Life Is Fun. Soccer Is Serious!: International Experiences Of A Futbolista

My connection to soccer started from (almost) the moment I was born. Somewhere in the Sueiro family archives is a picture of me at the hospital as a newborn with a cute baby grin on my face and a soccer ball in my hands. I was just getting started. When I was four my parents took me to a World Cup soccer game, Spain vs. Switzerland at RFK stadium. Around age six I collected dozens of soccer cards and stored them in a box which had, “Life is fun. Soccer is Serious!” written on it. Those experiences planted the seeds of a lifelong soccer love affair which carries on today.

Soccer is the most beautiful, most creative, most exciting sport I’ve ever played and billions all across the globe seem to feel the same way. The passion for the sport goes back over a century and during that time different styles, philosophies, and sub cultures have emerged.

Growing up in a Spanish Peruvian household, soccer was ever present. I grew up with stories of Luis Enrique in the ‘94 World Cup and Cubillas in Spain ’82. Living in DC I was exposed to other Latin American soccer cultures. But these experiences only offered glimpses into what it felt like to be in a soccer crazed country where everyone, from the youngest child, to the eldest grandparents, eat, sleep, and breath soccer. Where soccer is not just a sport but a religion. It wasn’t until I traveled abroad to other countries that I experienced the full soccer crazed experience.

Washington, DC

I was lucky that I had access to the Spanish and English leagues as a kid. If all I knew was the MLS it would have been more difficult to connect with the sport. MLS is a solid league but it doesn’t come close to the level of the European leagues. Nevertheless, MLS launched right around the time I started playing organized soccer. My team used to go to DC United games. We would stand in the Screaming Eagles and Barra Brava sections where jumping and singing was mandatory. We learned chants like, “La Barra Brava – OH! la Barra Bruta – OH! Los que no saltan son hijos de puta – OH!” Nine-year-old me was eating it up! However, it says something that I remember what happened off the field more than I remember what happened on it. I’ll always remember those early DC United games because of novelty of being in a soccer stadium with a raucous crew, but when I think of good soccer and players who I looked up to and inspired me – I think of Real Madrid and of my favorite player ever, the legendary Brazilian outside back Roberto Carlos.

My very first team growing up was the Oyster Tiburones, a collection of kids from my elementary school – the Oyster School. I played with kids whose parents were Costa Rican, others from El Salvador, and of course some Americans. The Tiburones were part of the local youth soccer league and it followed a formal “pay to play” model. Parents paid the league to organize games with uniforms, referees, and all of the other formalities that come with organized soccer.

The feeling of formality only increased as I grew older and graduated to more competitive leagues. I started playing travel soccer right around the time I turned 10. Players had to try out for the team and the soccer program hired highly trained and experienced head coaches, some who had even coached or played in professional leagues.

There was no question that experience helped me grow as a player. But the way the game was organized added a lot of pressure to perform at a high level, to win, move up divisions, and compete at bigger tournaments. I didn’t really mind, I loved playing either way. We were a bunch of 10-year old’s and at that age we needed structure and instruction, sure, but we also needed to have fun. I didn’t realize until I visited other countries that a lot of kids had easy access to pick up games right in their neighborhoods. Kids could go down their street and find enough kids their age to kick around with. No parents, no refs, and no coaches to yell at you or tell you what to do. There was no such culture in DC at the time I was growing up. Most American kids only knew the formal version of soccer. I was lucky that I had access to both formal soccer in the US and improvised soccer during my summers in Spain.

Torrecilla en Cameros, Spain

From a young age through high school I used to vacation in Spain every summer for at least a week to two months. I would spend most of my time with a family friend who owned a home in a small mountain town in La Rioja called Torrecilla en Cameros.

Torrecilla en Cameros

Spain has a long and rich soccer history and culture. The most storied and successful soccer club in the world – none other than Real Madrid (get out of here with your Man U or Barca talk… you know who you are) – is based in Spain. Spain began their soccer love affair over a hundred years ago. Sevilla FC and Recreativo de Huelva were founded in 1890 followed by Athletic Club in 1898 which was formed by Basque students returning from Britain (hence why they use the English Athletic and not the Spanish Atlético).

I became friends with the neighborhood boys in Torrecilla, and as any good Spanish boys do, we played a lot of soccer. We played anywhere and everywhere. We played on narrow cobble stone streets, we played on a basketball court, we played at the “frontón” or blacktop that served as a court for a squash like sport. We even played in a hay and rock filled field next to an abandoned church and (what we imagined as 9 year olds at least) a centuries old cemetery. And yes, we sent several balls into the cemetery which played out exactly like the scene in the Sandlot when Benny challenges the beast, except instead of a massive dog we had ghosts on our tail.

Reenactment of me getting a soccer ball from a cemetery and getting chased by ghosts circa 1998.

We were competitive, but ultimately our games were informal and fun. We would try moves that the biggest soccer stars could do with ease. We would experiment with creative passes: long passes, short passes, passes with a lot of curve, inside of the foot passes, outside of the foot passes. It was like “and one” soccer. If you could think it, you would try it. The score almost didn’t matter unless someone talked some smack, in which case the score was the only thing that mattered. We trash talked, joked, laughed, yelled, and there were always two or three running jokes going at any one time.

