A Team Without Borders
Exploring the bonds between a cross country team on the US-Mexico border and the town it’s defined by
You must know first that Juan Gonzalez is proud of Eagle Pass, Texas. He accepts everything about this place, an American border town on the other side of Piedras Negras, Mexico.
The good, the bad, the everything. Gonzalez will stand by it. Like a wall.
When acts of violence or crime happen here or across the border -- events used to paint bleak pictures about regions like this, or about the perceived threats to American culture -- sometimes there’s no control over what others will say. Sometimes those voices drive all the way up to Washington, DC.
But there’s no changing Gonzalez’s mind, because that’s not his reality. The 44-year-old is a married father of two boys, a science teacher to many at the local high school, and a respected coach to one of the best cross country teams in the state.
Gonzalez has created one of the best programs in Texas over the last 11 years, helping the Eagles reach the University Interscholastic League cross country championships in six of the past seven years, in the state’s highest public school classification, often leading his athletes to gain full scholarships to colleges of their choice. He keeps these successes close, pinning every college jersey he receives from a graduate inside his home and high on a wall.
“I’ve noticed that every year we go, we get noticed a little more,” he said of traditional Texas powers. “The elite coaches in Texas are finally getting to know us and recognize us.”
Still, no one does any favors for Gonzalez. He achieves this sustained success despite a limited budget, second-hand resources, and declining facilities such as the track, which floods with any significant rainfall. And even through all of that, Eagle Pass is a complexity. The high school sits just two miles from the Rio Grande, the physical border between the United States and Mexico.
Sometimes it doesn’t just feel like two different countries, but two worlds apart.
While the cross country team has formed an idyllic bond behind its band of runners and has raised the idea of what success means in a small town with limited means, there remain moments of stillness in the air with each passing day.
Border Agents patrol the obsolete trails of morning runs, police officers stalk the halls within the high school, and the breathless silence between the next big security threat is always understood in a place where drugs, crime, and human trafficking remain ever-present.
It will never be what other programs are, and this town will never have the manicured trails and beautified lawns of some training grounds to the north, but Gonzalez and his runners never quite worry about that fact, either.
Eagle Pass is their town.
“The kids do not have a chip on their shoulder,” said John Cox, the third-year principal of Eagle Pass High. “No one is telling our kids or athletes they’re limited. We don’t use the term demographics with our kids, because we don’t need to. …We send kids to Columbia and MIT and Yale, and our goal is to send them further.”
And that’s just the start of this story, Gonzalez said.
Cox will tell you again. He doesn’t see Eagle Pass High, which is one of two secondary institutions within Eagle Pass ISD, as any different than any other school in the nation.
“The negative perception of the border towns -- it’s something that I believe we overcame many years ago as a district,” he said. “We’re just proud and successful.”
But while the thought is fair — Eagle Pass students ultimately take the same standardized tests and have to meet the same requirements of any other school in the state — the reality is different.
In 2010, conflicts between multiple drug cartels in Piedras Negras and the Mexican Army forced a lockdown across the Rio Grande and forced the Border Patrol into high alert, marking one of the first and only times Gonzalez has ever had to cancel a morning practice due to safety concerns.
“Gun shots,” he said. “Yeah, and you could hear the pow-pow-pow-pow. Our high school is maybe about a mile from the river. And I just didn’t want to risk it. I didn’t want to risk a stray bullet coming across. Because we practice at 6:30 in the morning and it went on for hours according to the news.”
In August of last year, a teacher at C.C. Winn High, the neighbor school in Eagle Pass ISD, was arrested, alongside 24 others from Eagle Pass and Crystal City in a drug raid.
According to the International Organization for Migration, which keeps track of issues regarding human trafficking, 255 fatalities have been recorded over the first eight months of 2017, too, up about 15 from the same period last year.
“You hear things happen, but you kind of just get used to it,” said Monica Rivera, a senior with hopes of running in college one day. “If you’re not in the wrong place, nothing is going to happen. I don’t think or worry about it.”
Rivera, for one, isn’t someone who’s concerned with all that talk. Her family still has a house in Zaragoza and she sometimes takes long runs on Sundays in the town. Gonzalez, though, winces at the thought of it.
