After Fleeing Mexico's Cartel Violence, Jose Reza Keeps Running

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We’re going to start this story with a cliché:

"I first got into running because I needed to find a way out of my reality," 19-year-old Jose Reza says. "I needed some escape."

…or at least something that sounds at first like a cliché. But hear a little more about what Jose has to say about running, and you’ll begin to understand how running has served him on a brave journey.

It was always Jose Reza's dream to go to college, and he never thought a sport like running could help him get there. As an undocumented immigrant, his journey's been tough, but that's not preventing him from making his dreams come true. (Courtesy Juanita Martinez)
It was always Jose Reza's dream to go to college, and he never thought a sport like running could help him get there. (Courtesy Juanita Martinez)

"I needed to have that moment that I never had," he says. "I needed to enjoy my childhood, which I never did."

Impossible Circumstances

Reza was born in Guerrero, one of Mexico’s southern provinces. His mother was concerned about his welfare…everyday:

"There’s a lot of violence. There’s a lot of cartels," Jose says. "The parents afraid of letting their kids out, because they don’t know if they’re still going to come back, due to the fact that they just pick you up from the street. People being decapitated. Sometimes in front of everyone. Bodies hanging in the street."

When he was 9, Jose Reza’s father began telling him that he should drop out of school. There was no point in trying to get an education, or dreaming about a place where that might be possible. He should go to work. Reza had another idea. He shared it with his mother, though he knew it was a longshot:

"In Mexico, the only people that go to college is the people that have money," Reza says. "The people that are at the top. And I was at the bottom. I always told her my dream was to one day go to college, a dream which I never thought would come true."

Reza’s mom liked the dream, but she had more pressing concerns. She feared for Jose’s safety.

"We tried so many times getting a visa or a permit to come to the U.S. But the process was so long, and we were at the bottom. Of course, we didn’t have the money, so we weren’t put on top," Jose says. "The violence in my town, it was just getting worse. Like there was a kid missing every single day, someone missing, and my mom thought that at any point, I could be the next person missing. So she’s like, 'I’m sorry, but we just tried so many times doing it the right way, and it’s not working, and I can’t have you here no more.' She’s like, 'I would rather take you the illegal way than regret it later on.'”

"When we crossed the border, we had to run. I don't remember why we had to run, but we had to run."

“The illegal way” is dangerous for lots of reasons. Jose was 15 when his mother made that desperate choice.

"I remember being in the back of trucks, not being able to breathe," he says. "It’s just so hard. The darkness. The soreness after I got up from one truck to jump into another one. I thought I was not going to make it. Walking in the desert, being afraid of the snakes and all the heat. When we crossed the border, we had to run. I don't remember why we had to run, but we had to run."

Hurdles On The Other Side

But we aren’t yet to the point of the story where running becomes a source of joy and hope for Jose Reza.

"When I crossed the border, I thought it was over, but it wasn’t," he says.

Jose and his mother hid in a so-called cover-up house in south Texas for weeks.

"You couldn’t talk loud. You couldn’t see anything but walls. At one point, we thought we were kidnapped. Only being fed once a day. As a kid, I needed to eat. I was hungry. I would complain. I’m like, 'What’s going on, Mom? Why aren’t we in the promised land that you told me?'"

Eventually, Reza and his mother made it to Florida, where they had family. Sports were not in the picture right away. In fact, school didn’t turn out to be in the picture right away.

"I had to go to work in the fields. I remember picking oranges, and I told myself, 'I can’t do this forever,'" Jose recalls. "And my mom told me, 'This is not what I brought you here for. And now, although it’s going to be tougher for me, I want you to go to school.' I had mixed emotions because I wanted to go to school – that was my main goal. But she was going to have to be the one paying all the bills."

The drive to get an education won out. But at first, there were challenges.

"The first day was miserable. I can’t tell you what happened because I didn’t understand what was going on in class," Jose says. "It frustrated me. Frustrated me because I wanted to make the best out of it. I wasn’t just gonna sit there and not understand what the teachers were saying to me. What was the point of it?"

Another anxious student might have sought help from a parent. But Jose’s father was still in Mexico, and, besides, he was the guy who’d told Jose to quit school when he was 9, and Jose’s mother couldn’t offer much guidance.

"I remember when I would get close to her door, I would hear her cry. I would hear her, like, come home from the fields really exhausted, and she never wanted to show it to me, because she wanted me to pay attention to school. She didn’t know what school was like, and I remember at one point telling me, 'Son, I apologize, because I can’t help you with school. If you need help, you don’t have no one to help you. It’s just me and you, and I can’t help you with it.'