There were occasional tournaments too. These were a different matter. In a small town like Torrecilla, these tournaments felt embarrassingly disorganized and yet the most important events on earth. These were played on the fronton court and followed futsal rules with a 5 v 5 set up, keeper included. Anyone could form a team, all that was required was a small inscription fee, matching uniforms, a team name, and you were in. The ref was usually someone from the town, and in a town like this everyone knew everyone or was somehow related to everyone. The prize was maybe the most Spanish thing ever: the town’s finest jamón ibérico (Iberian ham).

Ultimately, what defined soccer in a place like Torrecilla was the fun of it. Yeah, it was serious, but it was mostly a pastime. Something to do with friends and have a good laugh.

El Progreso, Honduras

El Progreso is in the north of Honduras, about 1.5 hours from the beach and in a hot, humid valley. El Progreso is a small city with about 180 thousand people in the entire metropolitan area. I moved there for work in 2013 and lived there for about two years.

Honduras has almost as long of a soccer history as Spain. Soccer was introduced to Honduras by English sailors at Puerto Cortes in 1896. The first professional soccer team was established in 1912: Club Deportivo Olimpia. Like Spain, Honduras is soccer crazed.

I was in Honduras for the 2014 World Cup in which Honduras participated. Honduras was in group E with France, Switzerland, and Ecuador. When Honduras played, everything stopped. Nearly every store had a TV or radio playing the game. They would blast the game so loud that you could walk downtown and hear every play unfold. Our office didn’t even bother to pretend to do work. We cleared off someone’s desk, set up a TV, and pulled up our chairs to watch. There wasn’t much to cheer for, Honduras lost 3-0 to France and Switzerland but there was at least one special moment.

In the game against Ecuador Carlos Costly put Honduras up in the 31st minute with an absolute missile. It was Honduras’ first World Cup goal in 32 years. They hadn’t scored in so long, people were saying they were cursed. I’ll never forget the reaction to that goal. At mid afternoon on a work day in El Progreso, everyone went crazy. My office mates were yelling and jumping up and down, some were on the verge of tears. Outside cars honked, people yelled and whistled, and a sudden wave of firecrackers and cherry bombs went off across the city. Costly literally cried on the field after he scored. I don’t think I’ve ever celebrated as hard as my Honduran friends did in that moment. I doubt my Honduran friends celebrate that hard for their own personal accomplishments!

Playing soccer in Honduras was an intense affair. I used to play with the Villa Soleada team. Villa Soleada is a small “colonia” or neighborhood in the outskirts of El Progreso. As is customary in soccer loving countries, their soccer field lay at the center of the neighborhood. Every weekend there was an organized soccer game against a nearby colonia. We would play 11 v 11 with a ref. Every player had to pay 15-20 lempira (about a dollar) for the referee, water, and the team manager. To be clear, we weren’t playing in a tournament or a league, but it had the feeling of a very serious event. The gameplay reflected this. Honduran soccer is probably the roughest brand of soccer I’ve ever played. It wasn’t dirty (although there were always one or two players on each team who were skilled at the art of playing dirty), it was just super physical. The Honduran brand is extremely aggressive, direct to goal, and relies heavily on the long ball. Playing long balls was in part a necessity. Most of the fields are treated like public parks, but the municipality doesn’t usually provide maintenance and most neighborhoods don’t have the money to lay down grass or pay for proper maintenance. So they play on rocky, lopsided, and sometimes just straight dirt fields. Playing the ball in the air was usually the most reliable way to give a pass.

The Villa Soleada soccer team moments before a match.

Another thing that stood out to me is that players literally pray when they are on the field. Every player would cross themselves as they step on the field before games. Some would take a moment to say a silent prayer just before the whistle blew for kickoff. Sometimes one of the players would even say an emphatic prayer in the pregame huddle. After all, they don’t say soccer is religion for no reason.

Bilbao, Spain

The Basque country on the north coast of Spain is a fascinating region with a unique culture, deeply rooted traditions, and proud people. Bilbao is home to Athletic Club who implement a unique philosophy whereby they only sign players from the Basque country. This philosophy reinforces the fans deep sense of Basque pride and allegiance to the team.

I studied in Bilbao at the University of Deusto as part of a study abroad program in the Winter/Spring of 2010. Some people draw similarities between Pittsburgh and Bilbao. Both were known for their steel industry, blue-collar identities, and are situated in mountainous regions. Today Bilbao is no longer the industrial hub it once was, instead it combines a modern and artistic vibe (especially downtown and near the Guggenheim) with a slow-paced yet urban feel.

At the San Mames next to the Athletic logo.

I’ve never lived in a city that felt more connected to a team. On game days everything stopped. Businesses closed, streets were empty, and everyone was in a bar or at home watching the game. Home games were an incredible experience. People would line the streets near the San Mamés stadium for hours before the game. People would bar hop with a group of friends, eat “pinxos” (similar to tapas) and “cañas” (draft beer) at each stop. On game days virtually everyone wore the red and white Athletic colors. The crowd was always a mix of kids, older folks, and families. However, this didn’t make the games any less intense. In fact, from start to finish every single person is plugged into the game. Whereas in baseball for example, fans can spend time chatting, every person in the San Mamés stadium hangs on every play, every movement, every touch of the ball, and the drama that unfolds on the pitch.

The environment in the stadium is always electric. Fans really feel like their support helps the team and whenever it looks like the team needs a little boost, fans would start a chant, most notably the simple “ATHLETIC! ATHLETIC!” At halftime families whip out their tin foil wrapped “bocadillo” (baguette sandwich) which feels like one of those oddly homey customs that could never be allowed at sporting venues in the states.

