Jessica Mendoza: Hispanic girls moving beyond traditional roles, onto field

Jessica Mendoza says she encourages girls to spend their time trying to stand out rather than trying to fit in. Courtesy of USSSA Pride Marketing/ESPNHS

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, ESPNHS chatted with Olympic softball gold medalist and former Women’s Sports Foundation president Jessica Mendoza, who is a second-generation Mexican-American, about the unique challenges Hispanic female athletes face — and where girls from any background can find resources in their communities to help them play a sport, learn new skills on and off the playing field, and stand out.

ESPNHS: What challenges do Hispanic female teens face when it comes to playing sports?

Jessica Mendoza: When I speak to groups in predominantly Hispanic areas I find that there are still a lot of traditional cultural roles for females — a lot of pressure for young girls to be around the family, help with siblings, help with meals, be kind of the rock of the household rather than doing extracurricular activities like sports. But it’s definitely changing, and I’m an example of that. My dad was extremely supportive of me playing sports and going to college. My main goal when I talk to groups is to educate families on the physical and mental health benefits that playing sports provide young girls. It’s not just about going out there and having fun. That’s a part of playing sports, but a big chunk of it is all the other things that sports give you to help you become a much more whole, better person.

ESPNHS: Do you find that girls and their parents are receptive to your message once they see you as an example?

JM: Usually if they’re at an event, then they’ve already thought about it and they’re open to the idea of playing sports. I wish I could go to every house individually [to speak with girls]. It’s the kids who don’t come to events where I’m at because their parents don’t get it, who are being told to stay home ... I’m trying to give confidence to these girls. I’m not telling them they should just go play sports and not listen to their families, but that they should try to figure out ways to do both. I still think you can play that role within the family, play sports and be stronger for it because you’ll be that much happier.

ESPNHS: Who did you look up to when you were in high school?

JM: My dad, Gil. He was a first-generation Mexican-American and grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles. He struggled with being bilingual and trying to acclimate into a very different culture than the one he was raised in. Some of his brothers and sisters got involved with gangs and dropped out of school, but he started playing sports and that kept him in school. He got good grades, earned a scholarship to play football at Fresno State and ended up going on to get his masters degree. When I saw his path and what he was able to do, it inspired me to really try to reach people who had a similar background.

ESPNHS: Are there resources that girls who are interested in playing sports but who don’t necessarily have a support system already in place can look to in their communities to find a place to play, or to get coaching or equipment?

JM: Unfortunately, there still aren’t a lot of programs out there dedicated to girls. I feel like so many girls are too intimidated to walk into their local Boys & Girls Club or YMCA — places that have equipment and offer a lot of opportunities to be active for little-to-no-money but are usually more boy-focused.

At the Women’s Sports Foundation we have a program called “GoGirlGo!” that’s geared toward getting girls active, including one [branch] in San Antonio that offers a free, afterschool program. I’ve worked with a lot of Hispanic girls there. The program makes being active fun for them, and they don’t necessarily have to be an “athlete” to enjoy it. The program includes soccer and basketball, but it also offers stuff like salsa dancing. These girls are sweating and having fun and it’s still culturally similar to everything that they know — but they don’t feel like they have to be coordinated or be able to shoot a basketball to participate or to be healthy. The rest of the program is dedicated to them writing in journals and talking about things like body image, drinking, smoking and sex pressure, and to developing important life skills that don’t get talked about at home.

Another girl-focused program is the one run by my [USSSA Pride] teammate Natasha Watley in Los Angeles. The Natasha Watley Foundation is affiliated with RBI [Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities], but it’s just for girls and helps get them active by playing softball. Her foundation sponsored by the city of LA and other donors and it provides free equipment and sponsors travel teams that play all over the country.

ESPNHS: When you talk to groups of girls, what is the one takeaway or piece of advice you want them to remember?

JM: My message is to worry less about trying to fit in and to concentrate more on standing out. Embrace the fact that you are different, that your differences are what’s going to make you great and your true friends are the ones who are going to love you for those differences.

When you think about success — whether it be in softball, getting into college or becoming an "American Idol" singer —whatever your goals and aspirations are, you’re going to have to stand out at some point if you want to succeed. So the more time you spend trying to fit in, the less likely it is you’re going to attain your goal of standing out.

If you’re telling me that you want to be great at something, and you want to be different, that you DO want to stand out, then it starts now. It just takes you saying yes to what you believe in and knowing that your true friends are going to be there for you and support you on your path to greatness.