“Nothing has ever happened to me or I’ve never seen anything,” she said. “That’s why I can’t really picture it.”
But there’s no doubt the school is under the constant shadow of the government’s watchful eye on the border. It brings a certain security. Nine police officers patrol the halls every day, with some cleanly marked in blues and others not. All are fully armed.
“They’re here to protect, not to enforce,” Cox said. “They are here as a community service.”
Over time, though, that service has become routine. Students don’t glance twice at officers, mostly because it’s old hat to see more than a handful a day walking the halls.
Cox, an Ohio native, can seem like a bit of a hard-nosed disciplinarian as he towers over most students, but deep down he’s the son of missionary who follows the Bible and can quote his favorite passages. He never passes up an opportunity to advocate for his school.
“Here on the border between Piedras Negras and Eagle Pass, Texas, we are definitely shining bright academically at the school,” he says.
Over the years, sports have also begun to lift the school’s radar to those around the state, too. Specifically, cross country has blossomed into an annual qualifier for the state championships at Old Settler’s Park in Round Rock.
Cox has seen students’ passion to compete in cross country grow dramatically, from when he was assistant principal to when he was elevated to principal three years ago.
“I have a quote from ‘Braveheart’,” he said. “‘People follow courage, not titles.’ Just because somebody has the name coach doesn’t mean their athletes will perform for them. It takes a special coach to inspire their students.
“Coach Gonzalez has been an inspiration to our program from the first moment we first went to state.”
Still, long ago, Gonzalez was just a student, too.
Gonzalez’s journey from athlete to coach started nearly 30 years ago, on dirt roads and miles and miles of asphalt around this small border town in Texas.
He was born here. And he can still remember when it all started. His love for his roots is why he’s proud of the place where he grew up.
But Gonzalez’s relationship with Eagle Pass isn’t perfect.
He was born on January 17, 1973, and grew up in the Rosita Valley, an impoverished neighborhood on the south side of town. A casino from the Kickapoo Tribe later helped engineer commercial opportunities in the area, but in the late ‘80s -- when Gonzalez was a teenager and navigating adolescence -- things were much more difficult. He was one of four siblings in his family while his parents, separated at the time, worked hard to earn a stable income in the area.
For a time, Gonzalez stayed with his mom, who worked a minimum wage job that only paid about $16,000 annually. Eventually he made the decision to move to his grandparents’ house, who lived a few miles north in Seco Mines. To pass the time, he would collect baseball cards, stamps, and even rocks, stashing his most important finds in remote areas of his bottom drawer.
“It was tough,” Gonzalez said. “But I went through it and survived.”
A younger Gonzalez -- who didn’t realize his talent in track and field until a failed bet between a friend -- sometimes ran or biked to practice from his grandparents’ house. It ultimately instilled a work ethic that built character and an immense talent which afforded him opportunities beyond Eagle Pass.
“I knew my parents weren’t able to give me the funds to go to college,” he said. “When I started running, I really really fell in love with the sport. I knew this was my ticket out of Eagle Pass. And that was my motivation.”
Gonzalez became one of the school’s best runners — arguably among the select few in its history — running times that generated enough interest to warrant a full scholarship to Texas A&M-Kingsville, a school 200 miles southeast and far enough away to experience a different slice of life. He was recruited by Andrew Johnson, whose wife was an alumni of Eagle Pass.
Gonzalez ultimately ran four years for the program in both cross country and track, hitting PRs of approximately 25:12 in the 8K, 19:56 for four miles, and 14:58 for the 5K. In the spring, he ran everything from the 800 meters to the steeplechase.
“They taught me the sport, they taught me how to run and how to plan,” he said.
Yet, with a year left of college, Gonzalez came back to Eagle Pass to help coach a summer camp. And as fortune would have it, his 13-year-old sister was running at the time.
He put her through a small program, teaching her the intricacies of training, long enough that he saw her PR in one of her final races.
“Watching her succeed, it made me fall in love with coaching,” he said.
Gonzalez will never forget that moment, in part because he considers it his entry into coaching. But when he also looks back, he also sees the sacrifices and the difficult choices that were thrust upon him. In some ways, he’ll never forget those, either.