"And I just remember telling her, 'It’s OK, Mom. You’re helping me by letting me go to school. You’re helping me by sacrificing yourself, by coming home from work exhausted, by preventing those tears from coming down your eyes when I’m in front of you, but I know they happen. And I’m sorry, and I promise you one day I’ll make it better for the both of us.'”

Jose got some help from the nearby migrant center, which provided him with an English sentence dictionary. For a time, he studied it to the exclusion of everything, including invitations from friends to play basketball and football. Sometimes he would fall asleep with the dictionary open in his hands.

'Someone That Runs With Their Heart'

Before long, his grades soared. He piled up hundreds of hours of service outside the school. He made the National Honor Society and became president of its local chapter. In short, he became an excellent candidate for education beyond high school, until the college admissions officers focused on a single detail.

"As soon as they found out that I didn’t have my documents, I would never hear back from them. So one day, I was so frustrated, I didn’t know what to do, so I decided to – out of nowhere – go for a run. I remember that day I ran seven miles. I don’t know how I did it. But all I know is, as soon as I started running, everything just blurred out. Not worrying about anything, just tears coming out of my eyes, and keep on running, keep on running."

Jose kept running for the release it brought. And eventually, people began to notice. His friends suggested that he try out for the cross-country team.

'That’s the kid that I want to be running on my team. Someone that runs with their heart…that runs for something greater than themselves."

"And I was, like, I don’t do it for competition. It has a more significant meaning to me. And then the coach told me, 'That’s the kid that I want to be running on my team. Someone that runs with their heart…that runs for something greater than themselves.'"

So attitude counted, as did perseverance, and then there was talent. Jose Reza was good at what he was doing, which, though it may not seem entirely just or logical, put his candidacy for a college scholarship on a faster track.

"One day my coach told me that, 'If you can run, most of the schools are really not gonna care about your documents.' As soon as I heard that, I just put all my effort into it. I started practicing more, doing the extra things that no one else did at practice. Waking up in the morning at 5 to go run, running at night because I started running my senior year, and I only had one year if I really wanted to make it to college."

Once he found out running could improve his chances of going to college, Jose worked extra hard: "I started practicing more, doing the extra things that no one else did at practice," Jose says. (Courtesy Juanita Martinez)
Once he found out running could improve his chances of going to college, Jose worked harder at the sport. "I started waking up in the morning at 5 to go run," he says. (Courtesy Juanita Martinez)

The extra effort impressed track coach Vince DeGrado at Allen Community College in Kansas. Jose’s 4.6 grade point average probably didn’t hurt. In any case, just before he finished high school, Jose learned that he’d be able to take advantage of the opportunity he and his mother had been dreaming about when they began heading north from Guerrero.

"She didn’t know until, like, that day of my graduation that I told her. 'Hey, Mom, it’s not over. I’m going to college. It’s possible now. It’s not just a dream.' She couldn’t believe it. She’s like, 'Don’t play with me. That’s not something to play around with.' I’m, like, hopefully she doesn’t get a heart attack, because she was screaming, she was dancing. She was excited."

Serving As An Example For Others

Jose Reza is raising the money he needs to live in Kansas as a college student via a GoFundMe page. He’s found the transition comfortable, and he’s made friends easily, especially among the other men and women on the track team. Reza would love to have his mother see him in his role as college athlete, but it’s not likely:

"That would be a dream come true, but unfortunately she can’t afford missing work. She wasn’t able to watch me when I was at home, like the races that was like 10 minutes away from the house, because she was at work. It would mean the world to me, but I just gotta accept the fact that she can’t miss work."

On the rare occasions when Reza looks back, he’s never second guessed the decision his mother made to leave Mexico:

"Most of my friends are not there no more. I don’t know where they ended up. I don’t know what happened to my family members back at home. They just completely disappeared. And I could have been one of those, if it wasn’t because of my mom," Reza says.

Thanks to his mother and his own grit, Jose Reza has a new dream: he hopes to become a biology teacher. But in the current of success that carried Jose Reza to Texas, and then to Florida, and then to Kansas, there’s the potential for a nasty undertow. Remember, he and his mother crossed the border without papers. Their desperation to escape the threats and violence of home has not been certified by the authorities in the U.S. So Jose Reza’s decision to go public with his story is risky.

"It is something that I worry about, but it’s not going to stop me. It’s not going to stop me, because now it’s about telling others that they can do it. And if that’s my price, I’m more than willing to pay for it. But I’m putting myself in the public because I want to serve as an example. I want to tell them, “Look. Look at me. Look at all the things that I had to go through, and I’m still here fighting to be someone. You have the opportunity. Why not take it?"

“You have the opportunity, why not take it?” Hmmm. Kind of has the ring of the American Dream, doesn’t it?

This segment aired on November 5, 2016.


Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



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