The Women’s World Cup gives players a chance to represent their nation on the global stage. For many athletes, though, their heritage goes beyond a single country.
The front of Ashley Sanchez and Sofia Huerta’s jerseys said “USA” when they suited up at the 2023 tournament. However, they were also playing for the names on the backs of their jerseys and their Mexican American lineage.
Sanchez and Huerta, both half-white and half-Mexican, joined rare company at the Women’s World Cup. Prior to 2023, Stephanie Cox had been the only Mexican American to take the field for the USWNT in tournament history.
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As told through NBC’s “My New Favorite Futbolista” podcast, it has been a journey for each player to embrace their identity.
Sanchez was 3 months old and just miles away when the USWNT captured one of the most iconic championships in the history of soccer.
She was born to a Mexican American father, Ralph, and a white-American mother, Julie, in Pasadena, Calif., on March 16, 1999. On July 10, Brandi Chastain drilled the winning penalty kick in front of 90,000 fans down the road at the Rose Bowl and millions across the globe in the Women’s World Cup final, giving the U.S. a title on home soil.
After having curly, black hair as an infant, Sanchez’s hair soon turned blonde. Because of her appearance, many of her fellow classmates didn’t realize she was Mexican American until they heard her name called out by a teacher. They would also ask her if she knew how to speak Spanish, and she felt her answer created more distance between herself and her father’s heritage.
“I think that was like a big thing for me,” she said. “Like, I'm just okay, maybe I'm not Mexican enough.”
Sanchez recalled her lone visit to her grandparents’ hometown in Mexico with her family when she was 7 or 8 years old. A decade later, her connection to her heritage continued to grow from her college campus.
Sanchez joined the UCLA women’s soccer team in 2017 and made an immediate impact on the field. She led the Bruins in assists each of her three seasons with the program, including a freshman campaign that ended in the NCAA title game.
Off the field, Sanchez’s bond with her UCLA teammates, particularly Karina Rodríguez, who now plays for the Mexican national team, helped her tap into her roots.
“I was surrounded on a team with girls who were also either half Mexican or fully Mexican, just made me feel more comfortable,” Sanchez said. “Like, we're sisters … and I think that really helped me to embrace it more.”
Huerta’s journey to the USWNT began more than 800 miles north of Sanchez.
Like Sanchez, Huerta has Mexican heritage on her paternal side. However, her hometown surroundings were nowhere near as diverse.
“Being in Idaho, you know, isn't the most diverse area ever. So I think I definitely struggled with my identity there,” Huerta, a Boise native, said. “Just, you know, I wanted to fit in. And, you know, I felt like the only way to fit in was if I was white. It was definitely a hard place to grow up.
“But thankfully, because of my parents, I was always proud to be Mexican.”
Huerta played collegiately at Santa Clara University and first sported an American kit in 2012 to kick off her international career. The U.S. program did not call her up for the 2012 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, prompting her to represent Mexico instead.
The change was made possible thanks to her father, who was born in Puebla. However, it was not widely supported, even by her new “fans.”
“I think it was difficult for some fans to understand that … (I) loved representing Mexico or that I was really Mexican,” she said. “I'm from Idaho. You guys, come on. I didn't choose that. I could have lived elsewhere and been in a Spanish-speaking area. Like, California. But that wasn't in my playing cards.”
“I think when I was there, you know, I don't know what's appropriate to say or not, but I was called a gringa by people.”
Huerta didn’t let the noise affect her play on the field. She scored in each of Mexico’s group stage matches at the U-20 Women’s World Cup before the team was eliminated in the quarterfinals.
Her time with Mexico was short-lived following the tournament. She announced in December 2014 that she was going to try and rise to the ranks of the U.S. program again. It was no sure thing, and it was another decision that led to resentment from fans.
“Once I represented Mexico for quite some time, then again they received me better,” Huerta said. “And then right when they started receiving me better, then I left.
“Of course, I received some critique from the fans that I was, you know, a traitor, I wasn't really Mexican and I go back to where I belong. You know, there were things that were not the nicest to hear.”
Still, Huerta stood by her switch.
“I think when people really understand why I decided to play for the U.S., I think it's hard not to – I don't want to say root for me, but I think it's hard not to understand why I would make that decision. It was a dream of mine since I was 5 years old,” she said. “You know, I was born in America. I played for the U.S. team. You know, it was always a dream of mine because I saw them on TV all the time.
“I think that if I was born in a different situation, playing for Mexico would have been my dream. I'm so thankful that I got that opportunity. But it really was always to play for the U.S. and to make a World Cup (or) Olympic team with the U.S. team.”
Sanchez (Washington Spirit) and Huerta (OL Reign) have played against one another for years in the National Women’s Soccer League. Over the summer, they were together on the USWNT for their first Women’s World Cup appearance.
While they each wore red, white and blue in Australia and New Zealand, both players are seeking new ways to embrace their roots – even if it’s still a work in progress.
“She's just like a jokester all the time,” Huerta said of Sanchez. “We're always, like, trying to speak Spanish to one another, then we get embarrassed and we laugh because we're not the best at speaking.”
Sanchez says she hired a tutor to help her learn the language. At first, it was part of a joke to surprise her Spanish-speaking grandmother, but she soon understood the opportunity she had as a role model.
“I think there's so much more to do and there's so many young girls, Mexican Americans, that are like, so good and that are deserving of the spotlight,” Sanchez said. “And I just hope that there's obviously more players and that will just be off in the distance. No one talks about it anymore because it's going to become so common. But yeah, I think it's awesome. And even little girls with their signs and, you know, they're just so happy to look up to us. And I just think it's like a really big deal and it's amazing.”
Huerta is also proud of the platform she has and wants to fully show off her Mexican American identity.
“Think, wow, what an awesome opportunity I have to be Mexican American, having Huerta on the back of my name and then having little girls who look up to me who are also Mexican American,” Huerta said. “Because as cliche as it sounds, I think we all agree that if you could see it, you can be it. And so I think for any little girl or boy who's from the community, who sees my last name now, they'll believe that they can do it.”
This story was originally published on June 28, 2023, ahead of the 2023 Women's World Cup.