The first time Pedro Ayón and Serafín Andrade played soccer together, they were in an ICE detention facility in McFarland, California. For a few hours a day, during designated ‘yard times,’ they were allowed to be outside — as long as there was an officer to escort them through the hallway and another to watch them outdoors. Games were five on five, or six on six — whoever wanted to play, and have a brief escape from the inhumane conditions of detention. 

Inside the Golden State Annex, Ayón would help detainees who didn’t speak English with medical requests, translations, letter-writing, and commissary purchases. “I was a leader. I did what I could to help out … because there’s a lot of need,” he told El Tecolote. But after six months, guards woke him in the middle of the night with the news that he, Serafín, and a group of others were being transferred. “[It was] out of nowhere,” Ayón says. “That’s how unjust and unfair the system is. They’re cruel.”

Pedro Ayón poses for a portrait after CCIJ’s Soccer Tournament for Liberation, hosted in Alameda on April 30.

The next morning, Pedro was moved to the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility in Bakersfield, another private, for-profit prison. And though Golden State was far from pleasant, he had gotten used to it. Mesa Verde was smaller, the hallways were too narrow, and the windows were permanently fogged — so you couldn’t actually look outside. The food had insects, the walls had black mold, and those who worked cleaning the dormitories made only a dollar a day. “It was one of my worst experiences,” Ayón remembers. But he played soccer there too, with Serafín, and with the Mesa Verde guys. It’s what kept them united — and hopeful.

In December of 2021, four months after winning his case against deportation and over nine months after first being detained by ICE, Ayón was finally released. Around the same time, some 300 miles north, Ricardo Vasquez Cruz was freed after being alone in Yuba County Jail — the last immigrant detained there before Yuba shut down, was repopulated, and then finally terminated its contract with ICE.  A year later, Serafín Andrade was released from Mesa Verde. 

Last Sunday, April 30, Pedro and Serafín played together for the first time since being detained. The two of them, Ricardo, and others formerly detained by ICE at Mesa Verde, Golden State, and Yuba played together, outside for real, at the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice (CCIJ)’s inaugural soccer tournament for liberation. Their teams, the SúperLíderes and Los Campeones, were two of sixteen to compete for the small prize of a trophy and the main goal of ending immigrant detention in California.

Members of CCIJ and immigrant rights activists pose with folks formerly detained by ICE—including Pedro Ayón, Adan Castillo, Eladio Cortes Morales, and Jose Rubén Hernández Gomez after CCIJ’s Soccer Tournament for Liberation on April 30.

In Alameda, the morning of the tournament began with a gray sky. Players walked beneath a thick sheet of clouds and fog to registration tents at the Oakland Roots fields, and then sat down on the grass to get ready. Before tying their cleats, some raised socks over shin guards, and others over ankle monitors. They warmed up, passed, dribbled, and juggled. By the end of the tournament’s first round, the sun was out. 

Laura Duarte Bateman, the CCIJ’s communications manager, ran around the fields with a scoresheet, pausing to say something to a volunteer referee before pointing a team in the direction of their match. “Es un sueño hecho realidad,” she said later through a megaphone — a dream come true, a day of joy after years of advocacy. 

Laura Duarte Bateman, the CCIJ’s Communications Manager, speaks during the halftime show at CCI Just Goals Soccer Tournament for Liberation in Alameda on April 30.

It was during the CCIJ’s campaign to Free the Yuba Eleven, after a conversation with Ricardo Vasquez Cruz, that Duarte Bateman first had the idea for a tournament. On one of their phone calls, Ricardo mentioned that he loved soccer — and Laura, who had grown up playing in Colombia, loved it too. From then on, she would check the score of the important La Liga games before every visit to a detention center, to give the people she met with something to speak about besides the trauma of being detained. For a lot of them, Laura said, “soccer symbolized hope.” Ricardo once told her the only goal he still needed to score was against ICE. 