I played a lot of pick up soccer in Bilbao. One common feature of the city was the ubiquity of public soccer courts. You could find one practically every few blocks. They are roughly the size of a basketball court and are fitted with futsal goals. What was striking about playing on these courts is that the style of play was so different than in the US. I played with a group of Americans against whoever happened to be at the court. Us Americans moved constantly and we didn’t keep much possession. We played direct towards goal and took a lot of shots. The Basque kids we played against had almost the opposite style. They wanted to play slow, they wanted to keep possession, and they didn’t run or move nearly as much as we did. They were deliberate yet extremely skilled and quick in spurts. They didn’t take a lot of shots, it felt like they were trying to inch their way as close as possible to our goal until they found an opening and only then would they strike.

The International Game

I love that there are so many ways to play soccer, so many styles, so much history, and so much to offer. I’m lucky that I experienced a few of the many different soccer cultures. The United States is definitely the least developed of the soccer cultures I’ve experienced. It’s simply not a big sport here yet, but it’s growing and it has an eclectic soccer history with the likes of Pele, David Villa, and David Beckham having played here. It’ll take some time, but soccer will inevitably become big in the US. For now, it’s still very much a sport on the margins, one played mostly in pay to play settings.

Honduras has a surprisingly strong soccer culture. I knew it was a country where soccer was important, but I didn’t know just how ubiquitous it is in people’s lives or how long its history goes back. Entire communities are literally organized around soccer fields! People pray during games! In a context where a lot of people are struggling, the games felt like they had a different level of importance. As a result, many play soccer with a different level of seriousness. Not simply as a game but a rare opportunity to express oneself even to prove oneself. As the character of Richard the Lion Heart says in the 1968 movie The Lion in Winter, “When the fall is all there is, it matters.” When soccer is all there is, it matters.

Finally, Spain is certainly one of the most prestigious soccer cultures in the world. Year after year Spain produces top tier talent and it’s a testament to just how ingrained the sport is in Spanish society. Maybe entire communities aren’t designed around soccer fields, but soccer courts are integrated in every town and city in Spain much like basketball courts are in Harlem and New York City. Soccer is so ingrained in Spanish life that it becomes second nature. Barcelona’s saying goes, “més que un club.” Or more than a club. And it’s true. To some Cataláns Barcelona FC is a political expression. It’s a source of Catalán pride and a way to get back at Franco and the monarchy (Real Madrid was the favored club of the fascist dictator, and their name and logo are literally an expression of royalty). A similar feeling is associated with Athletic Bilbao whose team anthem is in the Basque language and whose philosophy reflects a deep pride in their region and independence from Spain. [VIDEO]

For better or for worse soccer is more than just a game to me as it is to a lot of people. I associate a lot of memories and life lessons with it. And it continues to be a source of joy and camaraderie in my life. After all I met some of my closest friends while playing soccer in college. I wanted to write this blog because I wanted to explore the differences in soccer cultures across countries. But for all of the differences (and others could write at length about the unique cultures of countless other countries), what fascinates me is that they are all bound together by something so simple: a ball and a few friends.

Concentrated Wealth Is Worse Than You Think

Originally written on February 27th. 

Billionaires are currently a fixture of our political discourse. Billionaire and Former Mayor Mike Bloomberg entered the Democratic primary 11 weeks ago setting off a discussion on the ethics of money in politics and of the existence of billionaires. Bloomberg makes no secret of the fact of his wealth, it’s a central part of his electability argument. He doesn’t need to ask anyone else for money, he posits, and therefore he doesn’t need to engage in the corrupt horse trading that goes on in politics. His wealth makes him incorruptible. But the flip side is also true. Because he doesn’t need to ask the people for money, he’s also not accountable to anyone. What happens when President Bloomberg needs to raise taxes on the rich to fund the programs we sorely need to tackle the important issues of our time? Are we sure that he will tax his own nearly $60 billion in wealth to help us? And if he doesn’t, how can anyone keep this incorruptible man accountable?

Bloomberg and big money are an example of how the ultra-wealthy can pose a threat to the democratic process. Likewise, the way that the ultra-rich earned their money poses a threat to our economic well-being.  What Bloomberg represents is the same thing that Trump represents in American society, a wealthy elite that feel entitled to their power and wealth. Billionaires are an outcome of a corrupt and immoral political and economic system. If you care about democracy and inequality, then you must also care about the concentration of wealth.

During the Nevada Democratic primary debate Michael Bloomberg was asked about his wealth. He said he earned his money implying he deserves it because he put in the effort, had the talent, and took risks for it. But the rich didn’t earn their wealth alone, in fact, they didn’t earn it at all. An Oxfam report from 2015 entitled Extreme Wealth is Not Merited analyzed the wealth of billionaires from Forbes’ list of billionaires. They sought to understand whether that wealth was earned or meritocratic. They concluded that, “fifty percent of the world’s billionaire wealth is found to be non-meritocratic owing to either inheritance or a high presumption of cronyism. Another 15 percent is not meritocratic owing to presumption of monopoly. All of it is non-meritocratic owing to globalization.”

