UNIVERSITY VILLAGE — The memories of a 5-year-old boy remain in Jesus Torres' mind.
Of course, the impact of Torres' journey from Mexico to the United States in April 1999 would likely leave an impression on anyone of nearly any age. More than 15 years later, Torres — a senior soccer star at University of Illinois at Chicago and a Little Village High School graduate — vividly remembers how he and family members illegally crossed the border and eventually made their way to Chicago. He now has a green card and hopes to become a citizen.
"I don't share my story with everyone," said Torres, a Flames forward who has been named to the All-Horizon League First Team the past two years. "I feel now that I want to tell it."
Jesus Torres was open with Justin Breen about his illegal move to America:
It began in Degollado, Jalisco — a small city deep in south central Mexico — when Torres was 5. He, his mother, Evangelina Alvarez — who made her living making tortillas for a few hundred dollars a year — along with an aunt, uncle and two cousins decided to join Torres' father, Gonzalo, in the U.S. to chase the American dream.
To do that, the family would take a 1,400-mile bus trip to the Mexican border town of Mexicali, where they stayed at a hotel for two days. In the dark hours, they were escorted by members of what Torres called a "human trafficking" service under a border fence. They then walked miles in an open desert and carefully traversed a small footbridge over a river.
"If you took a bad step, you could fall in, and I didn't know how to swim," Torres said.
They would reach a safe house off a desert road, where the group stayed for another 24 hours.
"When the sun came out, we were told if you see a helicopter, to hide, even under a bush," Torres said.
Eventually they were picked up by a midnight blue Chevy Astro van — Torres clearly recalled the make, model and color of the vehicle — which drove them on the desert road in pitch black. The van's headlights were covered by duct tape while a man on the passenger's side stuck his head out the window to make sure it didn't go off the road.
Torres said the same man gave him six Chips Ahoy! chocolate chip cookies and a gallon bottle of water for the ride, which would take them to Los Angeles. They remained there for a month before migrating to Chicago, where Torres has lived since.
"Because of how I got here and whatever I went through just makes me work harder," Torres said. "Every day, even if I'm tired, I have to do what I have to do, and that's it."
Success in the Classroom and on the Field
Torres' mindset has served him well in the classroom and on the soccer pitch. Torres is the first person in his family to attend college. Earlier this year, he received the Port Center Award, which recognizes a student-athlete who has shown the most academic growth over the course of his time at UIC.
He's on pace to graduate next year with a degree in Criminology, Law and Justice. He wants to pursue a career as a police officer, ideally in Chicago.
"When I was in elementary school, a police officer would come to our school [Eli Whitney] and talk about gangs and not getting into them," Torres said. "I want to do the same type of thing and go to schools and tell the kids how successful I've been and try to help them."
Torres said soccer saved him from the street and other pitfalls of his Little Village upbringing. He began playing as a 3-year-old for his grandfather's club team in Mexico and later in Chicago during Sunday Leagues. He said most of his teammates from those city leagues are now in gangs or in prison.
"You always hear shootings where I live," said Torres, who still resides at home. "I saw people get shot at. They've burned cars in front of my house. There's just always something going on. You hear the ambulances a lot. It's bad."
Torres' said his time as a child and teenager was either spent at school, at home watching his younger brother, Joan, and sister, Brenda — who were both born in the U.S. — while his mother was working at a glass factory, or on the soccer field. He played varsity all four years at Little Village, plus was a standout forward for several club teams, including Chicago United, which was coached by current Flames assistant Minos Vlamakis.
With the Flames, who are 4-2-1 this season after Saturday's 2-1 victory over DePaul, Torres has been a points machine. Last year, Torres led the Horizon League with nine assists, and he's tallied two goals with an assist this year.
"He has a great ability to unbalance defenses," said Flames head coach Sean Phillips, a Bucktown resident. "Once he unbalances the opponent, he has the ability to score or create for his teammates."
UIC redshirt junior back Thomas Villamil said despite observing Torres' attacking style for four seasons, he still has difficulty defending him.
"He is able to go to his left and right, and, on top of that, he has unreachable speed," Villamil said. "I think my favorite thing about him is that he will isolate a player and go head to head on a one-versus-one battle."
'Everything Happens for a Reason'
Torres, who turned 21 on May 28, certainly isn't intimated by a challenge in soccer or in life. If he can't make it in pro ball, his next objective is to earn enough money as a cop to move his mother, who doesn't speak English, out of Little Village and into a safer Chicago neighborhood.
Torres also obtained a green card in 2011, after starting the application process in 2005, and said he will likely take a citizenship test in 2016. His mom also now has a green card and plans to take the test.
And Torres, whom Phillips called "a quintessential American story," does not apologize in the least for how he came to the U.S. Like the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who have illegally entered and stayed in this country, Torres said he and his family were only looking to better their lives.
To those who say he should not even be here, Torres said: "I don't care."
"I'm a huge believer that everything happens for a reason, and I appreciate everything that's happened to me," he said.
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