Refuge on the field: A migrant boy finds home in baseball

CHICAGO -- Between batters with no music playing, Yoel Guerra danced, swinging his hips in the infield between the bases. But as his opponent stepped up to bat, he crouched down, ready to field the ball.

The 16-year-old from the northern state of Aragua, Venezuela, has played baseball since he was 4. He’s been in Chicago for over a year now, and he said he derives the most joy from the field.

Guerra, who plays second base for the Farragut Career Academy Admirals in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, scored two of the three runs — including one where he stole home — in the second game of a doubleheader on a recent Friday. Guerra’s ability is apparent, but it’s his love for the game that stands out.

Baseball is the most popular sport in Venezuela, a country in economic and political disarray, and the home country of most of the 37,000 migrants who have come to Chicago since August 2022. The game is played differently there, said several of Guerra’s family members as they watched him tag players out and catch fly balls.

Migrants have faced hurdles in adjusting to life in a city that has struggled for almost two years to house and feed them. But for Guerra, whose coaches say has a chance of being recruited for college, baseball is a semblance of home.

Baseball is more than a sport, Guerra said. It’s a way to build confidence. It’s a refuge.

“I try to have the most fun that I can,” he said. “Whatever problems I have, baseball makes them go away.”

Guerra’s mother Carolina Escobar, 31, said her family of seven came to the United States from Venezuela, mainly for more opportunities for her children. They’ve been lonely since they moved into their new house in Little Village over a year ago.

It has been hard for Escobar and her husband, David Espinoza, 32, to find work. They mostly spend time inside their home, and they’re adjusting to the cold weather.

“I feel like winter will never stop,” she said, sitting in a folding chair in a Cubs jacket by the chain-link fence to watch her son step up to bat.

Guerra won Conference Player of the Year last season and made the Cubs traveling team. But Escobar encourages her son to focus on his studies so he’ll have the opportunity to get into a good school.

Thousands of kids, like Guerra and his siblings, have crossed several national borders seeking a better life in Chicago.

“They are carrying a very heavy weight invisible to many of us,” said Soledad Álvarez Velasco, a social anthropologist and human geographer at the University of Illinois at Chicago in a recent interview.

These kids have lost the places where they play and their communities with other children.

Though Guerra said he misses the way baseball was played in Venezuela, he says the team at Farragut has been a “beautiful welcome.”

“When I play well, I feel so good,” he said. “It’s the biggest thing that makes me happy day to day. And when I’m feeling sad, it makes everything better.”

Guerra’s stepfather said he believes there are more talented baseball players in his home country. He said the fan culture there is stronger, and the leagues at Guerra’s age are more competitive.

Some of the most notable players in Chicago have been from Venezuela, including former White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillén and player Luis Aparicio, the first Venezuelan in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Adbert Alzolay, for the Cubs, is also Venezuelan.

“It’s the pastime of our country,” Espinoza said. “There are always games on the weekends. Here, it’s a lot calmer.”

Escobar and Espinoza watched the game while their two youngest kids — 9-year-old Yervis and 7-year-old David — played catch on a nearby field. Yervis and David swung bats twice their size and rolled around on the grass.

The familiar merenguero chords in Elvis Crespo’s “Suavemente” rang out from speakers in the dugout.

Guerra, his mother, and his two oldest siblings arrived in Chicago in February 2023 and moved into a house the next month. His stepfather had arrived in the city a month earlier, and his two littlest siblings came later with their aunt.

His youngest siblings were separated from their aunt by officials at the border because they weren’t biologically hers, and reunited with their mother in August with the help of Matt Demateo, pastor of New Live Centers in Little Village, which helps asylum seekers in Chicago. He is one of the coaches of the Farragut Admirals team.

Demateo said the team was too good for their conference, so they booked nonconference games for a bigger challenge.

The first team — George Washington High School — started with an early 3-0 lead and never looked back, defeating the Admirals 10-0.

Guerra’s started slow, grounding out.

Still, his presence on the field was joyful, and he often smiled, even when his team was losing.

“Let’s go, Yoel!” Demateo said after Guerra threw the ball to first.

During the second game against Mather High School, in a particularly impressive move, Guerra stole home to score.

Dust blew up in his face. He adjusted his gloves and glasses and walked calmly back to the dugout.

When the rest of his team was dragging, Guerra’s stamina didn’t waver. He hit a double to left field. But the Admirals still lost 8-3.

For a player who kills time between batters by dancing, Guerra is modest about his skills — his ability to throw perfect games and steal bases. He likes to connect with other Venezuelan baseball players, including opponents.

“When I had just arrived, it was really hard to get used to hearing a language I don’t understand,” he said.

Now, he knows more people. His teammates have become friends. To them, he’s not different. He’s their second baseman.

After the doubleheader, Guerra ate Little Caesar’s with his family and girlfriend, Glorneilys Liendo, 14, who is also from Venezuela. The two met at high school, and Liendo said she plans to join the Farragut softball team.

They stood to the side of the group grinning at each other and talking softly.