The Aztecas Youth Soccer Academy uses soccer to reclaim the lives of at-risk youth. Through the unifying experience of soccer and the support of peer and adult mentors, Aztecas develop a healthy lifestyle that inspires self-confidence, team building, conflict resolution, and leadership skills.


The Aztecas Youth Soccer Academy works directly with young males (aged 13-20) referred to the program due to gang affiliations, violent lifestyles or a high risk of developing them. Most are already probationers, but about 15% are from local school districts and the local County Office of Education. All players and peer mentors are Pajaro Valley residents, primarily from south Santa Cruz County; more than 90% are from very low income families.


Competitive Soccer /Mentoring

Our core program is a competitive soccer program for at-risk youth in Watsonville and the Pajaro Valley. In 2015-16, Aztecas’ growing program will enroll at least 50 participants, aged 13-20, in year-round indoor and outdoor soccer practices and games.

Aztecas’ top-level competitive soccer training creates the structure around which we provide counseling, healthy lifestyle choices, career support, and educational activities to replace gang behaviors. We promote positive career choices and nonviolent community engagement for our soccer players.

Our youth learn to identify as Aztecas – i.e. successful soccer players and athletes – instead of gang members and drop-outs. We provide each participant with:

1) A team - Opposing gang members play together, as teammates, on every Aztecas team.

2) Counseling, Life Skills - Mentored by older peers and adults, Aztecas learn sportsmanship, conflict resolution, and anger management at soccer practices, games, and team meetings year-round – on and off the field.

3) Probation Help - Aztecas are actively engaged in soccer practices/games during (high-crime) evenings and weekends year-round; probation violations decrease dramatically.

4) Extracurricular Activities/Community Service - Aztecas youth and families participate in many classes/events (gang interventions, health classes, field trips). Mentors and coaches promote transitions to college, vocational training and jobs, and participate with Aztecas in service activities that ‘give back’ to the community.

5) Consistent/Intensive Physical Exercise - Coaches and mentors train and encourage youth several hours each week, individually and in team play.



Aztecas players and peer mentors are trained as trainers, then give back to the local community as coaches/trainers in a week-long soccer camp for 50 Pajaro Valley youth, ages 8-15 years old. The first-ever Aztecas’ Camp was held this summer, with rave reviews. 





Head Coach and Aztecas Founder Gina Castaneda speaks to groups large and small about ways to prevent and reduce gang-related violence in communities nationwide, using Aztecas players’ successes as prime examples. Her insights are based on her own gang- and violence-impacted youth, as well as her 20+ years as a community organizer and juvenile probation officer. Aztecas peer mentors and advisors also speak to community groups, including youth groups.