L.A. activist has a lot on the ball besides soccer
Raul Macias, left center, coaches some of his young charges including goalee Jose Morales, right, at Taylor Yard near the Los Angeles River.
Raul Macias built a strong political base on the playing fields of northeast Los Angeles. Even his critics acknowledge how far he has come.
The Los Angeles city councilman wanted to preserve an old bridge. He called "Don Raul." A young politician running for office needed votes. He walked up the stairs of a dreary beige apartment and paid a visit to "Don Raul." The environmentalists wanted the city to build a park on an old rail yard. They got a well-placed assist from "Don Raul" -- the soccer guy.
Some who know Raul Macias, 55, say he deserves the title "don" not just as a simple sign of respect, but because of the political clout he built on an unlikely base: the soccer fields of northeast Los Angeles.
In the late 1990s he took over a ragtag team of children and wound up creating a league. He scraped for soccer fields, and with every field he got -- like a politician plucking up a district -- his ranks grew.
"There's two things that Latinos on a regular basis attend," said Miguel Luna, a former Heal the Bay coordinator who joined Macias as environmental program director last year. "Church and soccer."
Macias began to turn out big crowds for all manner of causes.
"There's nothing like bringing 300 uniformed kids and their parents to make politicians salivate," said Lewis McAdams, a poet and environmental advocate for the Los Angeles River.
There were critics. But even the jibes testified to how far Macias had come.
Some called him "El Cardenal," comparing him to an important religious figure -- though not in a good way, he says. After all, it wasn't just any soccer coach who, fairly or not, could also be likened to a cacique -- a town boss.
Macias, a native of Guadalajara, arrived illegally in Los Angeles in 1976. He washed dishes in Chinatown and became a garment worker. Then, taking advantage of his training as a fabric maker in Mexico, he started his own textile factory. He became an American citizen.
One day, about a dozen children appeared at the factory. They asked if Macias would sponsor their soccer team.
Macias said yes, on the condition that they show up in their uniforms each Monday and report on how they did.
The first week, the report was not so good: a 7-0 loss in Lincoln Park. Over the next two months, lopsided losses piled up.
"You guys don't try. . . . I wouldn't stand losing so much!" a fed-up Macias said one day, raising his voice.
He showed up at their next practice and saw the coach, lounging on the grass with a beer. He took over the team. With an old white van, he drove the players to available fields. He started recruiting volunteers, and pretty soon he had more players and more teams. He named the budding league Anahuak, after an Aztec word for a place surrounded by water.
He butted heads with city Parks and Recreation officials, trying to get fields for games. When one official ran him and his players out of one park, Macias said he asked the man how he could get a permit.
"He told me, 'First, you have to go to school to learn English, and later you try to teach the kids something more positive,' " Macias said, carefully repeating the 11-year-old words in English. "I felt somewhat disrespected. But I started worrying a lot about learning English."
He met a retired teacher and activist, Nancy Smith. She not only helped him with his English, she introduced him to people she knew at City Hall. "We teamed up," said Smith, 64. "He called me 'the Godmother of Anahuak.' He needed someone to go to City Hall, to advocate for the children."
Macias invited city officials and politicians to parks to make the case for more soccer fields. He would hold meetings beforehand, telling soccer kids and their parents that they needed to show up because officials "want to see a good number of us there." Hundreds responded.
Macias and his league finally got permits to bring soccer to the grass fields of Glassell Park. For the first time, his growing league had a regular place to play.
Macias said he could not get over how he and his soccer players applied political pressure -- and got results. Smith told him he should think about his players and their families in a broader context. Maybe soccer was a base for something bigger.
In 2000, Macias and his growing legion entered the debate over what to do with Taylor Yard, an abandoned railroad site in Cypress Park.
Robert Garcia, director of the City Project, a nonprofit that advocates for open space, was a major figure in the fight to turn the yard into a park.
"Raul has 2,000 children, and people are more likely to support direct services to children," he said. "When I need numbers, I go to him."
The conflict began as a fight against warehouses, then turned into a battle over creating a park, then into a debate over what kind of park it would be. It dragged on for years, with countless meetings. Macias exhorted and organized parents and uniformed children to show up to as many of them as possible.
"I was saying, 'Look, there's going to be a meeting, or a protest. You have to come or there won't be any games.' So people went, " Macias recalled.