What billionaires and the rich are really saying when they adopt the meritocratic argument is that they are more valuable than the average person. The median wealth in the US is $97 thousand, does that mean that they are about a billion times better than the average American? Did they work a billion times harder? Are they a billion times smarter? Did they take a billion times more risks? Jacobin magazine writer Luke Savage explains why this isn’t true, “no one earns a billion dollars, but hierarchical economic structures and a skewed political system ensure some nevertheless acquire it because of the property they own.” Explaining that rents and capital income account for much of their wealth (rents being a direct and literal transfer of wealth from low income to high income). As Savage explains, “vast concentrations of wealth in the hands of the few is both how and why there is so much poverty and insecurity among working and middle-class Americans, despite there being so much wealth overall.”

In the last five years the number of billionaires increased by about 40%. Does this mean that more and more billionaires are working harder than the average American? Maybe the growth in wealth at the top has something to do with the fact that since 1979 worker productivity increased by 70% while compensation increased only 12%. Maybe it has something to do with, as the Economic Policy Institute explains, “policy choices made on behalf of those with the most income, wealth, and power have exacerbated inequality.” Maybe it has something to do with policies like the Trump tax cuts which gave most of the $150 billion from the cuts to corporations for stock buy-backs and shareholder dividends, and only 6% of the tax to workers. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling opened the flood gates for big money to influence our politics, or with the efforts of the uber rich like that of the Koch brothers who are systematically undermining our public institutions in the name of “economic freedom” for the rich to be free of taxes. The wealthy did not earn their money but instead took that money from the rest of us. They are influencing our policies and stymying our efforts to eradicate poverty and economic inequality. To not talk about them is to either not understand how our system functions or to be complicit in maintaining the status quo.

Ultimately this is about what kind of society we want to live in. Will we tolerate living in a country where 500,000 people are homeless, where 40% of the population doesn’t have more than $400 to their name, where 45 thousand people die each year for lack of health care, where the poverty rate remains stubbornly high and the racial wealth divide deep? All while three white men own as much wealth as the bottom 50%? Or do we want to live in a society where everyone has basic economic rights, where everyone is free from hunger and poverty, where people are truly paid a fair wage, where the color of your skin or the place where you were born doesn’t determine your value and well-being? We can’t have both. We must choose.

“Facebook is a Hell for Happy People:” GALA Theater’s Latest Work

La Foto: A Selfie Affair is a humorous and entertaining play that touches upon modern themes of technology, privacy, and internet relationships. The selfie, that ubiquitous and vain yet satisfying picture, is the catalyst for a series of events that ends a marriage, drives a daughter to leave her school in shame, and ruins a friendship.

Laura, performed by the ever fabulous Luz Nicolas, copes with her age a

nd solitude by reconnecting with an old boyfriend. A 48-year-old single mother, Laura courts Denis, played by Carlos Castillo, via Facebook where they reminisce about nostalgic memories before exchanging romantic overtures. A confused or perhaps reckless Denis dithers between his desire to leave his wife Thais, played by Maria Peyramaure, to pursue an exciting relationship with

Laura or maintain his devotion to his family.

The play centers its focus on Laura and Denis, and the fallout from a risqué selfie meant to coax Denis into a decision. As the picture of Laura goes viral and their families react, the play explores the psychological undertones manifested through the use of technology. Laura is driven by a sudden sensitivity about her appearance and her loneliness; she looks for romance online, she changes her wardrobe to look younger and she carefully photo shops her selfies before sending them to interested suitors.

Denis entertains Laura’s proposition not simply out of romantic idealism but to soothe his insecurities. After Thais asks Denis for a divorce, Denis attempts to explain himself to his son Frank, interpreted by Jose Gonzalez. Denis recounts his efforts to also enhance his physical appearance through weight lifting. He invested enormous time and effort to shape his body and appear powerful and masculine but in the end, succeeds only in growing ‘man boobs’.

Director Abel Lopez employs a dark and nervous humor throughout the play. Mr. Lopez creates tense moments that switch between comedy, drama, and absurdi

ty. During a dramatic argument between Denis and Thais, the ‘machista’ Denis finally comes clean about his interactions with Laura and her selfies. In an attempt to explain himself, Denis declares that “Facebook es el infierno de los felices.” (Facebook is a hell of happy people) The line garnered nervous laughter from the audience. It was the most poignant moment in the play and one whose spirit was at the core of

its message.

Facebook is indeed a hell for happy people. Denis’ obvious irrationality and denial of any wrongdoing is the uneasy facade through which his profound insight is delivered. The characters in the play

embody the psychological affects that are born out of today’s uses of technology. We don’t like how we look so we place filters on our pictures, we’re unhappy with our marriage so we flirt with an old flame on Facebook, we see only the happy, positive, and “good” captured on social media and we compare these experiences to our own, we suppress the yin and obsess over the yang. As a result, we create a distorted reality, one where everyone appears happy but no one feels whole: a hell for happy people.

Choppy at times, the flow of the play mirrored a typical online experience with short, uneasy, and visually sleek scenes. The set, aligned by tall canvas like panels, reminded me more of a minimalist themed website powered by WordPress than a home, a high-school or a grocery store. Through this lens, the play felt like a series of Instagram videos sliced together into one long “Instastory.” It served as a subtle reminder of the detachment with which we navigate the world. With smartphones a reach away, a serene and melancholic moment is interrupted by an impulse to “snap” a video and share it with the world. We no longer own unique moments but are instead nudged through push notifications to share our experience with the world.

While the play focused more on the fallout from the selfie, it was these themes of insecurity, mortality, and family, and how these are affected by technology that gave the play meaning. As technology becomes more available and more powerful, we’re reminded of the human sensibilities that give depth to our experiences. Passion, melancholy, and reflection are more important now than ever and yet fall by the wayside as capitalist coders and website designers compete for our attention.

