Cristian Roldan’s father, Cesar, and mother, Ana, each left civil-war ravaged Guatemala and El Salvador, respectively, to start over in the U.S. They met soon after, married and moved to a town east of Los Angeles, where they raised Roldan and two other sons.
PICO RIVERA, Calif. — A sign atop the high-school stadium’s grandstands reads “Protect the Ranch.”
For four years at El Rancho High, that’s what current Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan did; eschewing professional soccer academies to stay and lead “The Ranch” to local, regional and state soccer championships. His loyalty protected not only classmates who’d assembled their best team ever, but the ideals of a proud, soccer-loving community built largely via the immigrant path his parents had taken decades earlier.
Roldan’s father, Cesar, and mother, Ana, in 1982 each left civil-war ravaged Guatemala and El Salvador, respectively, to start over in the U.S. They met soon after, married and moved in 1990 to this town east of Los Angeles, where they raised Roldan and two other sons in their embodiment of the American dream.
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“Listening to them talk about their stories and why they came, it’s given me an appreciation of their lives and also a deeper understanding of my family’s culture and my own background,” Roldan said. “And it’s a background I’m very proud of.”
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With Roldan, 22, on the verge of MLS stardom with the Sounders, those sacrifices loom. His parents were in the stands last Saturday in nearby Carson, Calif., to see Roldan and the Sounders play the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The following morning, in their three-bedroom, 1950s era ranch-style home, they described their immigrant story. They’d come from well-off families in neighboring Central American countries. Cesar’s father — Roldan’s grandfather — was an illiterate-but-gifted salesman who’d raised beef cattle and later ran a coffee bean business on farmland he owned in their hometown of Gualan.
By age 21, shortly before leaving the country, Cesar finished trade school and took a mechanic’s job at a BMW dealership in Guatemala City.
Meanwhile, Roldan’s mother, Ana, had been raised on her family’s cattle ranch in the Salvadoran border town of Santa Cruz Santiago de la Frontera. She’d commute an hour by bus daily to a small college and an hour back home.
Both longed for more.
“My father wanted me to have a better life,” Roldan’s dad said. “I was making $110 a month at the BMW dealership. Here in the United States, you make that in a day.”
By the early 1980s, horrific civil wars in both nations were at their worst. Roldan’s father and mother say they were never directly impacted by the fighting. But Cesar started seeing bodies floating down river into town, while Ana sometimes saw them on the roadside during her college commutes.
Soon after, each got tourist visas and left for the United States. When the visas expired, they didn’t return.
Roldan’s father worked random part-time jobs, lacking the mechanic’s tools he’d been trained to use. He met Roldan’s mother while she was living in a downtown L.A. apartment with an aunt who was moving out. Roldan’s father happened to be helping the mover that day.
When he met Roldan’s mother, she was a seamstress for a company making baseball caps and moonlighting evenings at McDonald’s.
They began dating, moved in together and gained permanent residency via an amnesty program and other legal means.
Eventually, Roldan’s dad earned enough to pay $90 in monthly rent for wrenches, sockets and other tools to work as a mechanic. A friend got him a job at a national tire chain — giving the couple steady employment and money for a home after they married in 1989.
Pico Rivera has 63,000 residents — 91 percent Hispanic or Latino — crammed within a nine-square-mile radius. But it had cheaper land than adjacent East L.A. and street upon street of single-family homes.
Roldan’s dad points to the long, narrow strip of grass in his backyard where Cristian, his older brother, Cesar Jr., and younger brother Alex first started playing.
“I used to make goal posts out of PVC pipes and all the kids would play here,” his father said.
Those kids later grew into teammates on those championship El Rancho teams. The Roldans lived a block from their elementary school, their mother walking them over daily. On the other side of town is Rivera Middle School, where a giant outdoor mural depicts Roldan — his finger pointed to the sky — and his cross-country running teammates.
According to the mural, Roldan ran a 5-minute 37-second mile for the middle school.
All three Roldan boys were natural athletes. Youngest son, Alex, 21, will soon enter his senior year as a Seattle University soccer midfielder and is spending the summer with his parents. “You wouldn’t believe the fights we’ve had over sports,” Alex Roldan said of the rivalry between him and his Sounders brother, just a year older. “It got pretty intense.”
Few ever got the better of the middle Roldan son. His mother’s family had produced several soccer standouts — including a nephew, Jose Granadino, on El Salvador’s national team from 2006-2013 — and it was apparent Cristian had inherited big talent.
He’d dribble past much bigger, older boys at practices and games both parents shepherded their sons to. At least one parent was always around to watch them play.
Roldan’s father often worked nights, then drove his sons to morning tournaments where he’d sleep in his car between games. He constantly worried he wasn’t doing enough to ensure Cristian’s blossoming talents got noticed.
It had been a struggle just to carve out what life he had in America. He lacked elite level soccer connections.
Sure, he’d been proud when Cristian, stubbornly loyal to his friends, rebuffed academies run by the Galaxy and Chivas USA to stay at less-prominent El Rancho. But he also fretted that his son had sacrificed his soccer future.
As good as El Rancho’s team was, they didn’t play in the football stadium with the “Protect the Ranch” sign. Instead, due to a slope in the field caused by its drainage system — which impacted soccer more than football — the team moved all practices and games to an adjacent, vacant grass lot.
Every game, parents brought folding chairs to the sidelines to watch.
“We really didn’t have all that much,” his father said.
Roldan’s coach sent Division I universities tapes of his undersized star player, but got no response.
Even when Roldan was on his way to winning Gatorade National High School Player of the Year Honors in 2012-13 — a stunning achievement by a little-known player — he still was mostly ignored.
“We just didn’t know anybody,” his father said.
When he and his wife spotted USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann sitting two rows in front of them during a high school tournament, they were conflicted.
“I wanted to tap him on the shoulder and tell him to watch my son,” Roldan’s father said. “But I was too shy. I worried he would laugh at me.”
It wouldn’t be the last time they’d freeze up when spotting somebody famous they felt could help. But his parents showing up to all games finally paid off when, for a change, somebody approached one of them.
His mother was at a game, unknowingly seated next to University of Washington men’s soccer coach Jamie Clark. He introduced himself and asked whether there were any game programs he could use to identify players.
Roldan’s mother had a better idea. “I told him ‘I know of one player you should watch very carefully.’”
Within a day, Roldan had his scholarship.
The rest has been a blur for parents both relieved and overwhelmed by their son’s success.
Inside their home, his father shows off a soccer ball signed by every member of the U.S. Men’s National Team — their gift to commemorate Roldan’s debut with the squad during the CONCACAF Gold Cup’s opening round.
Roldan’s youngest brother is finishing a business degree and hopes to try pro soccer as well. His older brother is an assistant trainer for the Colorado Rapids.
“I told my boys that my own father couldn’t read and write, but he still had a successful life,” Roldan’s dad said. “I told them that I came to this country with nothing and have had success, too. So, growing up here, they had better be more successful than me.”
The words registered.
“I know all of the things my parents did for us and had to give up to come here,” Sounders midfielder Roldan said. “It helped us all to work harder.”
And to protect what’s important — be it “The Ranch” or the ideals and dreams of the community surrounding it.