While his parents did eventually work toward a greater life -- his dad became a certified nurse and his mother earned a quality job as a secretary -- that past life still resonates.
And often, when he looks at his program and sees situations much like his, it shakes him.
It seems too familiar.
Sergio Hernandez understands the role hope plays in his life. But in a lot of ways, it often can be a burden. Hardly a day goes by when he doesn’t feel a sense of responsibility for his family and for his future.
Because the 17-year-old, a junior at Eagle Pass, is mostly forging a path on his own.
He lives in town without the support of his mother, Almaguerra, a photographer in Piedras Negras who was recently diagnosed with cancer, and his four siblings, who are stretched across Texas and Mexico.
For a few years, he’s been living with his uncle on a quiet suburban street just a few houses down from Gonzalez. Some days, he feels the pressure involved with carrying that notion around.
“[My siblings] always try to tell me stuff,” said Hernandez, who wants to become a civil, electrical, or mechanical engineer someday. “They want me to be better. And I don’t know. I feel like I’m very important to them.”
There’s certainly a reason for that. Hernandez has an opportunity to achieve an honor that most of his siblings weren’t able to do in the United States. His talent in running could provide him an opportunity to go to college for free.
“Also running fast, I never knew until high school year that you can get scholarships and stuff,” he said. “That’s a big factor that makes me want to become the best.”
While he’s currently the team’s No. 2 runner, Hernandez finished last year as the team’s No. 1 option and scored its highest finish at states. There’s a good chance he could surpass the team record holder in the 5K, Roland Cantu, who ran 15:27.90 in 2011.
Gonzalez knows runners like Hernandez don’t come along every day, but he also realizes the challenges. How will Hernandez manage without the backbone of family?
“In reality, athletics is one way he has a chance to get out and make a career for himself,” Gonzalez said.
At times, Hernandez is pulled by that sacrifice.
“Maybe waking up one day and knowing she’s not there anymore and I didn’t get to see her,” he said of his mother. “I kind of use that for motivation for why I run, too.”
The weight of expectations sometimes bring to life the tragedies of others. Hernandez often thinks about his older brother, who went missing in Piedras Negras a few years ago. He hasn’t been found by his wife or his mother since.
“I pray every day for him to be found,” he said. “Because I do miss him. Just the path he chose didn’t help him all that much.”
And yet Hernandez continues to channel all his aspirations through this talent. He says he won’t stop until he’s done all that he can to get the most out of himself.
“Every time I’m by the side of the river,” he said. “I look to the other side and I feel like there’s people watching us or wanting to be like us or wanting to have this chance.”
An opportunity to chase a life beyond Eagle Pass is an idea that Gonzalez has given to most within this program.
He did it. So why can’t they?
“I want to go to Adams State (Colorado),” said Rivera, the senior and No. 1 runner on the girls team. “I know it will be hard. But I want to improve as a runner.”
It doesn’t matter that this team is primarily of hispanic descent, or that many — though not all — come from backgrounds of lesser socioeconomic means. The borders that exist within this region are just that. Borders. They haven’t silenced any dreams.
“For being statistically one of the poorest counties in Texas, which makes us one of the poorest counties in the country, they say poverty doesn’t lead to success, but the things that take place at this high school are amazing,” said assistant principal John Byrne, who works hand-in-hand with the athletic department.
“What we accomplish academically and athletically, you talk about lack of resources, we do things here. Some high schools can’t fathom how we operate with the budgets we have in a lot of our things.”
Homar Perez, a junior and the boys team’s No. 3 runner, has often seen the contrast between perception and reality. He knows the moment his team travels east toward Houston or north toward Dallas, some will look at his team differently.
The runners on Eagle Pass are bilingual. They communicate as easily in English as they do in Spanish. Last season during a meet, he said, a competing runner got in his head.
“He basically said something mean and that I wouldn’t catch him,” he said. “And I don’t know, that got me really mad. I never caught him, but something came over me then, you get me?”
