Three years ago, Gina Castañeda set out to help troubled Watsonville teens find an alternative to the gang lifestyle.
The Santa Cruz County juvenile probation officer founded Aztecas, that puts rival Norteño and Sureño gang members on the same field. On the street, the gang members would claim red and blue, respectively, and fight over their differences. As Aztecas, they wear the matching purple jerseys and shoot for the same goal.
Next month, Castañeda's story will debut on national TV, as she is one of six women from around the world featured in an ESPN documentary series that will air during the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Casteñeda is the only American among the six stories. The other documentaries profile women from England, Spain, the Republic of Congo, Australia and Brazil. Her film is called The Save and was directed by Amanda Micheli.
“It’s incredible," Castañeda said. "I’m extremely honored."
Casteñeda started Aztecas to give high-risk teens on probation a positive social activity.
Watsonville Police Chief Manny Solano said the program has been good for youth in the city, where gang violence is a common occurrence.
“It’s been an incredible model, an example of how you can take rivals and when you have a common goal—pun intended—you can really channel their energies away from violence and to a healthy activity," the chief said.
As Aztecas players, teenage gang members check their rivalries at the door so they can suit up and compete together on the indoor soccer team. Adult mentors teach kids about soccer, and also life skills like communication and conflict resolution.
“She’s changing lives through the program and working with kids who often folks give up on and, in my mind, this is the best gang intervention you can have," said Scott MacDonald, head of the county Probation Department. “We’re proud of Gina and I’m particularly proud of all the other probation staff who have helped her keep the program going."
The film crew has in Watsonville this spring to shoot footage for the documentary, even attending a Watsonville City Council meeting where Castañeda received a proclamation from Mayor Daniel Dodge for helping youth.
HERoics will debut Saturday, June 25, at 7 p.m. Eastern on ESPN2. The series, a one-hour program, also will air on ABC at 4 p.m. on Saturday, July 2—in the middle of the Women’s World Cup. The air dates were announced Tuesday.
The exposure on ESPN is not the first time Casteñeda's program has drawn national attention. She won a Jefferson Award for Public Service in 2009.
Probation department secretary Sharon Tenney was the one who originally nominated Castañeda for the Jefferson Award, because she thought the probation officer was doing good work in the community.
"Then things just started snowballing from there," Tenney said, adding, “she's doing a good thing.”