This post originally appeared on the Metro Diversity blog here

You can find more information or reserve your seats for the show at or by phone at 202-234-7174. Performing now thru February 25th

Getting Down In The Heights Latin Style

This post originally appeared on Metro Diversity on April 26th, 2017. 

In The Heights En Español, directed by Luis Salgado, is a bilingual adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mid-2000’s original musical. Colorful, humorous, and at times somber, the play centers around the struggles and romances of a primarily Latino community in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. Usnavi (played by Juan Luis Espinal) shoulders the legacy of his parents: a convenience store in “the barrio,” while looking after his younger cousin and his dear “abuela.” Meanwhile Nina (played by Laura Lebron) returns from Stanford to tell her parents that she lost her university scholarship. Once considered a star student, Nina deals with the guilt of having disappointed her parents and her community. Nina and Usnavi grapple with these issues while simultaneously pursuing their respective romantic passions. Usnavi musters up the courage to talk to “popular girl” Vanessa (played by Veronica Alvarez) who works at a beauty salon. Nina develops affection for Benny (Vaughn Ryan Midder), an African-American employee at Nina’s father’s Taxi/Limousine service.

The play incorporates many of the traditional Latino character types: Nina’s mother Camila (played by Shadia Fairuz) is the wise and strong Latina mother, Abuela Claudia (played by Michelle Rios) plays the spiritual, affable, and loving elder who provides guidance to Usnavi and Nina, and Nina’s father Kevin (played by Jose F. Capellan), is the proud machista father. These character types are positive depictions of Latinos which serves to break the common and unflattering depictions portrayed in mainstream media. At times, it’s positive intent felt more like a Disney production, clichéd and oversimplified, than nuanced social commentary. It does however touch upon anxieties that are very real to the Latino community today.

From left. Amaya Perea, Myriam Gadri, Luis Ramos, Vaughn Ruan Midder (back), Juan Luis Espinal, Héctor Flores Jr, Verónica Alvarez, Nathalia Raigosa. Photo Rose Campiglia

Perhaps the most poignant moment in the play came when Nina’s father, after hearing the news that Nina lost her scholarship in part because of how much she had to work to pay her tuition, expresses his disappointment… in himself. Kevin chides Nina with his disappointment before turning on himself. “Soy inutil, useless” Kevin says. He questions his ability to take care of his family, to be the best father he can be, and to honor what it means to be a man. These few minutes where Kevin explains his frustration, with himself, with no one, with everyone, nearly brought me to tears.

Kevin’s insecurity is not unique. Throughout the play, the collective feeling of insecurity is seldom explicitly articulated, but is present just beneath the surface. Poor Latino families, Latino immigrants and the subsequent generations, face difficult questions about assimilation into American society. How do we make a living without knowing the language or culture of this country? How do we navigate a system that wasn’t designed by or for Latinos? What kind of life must we lead in order to preserve our heritage yet integrate into an alien society?

The depth of Kevin’s failure is not produced by his inability to help Nina, it is formed in the subtle feelings of inferiority to the “gringo” American and the challenges inherent in obtaining the “American dream.” We see what is desired for that lifestyle; the suburban home, the family values, kids who go to college, and we face a reality in which obtaining that life is not as easy for the D

From left. Juan Luis Espinal, Scheherazade Quiroga and Verónica Alvarez. Photo Rose Campiglia

ominican business owner in Washington Heights as it is for the fourth-generation American professional living in suburban Washington DC. The insecurity felt by the Latino collective stems from a false equivalence in which the Latino wants to be like the gringo American but is living an entirely different experience than the gringo ever lived. Kevin’s feeling of uselessness is shared by the undocumented immigrant who works 60 hour weeks at $8 an hour but struggles to make ends meet, it’s shared by young Latinos who watch as their gringo classmates are showered with gifts and support from their parents while they save up money for a textbook by working at the grocery store after school, it’s felt by the Latina tamale vendor who sells her food to the newly arrived young professional couple who moved into the luxury apartment down the street, and it’s felt by the neighborhood drunk, who long ago lost faith and succumbed to despair.

“It’s about humanity,” Mr. Salgado explained in a Q&A after the play ended. At its core, In The Heights and Mr. Salgado are seeking to answer the questions of what it means to be Latino in the United States. But whereas in the mid-2000’s we could see this play as a celebration of our cultural roots and the innate “humanness” embedded within our core American principles, today we look at Mr. Miranda’s creation a bit differently; as a reminder of our fear of never truly becoming part of this country and the uselessness of our efforts to do so.

Helping Microfinance Clients to Save: Are Incentives a Solution?

This post originally appeared on NextBillion‘s Financial Innovation blog on January 26th, 2017. It formed part of NextBillion’s January focus on microfinance.

Authored by Jeff Paddock and Santiago Sueiro.

At La Ceiba, we believe microfinance can be about more than loans. We work in a rural community 30 minutes outside of the city of El Progreso in northern Honduras. El Progreso has a small urban center where many Honduran banks established their branches. Our clients are just close enough to the city to open and access accounts but far enough away where they don’t visit the city or their bank on a regular basis. Additionally, clients cannot afford the ancillary fees that are associated with savings accounts. Our client population has low literacy levels, which make it difficult for them to understand financial vocabulary and concepts. The combination of distance, cost and knowledge gaps discourages clients from opening and maintaining a savings account. We decided we needed to offer a financial service focused on those three challenges.

