Maria Martinez barely spoke English and was only 11 years old when she emigrated from Mexico to New York City in 2011. Two years later, she joined South Bronx United, a nonprofit group that uses soccer to change lives.
The 18-year-old recently was in Berlin to receive the 2020 Laureus Sport For Good Award as an ambassador for South Bronx United, putting her in the same conversation as fellow Laureus Award winners Argentinian soccer star Lionel Messi and American gymnast Simone Biles.
“South Bronx United literally changed my life,” said Martinez.
Martinez’s mother made the decision to leave her hometown, Mexico City in search of better opportunities in New York. Martinez said her mother wanted to ensure she received quality education, even if it meant starting fresh in a foreign land.
Martinez entered the United States without any friends, siblings or relatives besides her mother. She had a few words in English and a love for soccer. She attended Public School 155, William Paca in Harlem, when a teacher noticed Martinez’s passion for soccer.
After seeing Martinez so invested in soccer and constantly playing with boys during recess, she introduced her to South Bronx United, which had a reputation for engaging at-risk, immigrant and first-generation youngsters through their passion for soccer.
The nonprofit organization, established in 2009, currently serves more than 1,000 boys and girls aged 4 to 19. South Bronx United also provides college prep, mentoring, health and wellness promotion, leadership development and immigration legal services.
South Bronx United has reached thousands of young people over the past 11 years, said executive director Andrew So. They’re proud of their record: 100% of high school seniors in the organization have graduated high school and 94% have enrolled in college. It has also helped 33 young people, nearly all of whom were previously undocumented, receive legal permanent residency.
“The difference between SBU and other teams is that SBU cares about their players,” said Matinez. “They also help them in their personal lives.”
Martinez credits the organization with helping her learn English when she joined. With the help of South Bronx United’s college prep and tutoring, Maria has been accepted to eight colleges –Keuka College, Niagara University, Cazenovia College, Iona College, Mercy College and Saint Peter’s University– with scholarships.
Martinez still hopes to receive an acceptance letter from her dream school, Marist College, where she would be able to compete in Division I athletics by joining the school’s soccer team. At Marist, Martinez plans to study criminal justice.
Martinez plays right wing, molding her game after her favorite player, Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo. On the field, she makes runs toward the box to score goals. She also retreats back to assist the midfield.
After college, Martinez wants to play professional soccer and create a nonprofit organization to help people who were in her same position. She also wants to create an organization that aids animals and finds them a permanent home.
As she is nearing the end of her playing stint with SBU, Martinez decided to take initiative and apply her efforts to helping the program’s youth. On Saturdays, she referees recreational team games. She also coaches the team on Mondays and Friday. When she’s not helping the program, she attends tutoring on Mondays and Wednesdays.
SBU places kids into two squads, either the recreational or travel team. The better players are normally placed on the travel squad after proving their talent in a couple games.
Martinez’s stint on the recreational team was short. After scoring multiple goals in just a couple minutes, one of the coaches knew she was not on the right team.
“OK, go to travel,” one coach said.
Playing on the travel team affords Martinez opportunities that she previously did not have. Tournament trips to places like Long Island, Boston and Pennsylvania have allowed her to meet new people in new places, she said.
However, no trip was better than traveling to Germany to receive the 2020 Laureus Sport For Good Award, she said. She represented SBU along with So and Mohamed Konate, an 18-year-old ambassador from the Ivory Coast.
While sick at home unable to attend tutoring, Martinez received a surprise phone call from So. So told Martinez they would soon be on a flight to Germany to receive an award.
“We are going to Germany,” So said. “We are getting an award for soccer. I am sure you are not sick anymore.”
Before the ceremony on Feb. 17th, So and the ambassadors attended a press conference with gold medalist sprinter Michael Johnson and gold medalist swimmer Missy Franklin. They also spent time with German World Cup star Jens Lehmann, Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton and Spanish soccer legend Carles Puyol.
Martinez, So and Konate were awarded the honor at Verdi Music Hall in Berlin the next day, in a room filled with sports celebrities and with English actor Hugh Grant serving as master of ceremonies. Grant, along with Laureus Academy Chairman Sean Fitzpatrick, greeted South Bronx United on-stage at the ceremony.
Martinez received a jersey from Kosovare Asllani, a Swedish professional soccer player who plays for Spanish Primera División club CD Tacón. In July, CD Tacón will be known as Real Madrid Femenino(Female), after being bought by the Spanish juggernaut last September. Real Madrid men’s squad is Martinez’s favorite soccer club.
Meredith Cazales, Martinez’s teammate at South Bronx United for seven years, said having Martinez in the program formed a sisterhood she never had before.
“Maria can always put a smile on someone’s face, whether it is on the field or in the classroom,” said Cazales. “She is the older, little sister I never had.”