These Honduran footballers-for-hire are playing for the Mexican dream

After escaping violence and discrimination back home, a group of young men is building a home together in Mexico — and putting their talent to the test.

High up on the plains near Mexico’s iconic Popocatepetl Volcano, Theo, a Honduran migrant, prays before a match. He and his cousin, Misael, have been hired for one game only by a team in the local Amecameca league; they play for a small fee, with the promise of additional payment if a goal is scored. They are talacheros, footballers-for-hire in Mexico’s regional football leagues.

Pastoral de Movilidad Humana, a watchdog group focused on Central American displacement, estimates that as many as 300 Hondurans leave the country every day, hoping to escape the crush of a depleted economy and gang violence. Misael and Theo fled the caribbean city of La Ceiba in 2015, in search of a better life. They’ve since found a home for themselves in Mexico, and are putting their footballing talents to the test.

Outrunning the opposing team, Misael muscles his way into the penalty box, firing off a goal into the upper corner. As Misael celebrates, members of the crowd howl racial epithets, focusing on the young men’s skin color.

The brothers are Garifuna, an Afrodescendant ethnic group who reside primarily along the Gulf of Honduras, which includes parts of Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Belize. Historically marginalized, the Garifuna speak their own language, and have struggled to gain the same rights as mestizo Hondurans, or people of mixed European and indigenous descent. As tourism developments slowly chip away at their ancestral beaches, more and more Garifuna are being forced to move to the cities.

Casual racism peppers their day to day lives, just like it did in Honduras — but on the pitch is where they feel it most acutely. Throughout the game, their Mexican teammates plea with the referee to do something about the abuse. “Play on,” he whistles.

After a close game, Theo and Misael take a loss and end up missing out on a solid payday. The taunts continue as they walk off the pitch. Even though he earned a bit more for his goal, Misael takes losing hard, swearing he never to lose on this pitch again.

The cousins put in their earbuds and take an hour-long bus ride back to the bustling Chalco suburb of Mexico City, where they live together with their new family of displaced Honduran youths.

The young men live together in a blue apartment building in the outskirts of Mexico City. Some of them are cousins, and others were neighbors back in La Ceiba. But they all came to Mexico for the same reason.

With the surging violence and a dearth of employment opportunities in Honduras, they found they had few choices left. So they left. One by one. Theo arrived first, about a year ago. As more and more young men arrived, the building became an impromptu shelter for Honduran youth on the run. They call themselves “La Fami” or "Los Boys" — a bit of spanglish-tinged Ceiba slang. They rent apartments collectively, at times sleeping three to a mattress — whatever it takes to make it work.

Originally, the boys’ plan had been to go to the U.S. and plead for asylum. But after surviving the harrowing migrant route through southern Mexico, and hearing of anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S., they chose to stay with Theo in the blue apartment complex. Since they had made it so far, they reasoned, they might as well try to make a living in Mexico.

As such, they became part of a growing number of displaced Hondurans eschewing the American Dream for a nascent Mexican Dream.

Misael explains the layout of the neighborhood and house to Duvan, a youth from La Ceiba who just got in the night before. After leaving Honduras, Duvan and his brother, Samir, headed to the U.S.; but after enduring threats from gangs and hearing about other migrants who had been beaten and abused by the Mexican border police, the pair chose to stay and recover before deciding what to do next.

Duvan FaceTimes with his mother to let her know that he and his twin, Samir, made it to Mexico City alive. She cries on the other end of the line. Before his long journey here, he had gone far from Ceiba.

Everything in Mexico is different, he told his mom. The juices, the accents, the sheer scale of everything — all of it fills Duvan with a feeling of wonder and possibility. For now, he needs to find a job and start the process of requesting asylum, like the others did before him. If all goes well, Duvan will be able to realize his dream of playing football all over Mexico — just like Theo and Misael.

Misael, the resident cook, prepares lunch for the others in their improvised kitchen. Although he isn’t able to get the plantains and yucca he needs to cook the Garifuna food their families make back home, he makes do with the local produce. He knows his housemates will lap up whatever he cooks regardless. He doesn’t mind the occasional taco, however.

On the first-floor of the apartment complex, blue-collar Mexican families live next to the noisy Puebla-Mexico City highway. In the morning, many of the building’s residents travel up that highway to massive foreign textile factories where they work. These neighbors look out for the boys, and share food and supplies with them when they can.

Before working as footballer for hire in Mexico’s regional leagues, Theo lived a normal life as a teenager in La Ceiba. But when rising violence in the region cost him several friends and family members, he began to fear that he could be the next to lose his life if he stayed. When he’s alone with his thoughts, Theo longs for the day when he’ll finally be able to reunite with his remaining family members — some whom live in Ceiba, and others in New York.

Since learning that many migrants who die while traveling through Mexico are found without identification, Theo wears his dog tags at all times. In death, he believes he’ll be reunited with his mother, who passed away from a sudden illness after Theo left Honduras. It eats away at Theo every day that he wasn’t able to say goodbye to her. The text on the tag ends with a simple statement: “MISS U MOM.”

Theo sleeps in after three football practices in a row the day before, with another three on his schedule today. When they’re not playing as talacheros, Theo and Misael teach soccer to local kids to make ends meet. Theo hopes to regularize his legal status in the country one day and try out for the national Mexican league.

Theo and Misael’s talent has given them the opportunity to travel around the country and recruit other displaced Hondurans into the talachero business. Two days after arriving in Mexico City, Duvan and his twin brother Samir [right] are hoping to participate in an informal tryout for a spot on a team.

Despite his experiences of racism on the pitch, Theo’s football prowess has made him something of a local celebrity. He’s beloved by his students and coaches, as well as spectators on his de facto home field, where he practices and teaches. When he’s coaching young footballers, he sometimes brings along the rest of the Fami for a chance to play — and maybe attract the attention of a coach in need of a new player.

On the field, Theo’s friends practice and run drills under his guidance, relishing in a rare opportunity to play together. In a bid to impress Coach Herrera, who owns the football camp where Theo and Misael teach, Duvan tries his best against his migrant roommates.

Sadly for Duvan, he isn’t able to wow the coach.

Coach Herrera watches on as Theo and Misael slice through their students’ defense. It was Herr, himself an indigenous migrant from Oaxaca, who helped the boys put their football talents to use. After practice, the students’ parents ask for pictures of their kids with their Honduran heroes. The pair happily oblige.

The cousins collect their earnings for the day, load up on supplies for the evening, and head home. As they walk, they greet neighbors with hugs. “I never had to go farther than here,” says Misael. “La Fami was all I needed to feel at home.”

The boy’s share everything, but everybody’s got to pull their own weight. Even though Duvan had his heart set on playing football, he still needs to make money somehow. Here, Kevin, a barber, offers Duvan a lesson in trimming hair.

At night, Theo and Misael sit in the room they share with some of the other young men, eating food they were able to procure that day. “It might not be much today,” says Theo, “but one day, this’ll be a feast.”

As Garifuna reggaeton blares from a speaker, they roast each other on everything from hair styles, to shoes, to girls, laughing well into the night.

Later that evening, once the rest of La Fami has gone to bed, Theo climbs up the rooftop in search of cell signal. Somewhat ashamed but out of necessity, he asks an estranged uncle for help making rent. His uncle refuses. Theo reads the texts out loud as they come through, with a crack in his baritone voice.

He pauses for a moment, then repeats the mantra that’s guided him since he came to Mexico: With his new chosen family, the boys will find a way to make it work. They always do.