Microfinance can be a tool for developing meaningful and intimate connections with low-income families. Know your clients, and let them know you. This concept, and the conditions that clients face, was the basis for our incentivized savings program.

Over the years, our staff developed intimate relationships with clients and their families through frequent interactions. We encourage this type of interaction through our relationship collateral philosophy. Recently, we heard a growing number of clients express interest in financial products beyond the loans that we already provide. Clients told us that they want to save but they are finding it difficult to do so.

There is a growing amount of research and work done to increase savings for low-income clients. A 2014 publication by Dean Karlan, Aishwarya Lakshmi Ratan and Jonathan Zinman lays out the constraints to savings observed across several regions in the world and highlights field experiments and nascent savings models that seek to address those constraints. But while this research was useful, it didn’t serve as the impetus for our program. At this point in the process, clients expressed that a small match from our organization would incentivize them to make frequent deposits. Their feedback inspired us to adopt an incentivized saving concept.

One of the largest incentivized savings programs in the world is the Assets for Independence (AFI) program in the U.S. AFI uses Individual Development Accounts (IDAs) to encourage individuals to save. The model allows for individuals to save significant sums of money and facilitates asset accumulation. AFI makes it easy for organizations to operate IDA accounts by providing federal grants to fund the individual’s matched deposit. AFI allows organizations to match a deposit 1:1 and up to an 8:1 ratio for a maximum of $2,000.

Incentivized savings is extremely resource intensive, which is why AFI provides grants to make it easier for organizations to adopt the model. However, we are a small NGO with limited resources and an equivalent to the AFI program does not exist in Honduras. We had to build something that would require a small financial commitment but preserve the motivating effect of a matched deposit.

Our first step was to partner with formal banks. Banco Ficensa, Banco Azteca, BanRural and Banco de Occidente already have the infrastructure and products that clients want and need. Second, we identified the entry costs we could afford to cover. Third, we used conversations with clients and relied on the knowledge of our Honduran staff to establish a match amount that was small enough for us to afford but large enough to still encourage clients to make a deposit. Finally, we knew that we had to provide classes that would allow clients to understand the technical aspects of savings and their account. We settled upon these four inputs:

  1. We provide $5 for the minimum balance required to open bank accounts.
  2. For every deposit the client makes, we deposit $1.05 into their account.
  3. We provide monthly classes to train participants on how to use deposit booklets and plan for the future.
  4. We provide a small stipend to address the opportunity cost of being away from home and work while attending classes.

These small incentives and supports motivated clients to make deposits on a regular basis. Fifteen clients made 51 deposits over three months. Of these, eight opened a savings account for the first time. Accounts spanned four different banks and clients deposited a total of $408 with a median deposit of $4.25. We matched this with $112. As a result, clients held a total of $520 toward their future; that’s $3.71 saved per $1 of subsidy money. Every $1 we contributed carried almost four times its weight in financial security.

This project is minuscule, but it’s a first step toward something larger. We are planning a second round of accounts for 15 new clients. But what we are really excited about is the clients’ commitment to the program. Clients express high satisfaction with the program and they continue to make deposits despite such a small incentive. We believe that this is due not just to the financial incentive offered, but from their role in designing the program. The idea for this program was born from the clients, and while we incorporated empirical evidence and studied existing models, we developed the program in conjunction with clients. As the program grows and we continue to foster meaningful relationships with clients, we will continue to explore this central question: What role can and should microfinance play in empowering the poor?

Jeff Paddock is the program director of La Ceiba and Santiago Sueiro is on the Board of Advisors.

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Sunday, Soup, and Community

Domingo was always on that corner. He would greet me from his stool while chewing tobacco and with a toothless smile, “como estamos Santiago?” Every day I would sit on the stool next to him and he’d tell me his life’s story. Domingo told me everything, from his proudest moments to his lowest. He’s an alcoholic and goes to AA meetings every week. He was an engineer in Puerto Cortez where he worked alongside several American engineers who were veterans of World War II. It wasn’t long before I exchanged some of my own stories, even if they didn’t compare in meaning. I could only talk to him for a few minutes at a time, and before long I had to interrupt him and ask him to tell me the rest the next day.

Walking through the streets of ‘El Progreso’ can be a jarring experience. The most popular reggeaton, bachata, and merengue songs ring through the streets. Taxi cab drivers tell their dirtiest jokes as they stand idle by their cars. Vendors yell about their newest bargain from store fronts. The crowded streets, the festive melodies, and the colorful characters project a feeling of excitement rather than a place of business.

Walking about the city center, I was always bound to run into a few people I knew. It was common to run into a client and her children, “Hola Santiago, como esta? Vaya pues, que Dios le bendiga!” We’d stop, greet, chat, and wish each other goodbye. Always a few minutes at a time.

There are a few “spots” I frequented. Chepe’s Restaurant, which was more of an open air cafeteria, served my favorite chicken soup. Even on a hot sunny day, chicken soup always hit the spot. Steamed carrots, broccoli, potatoes, cabbage, and juicy chicken all served together with a delicious broth… my mouth waters even now every time I think of it. I had it so often that Chepe knew my order by heart. “Vistes el Atletico?” he’d ask me. Chepe loves Atletico Madrid. While I slurped my soup he would tell me about their latest win.

