LOS ANGELES — Journalist Paul Cuadros traveled to North Carolina in 1999 seeking to report on immigrant poultry industry workers in the South. He stayed as a high school soccer coach who saw the sports program become a boost for its Latino players and a bridge between people.
The documentary series Los Jets, debuting at 10 p.m. today on NUVOtv, follows the Jets of Siler City's Jordan-Matthews High School as they compete for a spot in the state championships and their larger struggle beyond the soccer field.
"If we could do anything about slightly changing the conversation about what the [Latino] community is, who these people are. ... We have exceptional young people. These are their stories and what their lives are really like," executive producer and TV anchor Lynda Lopez said.
She produced the series with sister Jennifer Lopez through the actress-singer's Nuyorican Productions for NUVOtv, an English-language channel with Latino entertainment programming.
Los Jets, directed by Mark Landsman, shows "what it's like for an immigrant kid or son of an immigrant growing up in the rural South, feeling alienated and trying to integrate into society," Cuardos said.
He chronicled his earlier Jets experience and ramifications in his 2006 book, A Home on the Field.
Siler City, in Chatham County in central North Carolina, is a rural town of about 7,800, with a Latino population that grew from barely 2 percent when Cuadros arrived to at least 50 percent today, he said, citing the U.S. Census.
Immigrants were drawn by the prospect of jobs at local poultry processing plants. As their numbers grew, so did the town's reaction, said Cuadros, who teaches journalism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
"People were angry at how the community was changing and how rapidly it was becoming different," he said.
For Cuadros, the idea of coaching soccer was simply a way to pass his off-hours during his year's stay as part of a reporting fellowship. But the U.S.-born Cuadros realized the lack of a high school team resonated with his own outsider experience growing up with immigrant parents in Michigan.
"When I first got [to Siler City], Latinos didn't feel they were part of the school, didn't participate in clubs or sports. They were really strangers in their own school, their own community," he said. "Forming the team helped provide an outlet for these kids."
Winning the state championship in 2004 meant even more.
"'It's the first time I could look at those kids and see they were one of our own,'" Cuadros recalled hearing from non-Hispanic residents.
His adopted town and its dynamics are not unique, he stressed.
"There's so many towns like Siler City across the Midwest and South that are going through essentially the same thing. I'm acutely aware of soccer teams popping up there in which this story is replicated again and again."