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April 12, 2005

Soccer player born deaf meets goals on, off field

From: Press-Enterprise, CA - Apr 12, 2005


Desert profile
Gabriel López
López plays soccer with passion. He places the same interest on success in school and in life as in the sport.
Age: 26
Goals scored last season: 39
Awards: Has been named Scoring Champion for five straight years. Has 20 trophies in his collection.

INDIO - Gabriel López, 26, plays with heart.

Since he came to the United States seven years ago, he hasn't stopped playing soccer. Neither has he stopped learning.

At an early age he plowed the fields along with his uncles in his native Buenavista de Cuéllar, Guerrero, Mexico. By age 16, he took his first job sewing jeans at a clothing manufacturer in Mexico. Then, by simply watching others, he learned to fix the sewing machines and became the company's mechanic.

López's first job in the United States seven years ago was sanding wooden windows. He then cleaned swimming pools for a year.

"I feel very proud of him. He tries so hard," said Juan Carlos Muñoz, López's soccer coach with the Coachella Valley Desert Soccer League.

A month ago he was recognized as Campeón Goleador, or Scoring Champion, for the fifth year in a row. The team -- Cuéllar -- won first place last season thanks to the many goals López scored, said Ricardo Moreno, 24, the team captain.

Early Obstacle

López was born deaf. He has been diagnosed as profoundly deaf.

"People like him are inspiring," Moreno said in Spanish while López threw himself on the floor, saving a pass from one of his teammates during practice at the Palm Desert Soccer Park off Hovley Lane East in Palm Desert. "He doesn't let obstacles stop him. ... For me, he's like my brother."

López's athletic abilities and his enthusiasm at work are also reflected in school.

López wakes up before the sun to catch a Greyhound bus at 5 a.m. in Indio that transports him to school in Riverside. He has been commuting for four years, Monday through Friday, year-round.

At school he learns English and American Sign Language, and serves as president of the Student Advisory Group. He's also studying for the American citizenship test. Last June he won the Most Improved Award.

"I want to learn English to get a good job," López said through hand gestures.

He graduates from Hacienda/La Puente Adult Education's Hearing Impaired Literacy (HIL) program in August.

Within four years in the HIL program, López has shown progress in leaps, said Angel Sedlacek, a teacher in special assignment for HIL at the satellite branch in Riverside.

Getting Help

According to López's mother, Francisca, 47, the schools in Mexico did not provide the support she has found here.

"They just told me he was playing dumb, that he could speak if he wanted to. They didn't help him," Francisca said in Spanish during a telephone interview.

Now López can communicate in sign language and has reached a fifth-grade reading level, the highest in the program Sedlacek said.

López is the first client willing to make the commitment to travel from Indio to Riverside on a daily basis, said René García, rehabilitation supervisor for the California Department of Rehabilitation in Palm Desert. The department covers López's transportation and meal costs.

"He has really opened doors for other people. There is no program like that in the Coachella Valley," García said during a telephone interview.

Michelle Anderson, López's deaf and hard-of-hearing counselor, added that there isn't enough of a population in the valley to support a program such as the one her client participates in in Riverside.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, Riverside County houses 8,365 sensory- (hearing and sight) disabled adults 21 to 64 years of age. San Bernardino County has 9,151 sensory-disabled adults, also within the ages of 21 and 64.

The entire team that works with López is impressed with his progress, something that is not seen too often.

For López's mother, seeing her son succeed is not surprising.

"He is such an admirable person. He has always been that way -- a hard worker. He doesn't stop," Francisca said. "Since he started learning English, I enrolled in school too. He jokes around and tells me that if I don't learn it, he will send me to Mexico," she said, laughing.

Reach Sandra Baltazar Martínez at (760) 837-4412 or at

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