A rural high school. A sports team composed of underdogs from society's margins. A selfless, motivational coach. A state championship won by defeating schools with more money and resources. It sounds like the stuff inspirational sports entertainment is made of—and now, for Los Jets, it is.
This is the story of Siler City's Jordan-Matthews High School soccer team, Los Jets. For more than a decade, they've been guided by Paul Cuadros, who serves as coach, bus driver, fundraiser, guidance counselor and father figure to the teen boys who have worn the team's blue uniforms. The majority of the players are Latino, born into families drawn to Chatham County's promise of work in chicken slaughterhouses and on construction sites.
Last fall, a Los Angeles-based television production crew chronicled the 2013 Los Jets season, delving into the lives of several players in addition to capturing the sights and sounds of robust tackles and breakaway goals. The result is like a reality-TV version of Friday Night Lights, the cult drama about Texas high school football.
Backed by Jennifer Lopez's Nuyorican Productions, Los Jets airs this summer on NUVOtv, a cable channel for which Lopez is chief creative officer that specializes in English-language entertainment for Latinos. After premiering at a preview gala this Friday at UNC-Chapel Hill's Global FedEx Education Center, with producers and subjects in attendance, the show begins airing in July.
At the center of the series is Cuadros, the show's answer to FNL's Eric Taylor. In the late 1990s, Cuadros, a Peruvian-American, came to North Carolina on a grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation to study Latino migration to the area. A professor at UNC's journalism school, he has written for TIME and The New York Times. But as his wife, Leda Hartman, says in an episode of Los Jets, mentoring Latino teens as a soccer coach has started to take precedence.
"Coaching is not a paying job, but it may very well be his life's work because of all the things that are layered onto it," she says. "It takes up nearly all of his free time during the season, and a lot of it even outside the season."
In his 2006 book, A Home on the Field, Cuadros chronicled the early years of Los Jets, beginning with the founding of the school's first soccer team over the resistance of an entrenched sports culture that hadn't come to grips with the kicking game that all the new kids were playing—or, more fundamentally, with the changing demographics of Chatham County. Cuadros' arrived at a time when anxiety over Latino settlement was so high that a notorious professional racist, Klansman David Duke, was invited to speak at an anti-immigration demonstration. This episode, and the community's reaction to it, is a major part of Cuadros' book, which culminates in a state championship for Los Jets.
In 2008, a Los Angeles filmmaker named Mark Landsman heard Cuadros discussing his book on public radio. He called Cuadros and began a conversation that lasted several years. "I immediately recognized the underdog tale, my favorite kind of story," Landsman says. "I love sports films, and films about overcoming adversity. I saw that in Paul and in his boys."
Eventually, Landsman optioned the rights to A Home on the Field. He's working with a screenwriter to develop the project, which would focus on the events in Cuadros' book. The story's movie potential is obvious: "Friday Night Lights meets Stand and Deliver," as Cuadros says. But getting it financed is no easy task. For starters, Cuadros notes that a dramatic film with a predominantly Latino cast is a tough sell to traditional Hollywood financiers, who tend to see Latino audiences as a market for "car chases and explosions."
As a way to build interest in a feature film, Landsman pitched a television documentary to NUVOtv, who responded by commissioning a multi-part series instead of a single film. "They knew there was a lot of story there," Landsman said.
In three episodes that were made available to the INDY, we encounter half a dozen key members of Los Jets. Of particular interest are the contrasting personalities and fortunes of the team's star striker, Darwin Ramirez, and the team's captain, Cirilo Rangel. The latter is a large, rugged and inspiring teammate who struggles away from the field—with his English, his schoolwork and his girlfriend—while the former, personable and academically successful, has assimilated into the prevailing culture of Jordan-Matthews.
One fortuitous sequence crosscuts between Darwin being crowned homecoming king at halftime of a football game and the more socially marginalized Cirilo and his girlfriend having a painful argument in a distant corner of the stadium.
Landsman's crew stayed in residence from September through November, and returned for additional shooting. Omar Morales, who joined the crew just weeks after graduating from UNC and moving to Los Angeles, is a Jordan-Matthews alumnus. As a freshman member of the 2004 state championship team, he had more than a passing interest in the film.
Morales admits he was initially wary of how the show would portray his community. "I didn't want to see another film about a Latino being in high school and not graduating," he says. "I'm very proud of this, but I was a little paranoid that I would be part of something that I would not be happy with. In a doc series, what's shot and what's seen can be manipulated."
But having watched the finished product, Morales is impressed. "It's a just representation of what Siler City is and what it's about."
The June 27 world premiere of Los Jets at UNC's FedEx Global Education Center begins with a reception at 5:30 p.m. before the 6:30 screening, followed by a panel discussion with Cuadros, the filmmakers and members of Los Jets. The event is free, though you must RSVP at facebook.com/events/1428755270734810/. The show begins airing on NUVOtv (channel 900 on Time Warner Cable) on July 16.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Pumped up kicks."