On the opposite corner from Domingo is a small shoe repair shop. Gerson is its owner. It has one large window without a glass pane. On any day of the week you can find Gerson behind the counter, with his glasses on, a sewing needle and special tools at hand, hard at work on a shoe. The first time I went to his shop we shook hands and I was taken aback. His hands are huge. They are as big as a basketball player’s, his fingers are thick as cigars and rough like sand paper. “Y su familia como esta?” Gerson is a man of few words, but he always asked about my family.

It’s been a year and a half since I left Honduras. Except for a brief visit, I haven’t kept in touch with clients and neighbors. I don’t know if they think about me. I don’t know if my presence left an impression. The longer removed from Honduras, the less I remember about Domingo, my neighbors, and my clients.

Honduras is one of the most violent countries on earth and one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. It’s a Spanish speaking country, it’s soccer crazed, and it’s in the Caribbean, and thus very hot. If this is all you knew of Honduras, you could be forgiven for misunderstanding so much of what makes the country and its people unique.

Despite the fear and caution that the news can inspire, my experience endeared me to El Progreso. I found meaning in the serendipity of running into someone you know on the street and the satisfaction of dropping what you’re doing to catch up with a familiar face. There is a strong sense of community in that town.

Community is a collective attitude. What every one of those relationships, from Domingo to clients, had in common was mutual affection. By affection, I don’t mean of everlasting friendship, I mean of a level of curiosity and friendliness that comes with knowing someone well enough to be vulnerable with them. I mean the type of relationship that isn’t defined by status, competition, or transactions. I mean the connection you feel with someone with whom you share a space with and interact with on a daily basis over and over again. Essentially, community is defined by geography, but it’s also defined by some level of love.

When I left Honduras, I lost that community. Living in DC, I feel a different attitude in the collective conscience. There is more distrust, more isolation, more individual expectation and less collective culture. I worry that I’m losing perspective. I’m more distracted by technology and in constant need of stimulation from anything that will suppress my angst.

While in Honduras I felt a strong connection to the place and people. But, I’m mindful of the fact that I could never fully be a part of that community; my identity and privilege will always provide a certain degree of separation. Nonetheless, I still took part in this collective attitude of acceptance, free from judgment, driven by love, and defined by a common thread: the unspoken understanding of community.

Santiago Sueiro, Former Program Director of La Ceiba MFI
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The Quiet Storm

I was in Chicago for a convening with six high ranking officials. I hadn’t said much all day. I was quiet and shy. I felt intimidated in the presence of these accomplished individuals.

As the meeting drew to a close, one official turned his attention to me, “Santi you’re really quiet over there.” I laughed nervously. Another turned to me, “Santi, you quiet storm you.” She chuckled as she said this and the entire room burst into laughter. I had never heard that saying before. Nervously, I laughed along, but I thought about what she said.

What is the meaning of a “quiet storm?” A storm is fierce, it sweeps away all excess with gusts of wind, it washes away undesired silt, dirt, and soot with sweeping rain, and it subdues even the meanest of us with its lightning and thunder. How can such an awesome force be silent?

Silence can be many things in many contexts. Silence is uncomfortable. Silence is soothing. Silence is empty. Too often we feel the need to reach for stimulation, and distract ourselves to sooth our angst. On the worst of days I catch myself checking my phone every few minutes, I talk just to avoid the nothingness, and I turn on the TV to feel accompanied. I do this because I know that when there is silence, I have to listen to myself and I don’t always like what I hear.

It’s easy to distract yourself and ignore what occurs within. When you distract yourself for too long, a fight begins to brew between doubt and confidence. The longer you remove yourself from this tension, the stronger doubt becomes. Doubt is resilient. When you ignore it, doubt strikes. It marches forward and gobbles up whatever is in its way. It drags a dark looming cloud overhead and washes away any trace of the enemy. It sweeps through the landscape with indiscriminate force.

When you finally take a moment to look within, you find that confidence has dwindled. But, slowly you begin to make sense of things. “Not everything is your fault. Don’t take things personally. Don’t overanalyze. Look at all the meaningful things you achieved.” The process of self-soothing, of putting things in perspective takes time and effort. And, it requires silence. For a few minutes at your desk, in your journal, or on the commute home, or simply sitting in your room, you experience silence and take time to think. As this happens, doubt fades and confidence grows.

Doubt and confidence need each other. Doubt keeps us humble and grounded, while confidence instills belief in ourselves and grows our ability. Doubt nourishes our moral compass and washes away arrogance, while confidence feeds us with energy and gives us the conviction to act. Doubt dominates, then confidence fights back: it’s an inevitable process, a force of nature. But without silence and a concerted effort to look within, we cannot find the right balance. And, without balance we risk falling past doubt and into diffidence, and past confidence into arrogance.

That day in Chicago I was quiet because I was afraid. I felt inferior and out of place. My silence was not for focus on my notes; it was a respite from something more difficult. The winds were swirling inside while I sat at that table, and when the group laughed, the rain unleashed. I withdrew into the quite comfort of my own head. But the quiet storm doesn’t last forever. It swept through me that night, but it came to an end. It led me to this blog, and it led me to perspective.

I don’t know if this is what the “quiet storm” saying means, and I still don’t know what that lady in Chicago meant by it. But, now it’s mine.

The quiet storm is unstoppable. You can’t prevent it and you can’t make it go away. Sometimes it lingers, sometimes it quickly passes through, but every storm starts the same way: with a menacing silence.


Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI
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Take a Step Back

We don’t know anything.

We don’t know what it’s like to be someone else. 