When Perez was younger, those examples would cut deeper, though as he’s gotten older, he’s become wiser. He often thinks of Psalm 91, a passage in which God is described as a refuge, the core message being, “No matter what, you’ll pull through because God is always there with you,” said Perez.
His mother often tells him, ‘Dios con miso quien contra mi,’ which means ‘When God is with me, who’s against me?’ It has also has Biblical roots, from Romans 8.
“My mom and dad have raised me to be really respectful,” he said. “They raised me so that anytime I meet someone, anyone, whether I think they’re mean or I think they’re nice, no matter what it is, I have to go up to them and shake their hands and introduce myself. I try to assume the best of everyone the first time I meet them.”
To many, compassion is often fueled with competitive desire.
“It drives me when you see us coming out there, small team, we’re not the richest school out there,” said Nathaniel Kowalski, a senior and the No. 1 runner on Eagle Pass’ boys team. “You see these bigger teams with everything. And you beat them. So now you say, ‘I’m a big dog.’ If I can take them out. Their resources don’t mean that much. It’s about motivation and drive.”
Gonzalez is standing 100 feet from the Rio Grande and pointing to Mexico as two Border Patrol agents idle in their cars underneath the international bridge tying two countries together.
He’s standing on his team’s cross country course, and it’s perhaps one of the most unique in the nation. There is no border wall here. The river ultimately divides these countries.
Just beyond the stretch of the Rio Grande, pedestrians in Mexico wash clothes along the banks. A train moves slowly on an orange connector bridge. Gonzalez talks about the carrizo, or high brush, to the left, where illegal immigrants have sometimes hidden in the dead of night and waited until cross country meets to come out, blending into the crowd.
“They would walk out and blend in,” he said. “And on the other side, sometimes when my kids were playing soccer in tournaments, they would come in and mingle.”
This stretch of course, part of a 1-mile loop on the Municipal Golf Course of Eagle Pass, is a long patch of grass that soon rounds inward and again back toward the start. Gonzalez has likely wheeled this course more times than he can count. He knows how runners cruise through it.
“It’s fast,” he said. “It kind of mimics the hills of the state meet, which is why [some teams] drive six hours to catch it.”
But there are special traits here unlike most others in the country. Because the Rio Grande separates these two countries, there is no physical wall at the line of demarcation. Instead, black vertical slabs of bollard-style fencing jig and jag upward, nearly a half mile from the border. This is America’s current border wall, the one that Donald Trump wants to change.
It runs west and lines the edge of another park before ending near unstable terrain and beginning again. Entrances exist more than a handful of times. Most are open at all hours of the night. But Border Patrol agents are never far away, either, sitting in their white and green patrol trucks.
Before driving through a particularly absent area of terrain inside the parameters of the wall, Gonzalez goes up to a Border Patrol agent to ask for permission to access the road. The terrain feels and sinks like sand, but Gonzalez says it’s fine dirt.
“I don’t know if you’re familiar with moon dust,” he said. “Your foot sinks in a good three or four inches depending on how dry it’s been.”
His team sometimes runs this obsolete path on Sunday runs, often in groups.
Long ago, while a female runner was running alone, a van followed her up a narrow stretch of path that was obstructed by brush. It was a moment of panic, some remember, though nothing came of it. Since then, Gonzalez said, he’s warned his group of girls to run in packs and avoid any scenario where an unenviable situation could take place.
“We avoid that,” Rivera said.
But ultimately, the program’s athletes find a way to train. They run on narrow embankments and cruise along the asphalt and long linear roads of Eagle Pass.
When Gonzalez first started in the fall of 2006, he vowed to find softer ground for his team to train on, so he drove 2nd Street before finding a service road beyond a canal.
He made a 180 degree turn in his white Jeep Wrangler and kept going before a stretch of crushed dirt parallel to the water presented itself.
About three-quarters of a mile long, he had found another route. Like always, he made the best of his town’s terrain.
“Our group runs this pretty often, it’s a great way to get some soft surface under their feet,” he said.
On a recent Friday morning, four groups of athletes in different pace groups took to the roads at 6:30 AM to complete a 5-mile run. Some wore glowing wristbands for drivers to see.
The packs remained tight, with most jogging through silence as the sun rose.