When Ricardo, the last of the Yuba Eleven, was finally released, Duarte Bateman and Edwin Carmona-Cruz, the CCIJ’s community engagement director, began organizing the competition. It was to be part fundraiser, part community building event. All adults who supported the mission of ending immigrant detention were invited to fundraise for an entry fee and play — and teams started pouring in. There was one from Pangea Legal Services, an immigration advocacy group; there was ArsenVal, playing in honor of Valerie Zukin, the CCIJ’s late director; there was Corinthians–a team of friends from Bicis del Pueblo named after the Brazilian great Socrates’ club team; Leftwing FTP (For the Pueblo), who play in a feminist, anti-capitalist soccer league in Berkeley; Lxs ACABadores, a team of educators, organizers, artists, and formerly detained folks; and more. In total, the tournament brought together over a hundred players and raised over $10,000 to fund the CCIJ’s efforts. 

Members of LeftWing FTP (For the Pueblo) stand on the sidelines of their first game at the CCIJ’s inaugural Soccer Tournament for Liberation in Alameda on April 30. Photo: Mara Cavallaro

“The most important and most necessary work that our community needs is the unfunded one,” Carmona-Cruz told El Tecolote. “A lot of funders [and] foundations typically have … a lot of strings attached. People that have had some sort of contact with the criminal legal system — they’re carved out from receiving that type of service. It’s unrestricted funding [like this] that helps us support [everyone], that helps us support people who want to go on a labor strike … [or] a hunger strike.”

Several of the SúperLíderes, for instance, had been in state prison before they’d been in ICE custody, and had been part of huelgas inside detention before they were released. Adán Castillo, who was part of one of Mesa Verde’s labor strikes, listed the horrors that prompted the protest: wages of a dollar a day and cuts to work on top of that, institutional refusal to provide medical care unless someone was bleeding out or had stopped breathing, unhealthy, insect-ridden food, and refusal to remove black mold, even when people fell ill. “The whole system — ICE — is made to discourage the person, to traumatize the person, and to …  break that person emotionally, mentally, and physically,” Ayón says. “We [went on strike because] of the inhumanity, and the unfairness that they put every single one of us through.” Officers intimidated and insulted strikers, threatened them with solitary confinement, and separated them from each other. All of this while Mesa Verde made money, because private detention centers are for profit. 

Last September, Castillo was released, but inside, the strikes continued — and so did ICE’s violence. 

This February, after a 10 month labor strike, ICE violently transferred four hunger strikers out of Mesa Verde and into a detention facility in El Paso, Texas — where they were threatened with force feeding. The day of the transfer, 33 other detainees at Golden State and Mesa Verde had also been fasting — they hadn’t eaten in 20 days — but the next day, the Mesa Verde strike ended, out of fear of more transfers. Now, the hunger strike is on pause, because “folks were really violently retaliated against,” to the point that they couldn’t participate and still survive, Duarte Bateman says. “We’re waiting to hear back from folks inside detention [to] follow their lead.”

Between Mesa Verde and Golden State, some 190 men remain detained. And while Los Campeones and the Súper Líderes celebrate their freedom, they keep fighting — on the field and off — for those still inside. To be free, playing with the people they had been imprisoned and detained with, was a reminder that everyone deserves joy, dignity, and liberation. “[Today] I feel the support around me,” Castillo said. “I was treated like a person.”

Eladio Cortes Morales and Pedro Ayón celebrate after a goal by Eladio for the SúperLíderes, a team with several players formerly detained by ICE, during CCIJ’s Soccer Tournament for Liberation on April 30. Photo: Mara Cavallaro

Pedro, Ricardo, Adán, Eladio, Jonny, Fredy, Anthony, Melissa, Esperanza, Carlos, Rudis, and Victor — the SúperLíderes — made it to the semifinals with over a dozen group stage goals, but lost, honorably, to the tournament champions, whose team name says it all. Free Them All, F.C.

1 / 8