We can’t hear each other’s thoughts.

We can’t feel what others feel.

We can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be another person.

Our experiences are too different. Our character and personalities are unique.


We are not virtuous.

We are human and by nature are flawed.

We are impulsive and short-sighted.

We are judgmental and distrustful.

We are insensitive and overconfident.


We are wrong.

About our choices.

About the “good” we are doing.

About our ability to affect change. 

About our role in the world. 


Why do we believe that we can lead others to change their behavior? Why would we think that we can change the world? Why would an affluent white person from the suburbs know what is best for a black man from South East DC, or a poor Honduran woman, or a Ghanaian child?

We don’t. None of us do.

We have the power to change ourselves. We have the power to sacrifice. We have the power to be kind. And, we have the power to forge honest connections.

But we don’t have the power to save others.

Do-gooders fail to understand that generosity is not a substitute for justice. Sometimes what is required is to say who is in the wrong because at the core of poverty is an original sin: an injustice. Our legacy with slavery and discrimination, our history of interfering in other countries’ affairs, the very companies who we support through our consumption who then take advantage of the poor and powerless, make us complicit in the causes of poverty.

We need to own up to it.

We tried fintech, we tried cookstoves, we tried the Millennium Villages, we passed law after law, we have welfare and foreign aid, and we are constantly looking for the innovative and sexy “silver bullet.

It’s not good enough. Not until we stand up and say it’s us, the privileged elite of the world, the 1% who own over 50% of the world’s wealth: we play a hand in the existence of these injustices. So now it’s time to step aside.


Healing begins with listening.

When you listen;

When you sit back and observe;

When you let others make decisions;

You start to build trust.

You allow others to make progress towards their potential.

You endorse their power and you open the path towards understanding.

It requires discipline and trust. It requires patience and faith.

But above all, it requires belief in human potential. That the less privileged can find their own way. That despite the odds, they can take control of their destiny. That, in many ways, they already have.


Thinking like this changes our role.

Instead of doing more good, let’s do less harm.

Instead of making suggestions, let’s listen.

Instead of being nice, let’s be honest.

Instead of doing for others, let’s act with others.


At the end of the day we are all broken. We yearn for meaning in our lives and often we search for meaning in our work. We can still find meaning as sidekicks.

Lilla Watson said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

To find liberation, we need to be honest with ourselves and with each other, we need to make uncomfortable sacrifices, and above all, we need to take a step back and listen. 


Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI
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Our Sacred Tree

Image by Jessica Foster via Facebook

The Mayans believed it to be sacred. That it connected the underworld, the terrestrial, and the skies. It was the stitching that held together the spiritual with the earthly. The descendants of the Maya leave the La Ceiba tree standing when harvesting forests and cultivating the land.

The La Ceiba tree in Villa Soleada is impressive. It is about 70 feet tall, surpassing all nearby trees. It has a thick, smooth, branchless trunk, and a wide sprawling canopy. The roots themselves are impressive. They act as a buttress at the base of the tree, in a distinctive cuneate shape, the full height of a person. The tree stands alone at the edge of the community, overlooking the naked fringes.

There is a wooden conference table in a small room of the economics house. During La Ceiba class, students gather around with Dr. H at the head. Class after class they gather at that table. They talk about Villa Soleada, microfinance, and Ivan Illich. Dr. H asks the impertinent question, encourages scrutiny, and students respond in kind. They accept the challenge, explore their motivations, and take ownership of their work. This is where La Ceiba started. In that small room, around that wooden table, on the fringe of campus, a small group of students decided to start a microfinance organization.

In the midst of organizational change, I went to Honduras for a few months. There was no escaping the reality this time. With the distance removed, the time constraint lifted, I was exposed to the reality of Honduran life. Over time, the exposure revealed to us what we already suspected: beyond our product, something special was crystallizing. It drew strength from the trust and respect that we worked so hard to earn. So much so that a baker and his wife were willing to take a chance on us, to place their faith in our judgement, that we would do the best we could to offer them a useful product. That moment in our growth was defined over the phone. During that call, feeling high tension, and 2,000 miles apart, a small group of devoted students decided to let La Ceiba grow.

The seats on Spirit airlines don’t recline and seem intentionally narrow. I squirmed in my seat as the man next to me snored loudly. I had just said goodbye, I thought perhaps I should be more emotional. But at 1 am with a sore butt and an achy back, I just felt empty inside. As we landed I was shepherded off of the plane, walked to the next gate, and waited in a crowded room with a low ceiling and dim lighting. A creeping anxiety had taken over. The realization that it was over began to sink in. As time when by, the days went unfulfilled. The search for meaning dwindled. How can we just walk away from something to which we devote so much? Why can’t this thing, this idea, this beautifully flawed tree, grow into a beacon? Why can’t we give it the light and the water that it needs to continue its work? Or the space to grow tall and wide? What is the next step, the next defining moment in this story of a slow steady struggle toward meaning?

We try wholeheartedly to make a difference, in the process we undergo a transformation that changes us forever. But we leave our work behind, unfinished and full of potential, and we enter a world that asks us to compromise. We are taught to suppress that which we let blossom, we are conditioned not to question, encouraged to forget what gave us so much power, and if we resist we are dismissed as naïve. Too naïve.

The work must go on. The class needs to evolve. Despite living at the margins, the La Ceiba tree makes itself noticed, it grows and flourishes, it does the quiet work of holding our world together. 


Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI
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