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Q&A: Soccer olympian opens up about identity and unequal pay in women’s sports

Q&A: Soccer olympian opens up about identity and unequal pay in women’s sports

Editor’s note: This Q&A with American-born Colombian Soccer Olympian and now entrepreneur, Melissa Ortiz, was adapted from a May episode of Radio Teco, the podcast of El Tecolote. Due to space, this interview has been condensed. To listen to the episode in its entirety, visit eltecolote.org/content/en/radio-teco, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

ET: Where are you from and where is your family from as well? 

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I was born and raised in West Palm Beach, FL, and my parents are from Colombia. My mom is from Bogota. My dad is from Cali. I have two older brothers and we were raised in a very Colombian household in South Florida. My parents, actually, they immigrated separately, with their families, like 40 plus years ago to Queens, NY where they met. And then got married up here, lived, lived here. 

Did the rat race, the hustle, and then moved to South Florida. And that’s where we were born and raised. It’s a great place to grow up for sure. I love South Florida. I love West Palm Beach. West Palm Beach 30 years ago was not what it is today, of course. That’s a little bit about me and I lived in Colombia as well. 

ET: I’m sure soccer was very much very much part of your life growing up. How did you get your start into the sport? 

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Yes, soccer, like you said, is very much part of our household, but it’s also part of our culture, like in many countries of the world. For me, it was mostly my mom who wanted to put me in and everything you know as a kid. And my two older brothers loved soccer. They always played soccer and they played other sports too, but I think just because of our culture and you know, watching the World Cup games when we were little and watching Colombia, the men’s team when they would compete when we were really young. I think it really just made us hone in on the sport. I’m a crazy kid, I need to run and play. So yeah, so that’s how I got into soccer. My brothers really pushed me. I was always the only girl in the neighborhood or in the community. And I think I really excelled as a little kid. I played up the year or two years throughout club levels. I loved it, I loved every moment of it. And not only just playing, but I think my brothers really coached me into just being like a soccer fanatic all in. 

Melissa Ortiz. Photo: Sebastian Ramirez

ET: For you, being called up to the Colombian National Team, and playing in Colombia, did you have any of those issues where people said no, you can’t play, you’re not Colombian enough? 

It was never, ‘you can’t play because you’re not Colombian enough,’ because I mean, it’s evident that if you don’t grow up in the country, You’re not going to have the same slang and accents. For me, I can relate to you. English is my first language, Spanish is my second language. My Spanish is great, like I can have a full on conversation, but if I go to Colombia and I’m in a taxi, they’ll know right away that I wasn’t born and raised here. So it’s not like I have a super Gringo accent, but yeah, it’s notable. And it took me a long time to come to terms with it because I used to be super embarrassed. It’s a great thing to have, no matter how good or bad you could speak it, as long as you could speak in language in itself like it’s a beautiful thing.  So I own it.  But with the national team, it was never like that. They knew I was like, there was a few of us that came from the U.S. to play in Colombia on the national team and they wouldn’t relate to me as “La Gringa” because although I have a different accent to theirs. I’m very engaged in Columbian culture. So like from the get go, I was the one dancing in the locker rooms and singing all these Colombian songs. Sometimes it would catch them off guard. They would be like, how does she know this? I feel I was accepted. I don’t want to say it was right off the bat because you have to, obviously, prove yourself as a person and as a player. But I think after just a little bit, I was very much accepted.  

ET: You represented Colombia at the 2012 Summer Olympics. What was that moment like for you? 

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It was the best moment of my life. It’s a feeling, and I get this question obviously a lot, just like many players do. It’s just a feeling of pure pride and emotions, and honor. You’re proud of yourself, for getting to that moment. You know you earned the spot to represent your country. I remember the first time I heard the national anthem. The first time I actually walked into the locker room and I saw my jersey, with the name on it, that was the first time I thought “whoa, like I’m living this”. 

And then, all of a sudden your mind just flashes back to history. You’re thinking about your parents and their immigration story. You’re thinking about your grandparents. And so for me it was one of the craziest and sublime moments of my life. And to be able to sing the national anthem and score a goal and all these things, it was obviously a dream come true for me, but also a moment for my family as well. 

ET: Women have historically struggled with equal pay compared to men’s sports. How was it for you in Colombia in that situation? 

Yeah, it wasn’t the greatest. Not at all. I mean, when I first got down to Colombia in 2009…the differences were astronomical. The fact that I had to pay for my own flights many times.  It’s just not fair. It continues to be unfair. The pay is so bad, which is one of the reasons why I didn’t want to continue playing because I knew it wasn’t something that was sustainable for me personally. Among other things like injuries and my body was just getting taken a hit. You have to weigh it out, is this really worth it and is it monetarily worth it too? And yeah, passion is worth it and like your pride is worth it. But there comes a point in your life when you start to value who you are and you value yourself. And the way that women’s soccer is in Colombia and in South America is truly, they don’t value women. And I don’t want to just say in soccer too. In many industries they don’t value women enough. 

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