With the US absent, Summit County’s immigrant community is enthralled with Mexico’s World Cup success
SUMMIT COUNTY — The old swing set no longer has seats or chains and weeds now peek out of the gravel parking lot.
As modest as the spot may appear, make no mistake — the old Silverthorne Elementary School is a world stage.
The most lively soccer games in all of Summit County occur just a half block down Brian Avenue from the Buffalo Mountain post office.
Here it is not uncommon to see games of 20-versus-20 each week. All locals, and mostly immigrants, pass a multi-colored soccer ball back and forth. It caroms from the foot of a grey-haired, jeans-wearing Mexican grandfather to a Caucasian American girl in the midfield to a 10-year-old boy from West Africa — such as Senegal fan Adam Ba — at the top. The common language between passes may be Spanish, but each player brings his or her own style and purpose to the old Silverthorne pitch.
On a Tuesday evening in late June, 32 locals turned up at the local field. Though there are midfield players sporting dusty, old sneakers and goalies making saves without mitts, there are also the players decked out in shiny lime green and yellow cleats. There are players donning the jerseys of such soccer icons as Cristiano Ronaldo, of Portugal, and Lionel Messi, of Argentina, or of a favorite team such as Chivas Guadalajara, of Mexico.
FUTURE OF SOCCER
And on the sideline, wearing a full United States Men’s National Team jersey, shorts and red-laced soccer shoes, there’s 5-year-old Ian Pelen.
Sitting atop a spare soccer ball while watching the action from behind his tiny glasses, Ian Pelen represents the future of soccer here in the United States and, more specifically, Summit County.
“Papa!” Ian Pelen yells from the sideline. He’s trying to get the attention of his father Kevin Pelen. Kevin Pelen is a former U-17 national team player for Guatemala who, after moving as a teen from Guatemala City to Dillon in the early 2000s, became an all-state player for Summit High. Now he owns and operates Las Escondida Panaderia in Silverthorne.
“Que pasa, Pulisic?” One of the Hispanic players says from the field with a smile. The man’s referring to the jersey Ian Pelen is wearing of the young U.S. soccer star Christian Pulisic.
Yes, Ian Pelen is wearing a U.S. jersey on this Tuesday evening, June 26, in the sunset-shadow of Buffalo Mountain. But four days prior at this same spot, he wore the jersey of Brazilian star Neymar. And during the 2018 World Cup in Russia, it’s Mexico that Ian Pelen, his father and most everyone else here at the pitch is rooting for.
For these immigrants, hailing from places such as Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and even the African nation of Senegal, soccer is a uniting passion.
It’s on this special World Cup week, after Mexico’s stunning win over defending champion Germany, when it becomes clear the desired outcome most everyone here wants: a Mexico championship.
You could see the excitement overflow onto the field the day after the team’s opening victory on June 17.
“There was a lot of intensity that day. I’m not going to lie,” said Salvador Zambrano, a 19-year-old Seattle-born American of Mexican heritage. “There were a lot of people playing really good that day, actually. Everybody was running a lot more. I just feel like everybody was pumped up from the day before.”
Like the majority of players at the field, Zambrano is the child of immigrants. His parents hail from Guadalajara, Mexico.
Thanks to its ski resorts and breathtaking mountain terrain, Summit County may be an attraction for vacationers and second-home owners, but it is also home to tight-knit and hard-working immigrants from Latin America and West Africa.
Michel Infante is one of those immigrants. The Silverthorne resident is the family support program manager for the Family Intercultural Resource Center, or FIRC. Soon after he was born in Los Angeles, Infante’s family moved back to Mexico, where he lived until he turned 11 and emigrated back to the United States.
Infante has worked in Summit County for 18 years and his origin story parallels many others. His uncle worked for Vail Resorts and relayed job prospects to Infante’s father. And so they came.
Infante’s roots, like Zambrano’s, are in the city of Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco. It’s not only a soccer hotbed with its popular club team, Chivas Gudalajara; it’s also one of the more common places Summit County residents of Mexican descent hail from. Other points of origin include Durango, Mexico City and Chihuahua. In Breckenridge, Infante said that there is a particularly large community of people from Oaxaca who work in the restaurant industry.
Wherever they’re from, they all cheered for Mexico in their group stage victories over Germany (1-0), South Korea (2-1) and in their loss to Sweden (3-0). Come Monday at 8 a.m., you can expect many Mexican fans to take their lunch hour for breakfast in order to catch Mexico’s round of 16 playoff match versus the giant of World Cup’s past: Brazil. If Mexico wins, then it’ll be their first time in the quarterfinal round since they hosted the event in 1986.
“Watching that game versus Germany was really uplifting,” Infante said. “It gave us hope about what Mexico could do.”
As for Kevin Pelen and Ian Pelen, the Guatemalans-turned-Mexican diehards are ready for the early start time. Each morning since the games began on June 14, the 5-year-old has crawled out of bed at their home in Willowbrook to watch the live World Cup action at 6 a.m. with “Papa.”
“He kind of hears, he kind of feels when I’m waking up,” Kevin Pelen said. “And he is like, ‘Mom! Where is Dad?’ She says: ‘He is watching the game in the living room.’ Then he goes with me. He just has it in his blood.”
When Kevin Pelen moved here nearly two decades ago, he described the Summit soccer scene as “30 percent” of what it is now. These days, there are more immigrant fans from Latin America and West Africa. There are more Americans who enjoy and follow the sport, and there is much more media exposure and acceptance of the world’s most popular game.
To put it simply, soccer is in Summit County’s blood. And if there’s a heart, then it’s at the old Silverthorne Elementary field.
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.