CARSON, Calif. — Ask any longtime Los Angeles Galaxy fan to tell you about Oct. 20, 2002, and they’ll likely smile and get right to it.
It was the day that Carlos “El Pescadito” Ruiz scored a golden goal in the 113th minute of the MLS Cup final that will forever be etched in the hearts of many. The Galaxy had failed in three previous attempts to win the trophy, but it was the striker born in Guatemala City who started writing what has become a rich soccer history.
“Just seeing the pride in my parents that it was this young kid from Guatemala who helped them lift their first Cup; nobody could ever take that away,” lifelong Galaxy fan Josue Pivaral said. “It’s still a little emotional talking about it.”
He reminisces watching the game at home in Cudahy, California, on the Spanish broadcast of course, and feeling a sense of pride along with satisfaction.
Nearly 19 years later, he’s running around outside of Dignity Health Sports Park flashing a smile that probably mirrored the one he had back in 2002. Pescadito had just autographed the back of his custom-made Guatemala/Galaxy shirt and he was elated.
“I just wanted a shirt that represented my fandom of the Galaxy and my love and respect for my heritage,” Pivaral explained. “This is my small appreciation and it just happens that the last two letters of Guatemala are L.A. It’s perfect.”
Ruiz was in Carson alongside former Galaxy goalkeeper Jaime Penedo as part of festivities celebrating Central American Heritage Night on September 15. Revered former attacking midfielder Mauricio Cienfuegos had his three children attend on his behalf.
What’s unique about those players is not only do they come from three different countries in Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Panama), but they are integral pieces of creating a diverse and passionate community of supporters. Long before the Galaxy acquired global names like David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Cienfuegos and company won the hearts of fans.
In a large Latino community like L.A., the Salvadorian Cienfuegos helped regularly attract nearly 70,000 people to the Rose Bowl to watch futbol in the late ’90s. In 2002, Pescadito burst onto the scene with 24 goals, winning MVP and leading the Galaxy to the Supporters’ Shield (annually awarded to the team with the most regular season points) and the Cup.
So it’s no secret why Central American roots run deep in the club and fanbase, and why a day celebrating it is so special.
“My dad started taking us to the games ever since they brought Cienfuegos, I was 4 years old,” said Jo Constanza, who was draped in an El Salvador flag. “Now I’m a season ticket holder and here I am at 29.”
The heritage transcends and creates that sense of pride Latinos know too well. What’s even more important is the way this celebration came about.
A Los Angeles-based nonprofit, Academia de Futbol Juvenil Amatense (AFJA), brought the idea to the Galaxy in 2019 after founder Steven Levy Cruz won the MLS WORKS Community MVP award. He was awarded a $25,000 check to use for his program which essentially collects new and used soccer gear and raises funds to provide kids in Central America access to cost-free academies. The idea for the group sparked as a way to change the perception and negative connotations of the region in the media.
“Trying to portray our heritage in a positive light using the game of soccer, that’s the universal language of our world,“ Cruz said. “Using the sport to connect the kids with resources like scholarships or just having conversations around community service and that type of stuff.”
Despite the rich Central American ties in the Galaxy’s history, there wasn’t a representation of this magnitude celebrating the heritage, so AFJA decided to curate it themselves. It was an opportunity to combine the efforts and mission of the organization in a way that connected people back to their roots through soccer. The Galaxy liked the idea and moved forward with a successful inaugural celebration. It didn’t happen in 2020 due to the pandemic, but for 2021 AFJA was prepared to make it even better, and delivered.
There were Galaxy alumni, the aroma of Salvadorian pupusas filling the air, flags everywhere and generations of fans that have their own stories from the late ’90s and early 2000s, to young kids basking in the ambiance of something unique.
“To know that we’re not just here to have a great time and to wear our colors and be proud, but also to give back to the kids is something big,” said Constanza, who has volunteered for AFJA. “I think we’ve all grown up doing that — sending stuff that maybe is of no longer use for us but it can be used for the kids out there. To be able to continue doing that and to bring different generations into it is that much better.”
Unlike in 2019 when AFJA hosted on a Saturday, this go-around was a bit more difficult because it was a Wednesday night. Coincidentally it just happened to land on the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month and attracted a solid crowd of 15,341 to a mid-week game against a Houston Dynamo team toward the bottom of the standings.
“Had a couple of moments in the game where I reflected just how far we’ve come as a small, humble organization,” Cruz told Yahoo Sports. “The region of Central America has just been affiliated with so much negativity that as a person of Central American descent it fills me with a tremendous amount of pride to just see people exhibiting their culture, art, food, dance, music, joy and excellence.”
Along with the festivities at the stadium, AFJA also held events throughout the week all over Los Angeles to get people integrated with their objectives. Soccer is of course a focal point and while there are coaches down in San Andrés Itzapa, Guatemala or Los Amates, El Salvador working with potentially the next big star, the other side of the mission is just as, if not more, important. Going back to those communities and actually being part of a social change.
And they’ve been successful in that journey thus far.
While some fans might’ve just seen September 15 as an opportunity to rep their country and take a picture with some Galaxy icons, they, in exchange, ended up learning about an incredible organization and donating to the cause which will help continue the cycle in Central America. That’s huge not only for the exposure of a nonprofit just a few years young, but also on the Galaxy’s behalf for being tapped in with the community’s imprint beyond the sport.
“Paying homage and respect to where we came from so we know where we’re headed,” Pivaral said. “And where we go, we just make a better future for our people and everybody else. That we just leave a profound, lasting impact in the world.”
Cruz’s closing thoughts echoed a similar sentiment.
“This is everything for me, this is my life. I found purpose. Before I launched this organization I was just working a 9-to-5 trying to find something I wanted to dedicate my time to, and this is it,” he told Yahoo Sports.
“I don’t see my life without AFJA and I think that’s because I’m an actual fan of what we do. Behind me there is a community of people that want to see their kids succeed, want more for their children and want to be represented in a positive light — and we’re doing that with this organization.
Pasión, amor y orgullo — that’s Hispanic heritage.
For more information on AFJA, visit here.