Rosa Carema, 20, spends her days harvesting squash from farms in the province of Salta in northern Argentina. But when the scorching sun sets over the plains of the Gran Chaco, she puts on a tracksuit and heads to the soccer field of her Ava Guaraní community, on the outskirts of the town of Pichanal.
Carema plays for the women’s soccer team of Club Deportivo Guaraní, a club based in the community of Misión San Francisco. On Saturday, she and her teammates will make history by stepping onto the pitch for the Copa Salta final. They will be the first team from an Aboriginal community to reach the final of a major tournament in the province.
Reaching the final was a huge achievement for the team, which was formed six years ago. To get there, they had to overcome sexism, racial slurs, threats and attacks because of their Indigenous background.
“[Rival teams tell us] we are nothing…we don’t know what we are doing or where we are going,” says Carema. “They’re upset because they can’t go as far as we can, because we’re going in faith with our heads held high.”
Carema has been playing football since the age of five. Like many of her teammates, she first discovered the joys of sport by kicking a ball in the street with her friends. Growing up, those around him began to tell him that it was a man’s game. She ignored them.
“They used to challenge me at home [for playing women’s football], but I just acted like I couldn’t hear it,” she says on the sidelines of the dusty Club Guaraní pitch. “Now they are proud of me and I am grateful to them.”
The prejudices directed against women reflect broader problems of structural poverty, institutional discrimination and lack of respect for the rights of indigenous peoples in Argentina.
About 6.5% of Salta’s population identifies as Indigenous, and 513 of the country’s 1,790 Indigenous communities live in the province.
Poverty rates in the province are among the highest in the country. A state of emergency was declared in three departments in 2020 after several Wichí children died of malnutrition.
Although official statistics are scarce, sexual violence against indigenous women and children is widespread in northern Argentina.
“[Playing football] is a really powerful feeling,” said team captain Dulce Rueda. “I mean, we all like to win, but when we lose and we know we gave it our all, it also gives us a sense of satisfaction.”
The 30-year-old only started playing football 10 years ago. When she is not in the field, Rueda works in construction. “Sometimes people there too say a woman can’t do this kind of work, and yet I do it,” she says as a bullet slams against a chain-link fence.
Rueda was hospitalized after Club Guaraní beat a more established side in July. “Before, the girls threatened us that if we were champions, we wouldn’t come out of there in one piece,” she said. “They practically broke my ankle and knee.”
The team members are of mixed ethnicity — Rueda has Afro-Argentinian heritage — but that makes little difference when it comes to abuse.
“They tell us to go dancing [traditional indigenous dance] imp impexplains coach Johana Palacio, who founded the team with her mother. “They say the people of Misión San Francisco don’t know how to speak properly, that they don’t wear shoes… Just to live in the mission [Indigenous community]they discriminate against you.
Women’s football is growing in Salta. More than 40 women’s soccer clubs are now officially registered in the Salta league and countless small neighborhood teams have sprung up, according to Belén Morelli, president of the Salta Women’s Soccer Association. She says there has been a marked growth in the number of teams from Indigenous communities.
The growing interest in women’s football among indigenous groups is reflected throughout Latin America. In January, a Maká women’s team in Paraguay entered their regional league for the first time, and the Bolivian department of Cochabamba hosted its first football tournament exclusively for indigenous women earlier this year.
Women’s football in Argentina still has a long way to go to achieve the same status and investment as men’s football. The first official women’s league wasn’t created until 1991, and it wasn’t until 2019 that players signed professional contracts for the first time.
In Salta, the prize money for the men’s Cup is 700,000 Argentine pesos (£4,297), twice as much as the women’s earnings.
“There is not a single woman in Salta who makes a living playing football,” says Claudia Catalano, sports and gender equality coordinator at the sports secretariat of the province of Salta, largely in due to declining ticket sales for women’s matches and difficulties in obtaining sponsors.
Catalano adds that the secretariat organizes training sessions to fight against discrimination.
The mood at Misión San Francisco is optimistic about the future of women’s soccer. “[I would tell] young girls who play football to never give up on it,” said Carema, as her teammates began running across the dusty pitch in the light of the setting sun. “The ball is your friend.”
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