Natalie Lagunas fulfills parents' dream

Javier and Marcela Lagunas came to the United States for the same simple reason people have been coming for generations: It offered opportunities for a better life. It is a quintessentially American outcome that their oldest daughter found the avenue to just such opportunities through a sport that connects one culture to another.

Natalie Lagunas is exceptional. Hopefully the time is coming when stories like hers are no longer exceptions.

A Northwestern sophomore and a reserve on the women's soccer team, Lagunas is the first member of her family to attend college. She's also the first member of the family born in this country. Marcela, her mother, immigrated to the United States with her mother from Mexico City when she was 7 years old. Javier, her father, came with his father from the Mexican state of Guerrero when he was 17 years old. Marcela attended school here but put aside any thoughts of college when she got a job at the San Fernando Courthouse, where she remains a court services assistant. Javier went immediately to work when he arrived and is now a warehouse supervisor.

In and of itself, the journey of the parents is a success story. But having gained citizenship and started a family of their own, they wanted more for their children. College wasn't so much an aspiration as an expectation.

"Everything that they have earned in life they have worked their butts off for," Northwestern coach Stephanie Foster said of the Lagunas family. "Their family values are just inspiring. They are a type of American family that is inspirational. It's like a new American family. They've worked for everything and they're always happy and focused on the positives and what they have, not what they don't have."

Growing up in a population as ethnically diverse as that in Southern California, Lagunas wasn't particularly aware of a Hispanic identity, at least not in the sense of it being any sort of unique identification. She was Mexican-American, sure, but so were people all around her. Elements of the culture were part of her life at home -- the food and the music were understandably areas of particular affection for a kid. Her parents told her about her heritage and where they came from, but her first visit to Mexico came only when she played for the nation's under-20 national team. It wasn't until she got to Northwestern that her family's story began to take on new meaning and inspire her curiosity.

At a school where the undergraduate student body in 2010 was 7.2 percent Hispanic, she may have been among friendly faces, but they weren't faces that looked like hers.

When it comes to college soccer, that is distressingly true of just about every program.

There are exceptions, particularly in areas like California, but watch enough women's college soccer and chances are you will start to notice a distinct lack of Hispanic representation. It seems almost as easy at times to find a British or Canadian student-athlete studying abroad as it is to find an American student-athlete of Hispanic background.

It's not just anecdotal. The 2009-10 NCAA Student-Athlete Race/Ethnicity Report found that only 5.7 percent of Division I women's soccer players were Hispanic, or 470 out of 8,302 players. That was a greater percentage than team sports like basketball, field hockey, lacrosse and volleyball but it lagged well behind the percentage of Hispanics participating in men's soccer (9.8). For comparison, the U.S. Census Bureau lists the percentage of the general population that is of Hispanic or Latino origin at 16.3 percent. Such as it is, the good news is that the numbers are gradually growing. A decade ago, just 2.6 percent of women's soccer players were Hispanic, compared to 5.5 percent of men's soccer players.

Without playing on stereotypes, the numbers are difficult to reconcile with a culture in which soccer has been ingrained in the mainstream for generations, both among immigrant populations in this country and throughout Latin America. There is a reason the Rose Bowl had a decidedly pro-Mexico ambiance when the United States and Mexico met recently in the men's Gold Cup final. A reason that was part of Lagunas' experience growing up.

"I know in my family, and in a lot of Mexican-American families, soccer is like part of the culture," Lagunas said. "It's not even sport; it's kind of a lifestyle. It's kind of always been for me just something I love, watching games. And when we watch the Mexican national team play, that's very exciting for our family, and we get together and watch it together. It's something that I've grown up in, enjoying watching the game with my family."

But where soccer seemingly provides a natural opportunity for young Hispanic women from limited economic means to go to college, the results say women like Lagunas are still underrepresented.

"I think in women's soccer it has been slow to emerge," Foster said of minority participation in general. "I think Latino is surprisingly the slowest because it's part of their culture. They live and breathe football. In Mexico or South America, that is the sport. So it's a little surprising, although I think women's sports in general in those parts of the world are just newer. I think women doing a lot of things is newer in those parts of the world. I studied abroad in Mexico, and I had to play soccer in a skirt where I lived. It just wasn't something girls did, and I think they're just a little behind us [on gender issues].

"We're starting to see it more and more, and we're seeing it on the international level -- Brazil is amazing, Mexico is getting better, Colombia is better now."

The slow growth of women's soccer in Latin America certainly doesn't explain everything as it pertains to participation rates among American women of Hispanic backgrounds in college soccer. And as Foster noted, it's difficult to know whether it's more an issue of culture or resources in any setting. Any reluctance rooted in old mores notwithstanding, there are plenty of Hispanic girls from first- or multi-generational American families playing youth soccer in Arizona, California and throughout the country. But where individuals like Lagunas succeed, too many others drift away. It's a drain that is hardly unique to young Hispanics and, as Lagunas notes, perhaps has more to do with economics and education than ethnicity.

"I think school plays a big part in it," Lagunas said. "I think my parents were wonderful in the fact that they were always on top of me about getting good grades in high school, throughout all grade years. That was their No. 1 stress with me, instead of just playing soccer. So I have friends who are Latinos who are playing in college, and I also have friends who aren't playing in college. But it's mostly because they didn't put as much emphasis on their academics, which is kind of unfortunate because in this country it's really important to have both."

Neither area was ever an issue for Lagunas. A passion for soccer that was embraced and encouraged by her parents helped her fulfill both her own dreams and those a mother and father had for their children. The emphasis on education enabled her to choose between the likes of Northwestern and Harvard when she did so, the first step on a path toward law school, an interest sparked by watching her mom work in the county courthouse.

"It's really exciting for them because they obviously didn't go to college," Lagunas said of her parents. "So for them, this is just a whole new experience for me. And it's also just an accomplishment for them, in the fact that they've let me have this amazing opportunity to be here and to be playing soccer here. And to be getting an education they never had an opportunity to have.

"My mom loves wearing her purple."

It's not easy and it won't happen in every case, but every time Lagunas pulls on a Northwestern jersey, she's living out why people come to this country and how it evolves. And the political minefield of immigration aside, it's difficult to imagine an argument that as an individual case, the country Marcela and Javier came to isn't better off for welcoming them. Northwestern certainly is better for welcoming their daughter. Not because the school added to its Hispanic representation but because it added a good student and a person who Foster said makes those around her on the soccer field better.

For young Hispanic women, a land of opportunities ought to include the ground between the white lines of a soccer field. Look no further than Natalie Lagunas to understand why.

Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

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