The Aztecas Youth Soccer Academy uses soccer to reclaim the lives of at-risk Latino youth who struggle with gangs, violence and poverty in Santa Cruz County and the Pajaro Valley. Our players develop the life skills to thrive on and off the field: with each other, with family, and with community.
We build character and community, one goal at a time.
The Aztecas Youth Soccer Academy was started in 2008 by life-long Pajaro Valley resident Gina Castañeda. As a community organizer, probation officer, and soccer player, Gina was convinced that a combination of consistent soccer training and mentoring would provide a bridge to success for at-risk youth on probation for gang/violent offenses. Gina’s tough upbringing - and the origins of the Aztecas - are described in an ESPN documentary “The Save.”
Santa Cruz County’s Probation Department has been the perfect incubator for the Aztecas program, and continues to be its foremost supporter. Santa Cruz Probation has been a leader in juvenile detention reform since the late 1990s, and serves as a Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) model site for the United States. The Aztecas Youth Soccer Academy has been a major success story in the Department’s ongoing efforts to 1) provide alternative pro-social programming for youth in lieu of incarceration, and 2) find effective ways to correct the disproportionate number of Latino youth in custody.
Watsonville experienced a record number of homicides in 2014, representing the majority of homicides in Santa Cruz County. Most suspects identified were young, local Latino males with gang affiliations. Per capita, the homicide count for the City of Watsonville (the population center of south Santa Cruz County) exceeded that of the larger City of Salinas, which has been much better known for gang-related criminal activity (nationalgangcenter.gov 2015) . The need for local intervention services to stop gang-related violence and its far-reaching negative impact on the community has existed for many years, but is now excruciatingly clear and acute.