News & Politics

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.

Photo Credit: Juriah Mosin /

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.

My junior year’s when I started getting scholarship offers, and that’s when it hit me: “You know what? I can go to college.” Before, I never thought I could go to college.

Becoming a Coach

Ochoa: How did you decide to become a teacher and a coach?

Borja: I had a really good teacher when I was in 6th grade, and then my high school coach also encouraged me to be a teacher. My coach made us into a family. We were probably the smallest team in the whole school. We only had seven to 10 guys and four to five girls. Every Friday night before a big race, we would go to his house, and we would have pizza or a spaghetti dinner. I was like, “This is cool. I don’t ever want this to end.” We never ate family dinners at my house, but that became a family.

When I was at Arizona State, I said, “I’m going to start coaching.” I would drag my son to the practices at Carl Hayden High School, where I became an assistant. We became one of the best teams in the state. Once I got my BA, I became a teacher at Isaac Middle School and I started coaching there. Eventually I took the head coaching job at Alhambra. I just finished my eighth season there. We won seven regional championships, five district, and three state titles.

Coaching at a middle school, I specifically selected runners out of all my math classes: “Hey, vámonos, vámonos, vámonos. Va a correr.” They weren’t even runners, but they were hungry, angry, and aggressive—out of control. They had no role model, and that’s who I was. All those kids were looking for acceptance because they’re also the mojados. They were getting picked on a lot.

I said: “I’m going to start a running team. How many of you want to do it? We’re going to race from here to 51st—two miles each way. I’ve got a brand-new pair of Adidas shoes in the trunk of my car. If you beat me, they’re yours.”

“No, no, no cierto.”

“Sí, me ganan, they’re yours.”

So then about 15 ran down the canals. They didn’t beat me, but I still ended up giving those shoes away. Then, from that moment on, they’re like, “When are we going to have practice?”

They became really good, and I took four of those kids to the high school. That’s the team that won the three state championships. I had them for five years. Now two of them are going with full scholarships to college. And a lot of them want to be teachers. They say, “We want to coach.” I think they want to give the same experience that they were given.

Ochoa: What are the benefits you see from participating in sports?

Borja: For our kids, this is the only way they’re going to go to college. I mean, the two boys who I have ready to go to college, they never would have made it. The “no pass, no play” school policy is what keeps them in school. If there weren’t sports, these kids would never be in school.

The mentality that I instilled in those kids is that we were one. I didn’t have a No. 1 runner. I didn’t have a No. 7 runner. I had seven No. 1 runners. It wasn’t about having one kid win as an individual. I told them, “We’re going to win as a team.” In the races, they would stay together and finish. Even my seventh runner would win, and then next time my fourth runner.

They knew that you’ll have more success if you’re a team than if you’re an individual. That guy that wins the division, nobody knows about him. But, everybody knows the school that wins. We said, “We’re going to become the school that wins.” At practices, none of them backed off. Often you go to practices and the No. 1 runner is way out there. Your No. 4 or 5 are wherever. That’s not a team. It’s not a family.

A lot of teams are starting that same philosophy. But if your kids cannot see themselves as a family, it’s never going to happen. Those teams that have 70 kids, are they ever going to have a little family gathering on Friday night? No way, there’s too many of them. But I can coach seven or eight kids. Four of those kids were always in my house. They’d walk in like it’s their house: “Hey coach, good morning.” We became a family. That’s something that I learned from my coach. If you want to succeed, you want to become a family.

Ochoa: Why is building a family so important for the work that you do?

Borja: You know the cliché: “Nobody gets left be-hind.” Families are so strong. So many things happen within families, and they’re still a family. Normally, even rumors can destroy a team—little stuff like that. Rumors make families upset and you may not talk to a family member for a couple of days, a month, but you’re still family. They’ll still come together. We have team dinners. This is where we’ll talk. We don’t have to talk about running. We’ll talk about what’s going on in their lives, how are they doing. I will learn a little bit more about their own families. The same thing happens in my classroom. I try to build a sense of family because I think it’s important to have a place where you belong and where you’re wanted.

‘Families Are Running Scared’

Ochoa: How is the political climate in Arizona and the passing of anti-immigrant legislation like SB 1070 impacting the students and their communities?

Borja: The whole immigration status is really hurting a lot of them. When I went to college, I just got a student ID number. Now, these kids need a Social Security number. That’s keeping a lot of the kids who are very qualified and could be very successful here in the United States from getting a college education. Not only that, but we have so many people just living in fear. People are moving to different states, and families are also moving back across the border.

Families are running scared. Kids are leaving in the middle of the school year. I had three families that left because their parents were deported.

All of my senior cross-country runners got scholarship offers, but because they’re not all legal they didn’t get full scholarships. Only the ones who got full scholarships are going on to college. Next year the cost of junior college is going from $96 a credit hour to $317 a credit hour [because Arizona Proposition 300 requires undocumented students to pay out-of-state tuition]. These kids can’t afford that.

So, that’s where we find ourselves. Hopefully, things will change. Everybody’s waiting for the Dream Act to go through. We talk about it—especially the high school kids. Everybody’s waiting because they’re seeing themselves at the end of the road: “This is it for me. If nothing goes through, I’ve got to go back.” At least in 8th grade, they think, “OK, I have four years. I can wait four years before I can become legal.” Everybody’s waiting for Obama to sign something.

I try to tell the kids, “No matter what’s out there, stay out of trouble, do what you need to do right now, and hold on. Just wait. Hopefully, something good will happen.”

Because most of the kids I get are undocumented, a lot of them say: “Coach, there’s no point. I’m a senior y no tengo papeles. What am I going to do next?”

