Shooting at an elusive goal
Priscilla Meza recently attended a brother's kindergarten graduation in California's strawberry-and-spinach country instead of wearing the green, white and red uniform of Mexico in a soccer exhibition against the United States.
It's not the way the one-time waitress from Watsonville, Calif., hoped it would go. But this is where the dream of playing in the 2011 Women's World Cup quietly faded away.
While 336 players representing 16 teams excitedly prepare for one of the biggest moments of their lives, Meza exemplifies the hundreds of others who must regroup after failing to reach a goal they had spent years striving to achieve.
"It's painful to watch them play," she said during halftime of the U.S. match Sunday. "I feel like I belong on that field right now."
I've done things I never thought I could do if it wasn't for that dream of representing Mexico at the World Cup. There have been so many obstacles that I've had to leap over. Sometimes I run right into them.Priscilla Meza
Meza, 24, was one of 10 Mexican-Americans who auditioned to play for El Tricolor in the World Cup, which starts June 26 in Germany. It's not uncommon for Mexico to have Americans with Mexican heritage on its roster. The only other time Mexico qualified for the Women's World Cup, in 1999, it had 13 Americans on a 20-player roster.
But Meza wasn't groomed on the clean-cut fields of suburbia under the supervision of youth coaches like the other Americans on the Mexican team. Meza has lived on her own since age 16, her parents having been convicted of multiple drug offenses.
Complicating her attempt to play was the fact that she has legal guardianship of a teenage sister, Cynthia, and is in the process of becoming the legal guardian of her 5-year-old half brother, Oscar.
"I've done things I never thought I could do if it wasn't for that dream of representing Mexico at the World Cup," she said. "There have been so many obstacles that I've had to leap over. Sometimes I run right into them."
Her saga began in Culiacán, the largest city in the state of Sinaloa, in northwest Mexico. Meza's grandparents reared her and many cousins while their parents went across the U.S. border like so many other immigrants trying to improve their lot.
Meza, then 8, rejoined her parents in San Diego in 1994. Her mother, Rosalinda, had just given birth to another daughter while incarcerated for selling drugs.
"When she got out, he went in," Meza said of her father. "That was the last time I heard about him."
The extended family eventually settled in Watsonville, a pastoral community along the fertile central California coast. The setting was anything but tranquil for a child. As many as 15 relatives crammed into their small home, while continuing the family drug trade.
"You had to wake up in the morning and watch where you were stepping," Meza said.
She escaped the commotion through schoolwork until discovering soccer and volleyball in seventh grade. Meza joined the teams to stay away from home. Rosalinda didn't approve because she thought soccer was for boys.
Meza's topsy-turvy world became more complicated during her sophomore year of high school when Rosalinda returned to prison. Relatives asked the teen to leave Watsonville with them, but she didn't want to quit playing soccer. Meza moved into a room with a girlfriend.
She couldn't commit to club soccer while working and attending high school. But a Santa Cruz, Calif., coach who saw her potential kept at her. Hillel Rom encouraged Meza to consider college even as she barely graduated high school.
"I don't think I could have made it this far without him," she once said. "He always said, 'We're going to get you out of here, we're going to make something of this.'"
It was Rom who insisted his protégé attend an open tryout for FC Gold Pride of the Women's Professional Soccer league two years ago. Coaches invited Meza to camp over players with Division 1 college pedigrees, but ultimately cut her.
She returned to waitressing but was invited last year to the Mexican national team camp. The 5-foot-9 defender had a promising start playing in a tournament in Asia.
It also meant facing a financial hardship because players aren't paid for their time at camp. Meza went through her savings and felt the tug of being away from her siblings.
"There's not one day I wasn't thinking about them while down there," she said. "I don't regret trying. But they are everything to me."
Meza has five half brothers and half sisters from her mother. Cynthia, the one born in San Diego after Meza arrived, is her only full sibling. Meza secured Cynthia's legal guardianship from an aunt two years ago to give the teen the stability she herself never had.
"Ever since I moved out, I told myself I need to get her to be with me," Meza said. "I can't always think about myself."
Now she wants to rear Oscar, although her mother is scheduled to be released from jail by the end of 2012.
Perhaps the juggling became too much, as Meza was forced to skip some training camps to attend to family affairs. She also had residency issues to overcome that added to the difficulty of playing for Mexico while living in the United States.
Now, Meza needs a job to support her family and her dream to represent Mexico. She plans to coach an under-12 team this summer. She'd like to attend college to study entrepreneurship so she can someday launch her own business.
In the meantime, all options are open. Meza might move to San Jose, Calif., where she would have more job opportunities.
And she hasn't given up hope of returning to the Mexican national team. The obvious question cannot be ignored. Why? Why subject oneself to more hardship for another chance at soccer?
Because, Meza said, she has invested too much time to simply walk away.
There are the Pan-American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, in October, and the 2012 Olympics in London. If Meza can commit to training camps, she has been told she could have a place on the team.
"I know I should be looking to stay at home and provide for my brother and sister," she said. "I hate leaving and not knowing how I am going to pay for rent."
But Meza believes she can make it on the soccer pitch. She needs to believe it.
"I need some closure," she said.