Next, he organized get-out-the-vote efforts by league parents and coaches for Latino politicians, including for Antonio Villaraigosa's first run for mayor. When Ed Reyes first ran for the L.A. City Council, Macias invited families to soccer offices for dinner events called "Pozole con Votes."
As more people offered to help -- politicians and their aides, environmentalists, social justice advocates, counselors, artists, gang counselors -- the soccer league began to morph into a social service organization, providing courses in nature conservancy along with violin lessons for the children.
"He never told the community, 'Come to this meeting because we want to tell you about water issues," said Luna, the former Heal the Bay employee. "People would say, 'I don't have time for that. I'm busy working.' Instead, he would say, 'We're going to be giving away free soccer balls and a football clinic.' Everyone would show up. And that's when he would say, 'And by the way, we should also be talking about this.' "
In 2006, Taylor Yard opened as a 40-acre park, with half of it devoted to wetlands and nature and the other half to recreational space. Four soccer fields were built, including a large synthetic grass field with floodlights. Anahuak basically became the steward of the fields.
Some people referred to it as "Anahuak park" or even "Don Raul's park." As he watched his 15-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter practice one evening at Taylor Yard, Jesus Espinoza, 44, an immigrant from Sinaloa, Mexico, said he was thankful for the park because it provided him and his children a distraction from the death of his wife, and their mother.
"I didn't ask Don Raul for help, but after my wife died, I spoke to the man. He said, 'You should have told me. I could have helped you,' " Espinoza recalled. "He said, 'That's what the league is for. It's your league.' "
Not everyone is a fan.
Julio Castillo, now head of northeast L.A.'s Fox Soccer League, used to sell drinks and snacks at Anahuak games. He said Macias booted him out after he organized a tournament in a field at a park in Cypress Park. He said Macias asked him who gave him permission to play in "my park."
"The more successful you become, the more criticism you get," Macias responded wearily.
Reyes, the councilman, said Macias helped turn mostly poor Latino residents into community activists.
"I think Raul loved the notion of seeing the underdog succeed . . . and treated with respect," Reyes said. He said Macias helped him keep an old bridge over the junction of the Arroyo Seco River and the L.A. River. Some residents and environmentalists argued it should come down, to allow the sun to shine on the junction and green up the river below. Reyes argued that the bridge was used by working-class residents.
Reyes said he was outnumbered at the first community meeting to discuss the issue. Then he called Macias. At the next meeting, Macias and more than 100 uniformed children and their parents were in attendance. The bridge stayed, and Reyes said it was clear the sudden turnout stunned the opponents.
"They were tripping out," Reyes said. "You could tell they were off-balanced."
But Macias said he has paid a price. The once prosperous textile factory he owned with his wife is shutting down, and Macias makes most of his money by renting out two homes he owns. His marriage has also ended -- a victim, in part, Macias says, of his activism and his long hours devoted to the soccer team.
"I came to this country for the American dream. And with my wife, I accomplished it," he said with a wan smile. "But sometimes when you get so focused on something, you neglect things."
He never took a salary for his Anahuak work, but the organization has applied for grants so that he can be paid about $30,000 a year. He works out of a spartan office in Highland Park. Athletic gear -- including yet-to-be-inflated soccer balls, which he casually gives out to parents -- lies bundled in corners.
Anahuak is "not just about soccer anymore," Macias said. "It's about making good citizens. That's why I feel satisfaction. Doing this has made me feel that I have a mission."
That mission can take him and his league well outside the neighborhood.
In April, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority -- whose parent organization is the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, one of the region's largest landowners -- donated $100,000 to Anahuak for a yearlong program in which children and their parents could learn about nature through activities such as hiking.
Months later, members of the soccer organization showed up at a hearing to voice support for the Westside group, which had declined to extend a lease for a Chabad preschool in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Alfredo Gonzalez, an associate director of the Nature Conservancy, said recently he was at a National Latino Congress event at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown L.A. when Macias walked in.
"Everyone's giving him a hug and a high-five. Raul's a bit of a celebrity," Gonzalez said. "Here's an immigrant who gets and understands the game of politics in the U.S., the state and L.A. And he has the chops, where people say, 'It's not a bad idea for me to be introduced to that guy.'
"He's playing in the big leagues now."