being undocumented and Borja was fired for allowing Aparicio to coach, their students organized and fought back.

Last summer, I talked with Carlos about resilience, reaching back, and working collectively in this current period of siege against undocumented immigrants.

Gilda Ochoa: What was it like when you first migrated to Arizona?

Carlos Borja: I come from a big Hispanic family. There are 10 of us—five boys and five girls. My mom passed away when I was 4. My dad decided to come to the states, but he remarried here. So we stayed with my grandparents in Colima, Mexico. In 1983, my oldest brother brought us oldest ones to Phoenix. We were illegal at that time. He was working almost a minimum wage job trying to take care of us. It’s amazing what he did.

When I thought of El Norte, I pictured all of these glass buildings. You watch too many movies, too many novelas. I never pictured these small, dirty neighborhoods where we moved to in Phoenix. You have no friends, and people make fun of you because you don’t speak English.

Every day going to school was a battle. Because [the neighborhood school] didn’t have an ESL [English as a Second Language] program, we would have to ride the bus with everybody who went to a different school, and then the bus would bring us to our school. We hated that bus ride because we would get picked on the whole way: “Here come the mojados. Here come the wetbacks.” ‘Sports Were the Key’

Ochoa: How did you end up attending college and then becoming a teacher?

Borja: Sports were the key to my success. My older brother, who was in 8th grade when I was in 3rd, started running track. The first time he brought home a trophy, I was so excited: “I want one of those.” From then on, I got into sports. All of my friends were in gangs, but sports kept me out of trouble. With sports, you don’t have time. You get out of school and go to practice. By the time you’re going home, most people are not in the streets anymore. Chicanos, whites, and blacks were in football, and that put me in a group without joining a gang. Our mojados were being more respected because one of their own was in the mix with everybody else.

My high school coach was the main reason I stuck with it. He said, “Why don’t you run track? I heard that you’re a good runner.” He gave me my first pair of running shoes. My coach would pick me up in the summers, and we would train in the mountains and golf courses. My sophomore year, I qualified for state. My junior year, I was ranked in the top 10 in the mile and the 800, and then my senior year, I ended up being ranked third and fourth in the mile and 800.