I say, “Let’s not use that as an excuse. We’re no different from anyone else. We’re still going to compete with the best; we’re still going to do what we can.” I don’t want to hear excuses because you can be successful con papeles o sin papeles. That’s what I try to make them believe.

Ochoa: How do you stay strong in your commitment when you know that there are so many barriers that we don’t have control over?

Borja: I just stay positive. I have no control over what’s going to happen in their lives. I have no control over politics. I have no control over what’s going to happen with them in the future. I’ve got to teach them today. I’ve got to prepare them for tomorrow. I’ve got to get them motivated to survive today. If I can motivate them together to wake up in the morning and be excited about going to school, about going running, about going to work, maybe today will be a good day. That’s all I can offer them.

Ochoa: What do you think will happen to your students who don’t have papers?

Borja: They’ll probably go work with their dads in some landscaping job, getting paid under the table whatever they do. It’s just too bad because they are great kids. But, hopefully, they don’t forget to fight. Hopefully, they learned enough to keep moving forward.

Insubordination or Solidarity?

Ochoa: Your friend Miguel Aparicio—who co-coached the Alhambra High School team with you, shared the expenses for uniforms, and devoted hours to the students—was undocumented. After he was arrested by ICE in 2009, why did the high school fire you?

Borja: It was insubordination. The athletic director told me to tell Miguel not to come around [because of his immigration status]. He said that I wasn’t following school policies. You know, Miguel wasn’t making any money from coaching. As a matter of fact, he was spending money on those kids. But when he tried to make it legal and put in his volunteer application, that’s when his application was rejected. That summer he had been stopped for running a stop sign, and that’s when it became an issue that he wasn’t legal.

The athletic director said I wasn’t doing my job because I wasn’t protecting the kids. So I asked him if Miguel was a criminal.

He said, “It’s not up to me to decide, but obviously you, as a coach, your job is to protect the kids.”

“I am protecting these kids. I know this man. This man has been family for so long that I can’t do that. If he comes over to my house, I’m not going to kick him out.”

“You’ve got to tell him.”

“No, I’m telling you straight to your face that I’m not going to do it.” “Well, then, I have to fire you.”

One day the athletic director followed me and saw Miguel outside the school grounds. He ran up and said, “I saw you already. Come into my office on Monday. We’ll talk.”

“No, I need to know now. We have a big race tomorrow. If I’m fired, I need to be fired today. I don’t want to go and take these boys up there and do all this for the school if I’m going to be fired.”

“No, we’ll talk on Monday.”

So, we went to the biggest invitational in Arizona and then Monday’s when he gets rid of me.

Ochoa: What do you think was driving the athletic director’s actions?

Borja: I really don’t have any idea. The athletic director was also Hispanic, and he did mention, “Me and you are alike.”

I said: “Me and you have nothing in common. Just because you’re brown and I’m brown does not make us alike. I fight for kids who don’t have anything. I look out for them. You don’t. So, don’t tell me that we’re alike. You’re the one who started this whole thing. If you would have not pushed beyond what you’re supposed to, things would have been fine. There was no crime being committed.”

Ochoa: How did the students and parents respond when you were fired?

Borja: The minute I got fired, the athletic director called the boys in for a meeting and told them that I was no longer their coach and that he had a coach for them already. The boys texted me and we met at my house.

I told them, “I can’t coach you guys unless something happens.”

The boys said, “Coach, we’re not going to run without you. We don’t care about the state meet. We care about our coaches.”

“It’s not fair that we’ve come this far and you guys lose the state championship because of me. There’s no point for you guys to back off.”

“No, no, no. We’re all family, and it’s either all or nothing.”

Then they asked, “What if our parents get together?”

“Go ahead. I know we’re a small group, but it doesn’t hurt.”

A group of about six parents went to the office, and the principal said, “I don’t have time for you guys. If your kids don’t want to run then they won’t run.”

That’s when the parents asked me, “Well, what else can we do?”

I said, “It’s getting to the point that you guys don’t have power, and I don’t have power, so let’s get more people involved.”

They had just done an article on these boys being the top team in the state. So I called the Arizona Republic reporter: “Can you run a story about these boys?” He ran the story and that hit the school and the district. The district investigated why I was let go, and it took them two weeks to reinstate me as their coach. I think it was the pressure of parents and the media because La Voz, the Arizona Republic, and Univision were involved. That’s when everybody said, “We’ve got to get those boys to compete.” So, then they hired me back, and we went on and won the state championship.

Ochoa: What happened to Coach Miguel?

Borja: He was deported. He was incarcerated because he ran a stop sign and then he didn’t have papers. He was in jail for about a month. His lawyer fought to buy him some time. But we knew it was a tough case because he only had his grandmother here. He wasn’t married; he didn’t have kids. I guess that made it easy for them to say, “You really don’t have anything that can keep you here.”

The last time I talked to him, I thanked him for everything. He helped me and helped these boys. It wasn’t just a cross-country friendship; it was a lifelong friendship that we had. We ran together in high school and college. Right now, he’s in Guanajuato, Mexico. He said that he hopes he gets an opportunity to come back because he doesn’t know that life over there.

Ochoa: And the athletic director, how do you think he felt in the end?

Borja: I think he found himself in the wrong. I think he realized that we were not pushovers; he dealt with the wrong people. We were such a small group, but we were powerful within the running community. We had a lot of support from other teams, other schools, just people around the community who knew running. So, I think he finally realized, “I made a mistake with this small group of Mexicanos.” Because they think that Mexicanos are afraid to go to meetings and to take a stand. He thought, “Parents aren’t going to organize.” He was wrong.