By Nikki Carey
February holds a unique place in my heart. It’s the birthday month for my husband AND me, plus three of my kiddos will be celebrating their birthdays within the month (#HouseofPisces). It also stands as a beacon of cultural reflection during Black History Month. So there were several topics that I could’ve chosen to write about this month. However, after discussing with the team, we decided to approach our conversations for the blog and podcast about more JUST communities from a different angle. February is also extra special for Indianapolis this year. The city is humming with excitement for the upcoming NBA All-Star game, which will bring world-class athletes, celebrities, and fans from around the world to Naptown—the heart of basketball country. So, we as a team decided to discuss all things sports this month. I must admit, I was not thrilled when we came to this decision since my engagement with sports is limited to being the biggest cheerleader for my basketball-loving children. However, I agreed because I have a great story in my pocket. I have spent the last year listening to dozens of stories from community members as a part of my dissertation project (T-minus two months until I become a doctor!!!). One of those great interviews was with Fabio Yataco, a Community Leadership Officer at the Indianapolis Foundation. He is a Peruvian American who grew up on the Westside of Indy, with a profound narrative of growth, identity, and unity through athletics. His story convinced me of the powerful role sports can play in fostering a more just community. So, I am going to share some of his story with you all that beautifully intertwines racial and ethnic identity, the unifying power of sports, and the ongoing quest for equity and justice. Enjoy!
Fabio’s Background: Cultural Identity and Immigration
Fabio’s journey begins in the diverse neighborhoods of Indy’s west side. He shares:
I think growing up in the Wayne Township area, I grew up during a time where there was a huge influx of Latinos—majority Mexican. I joke with my friends because I feel like I was Mexicanized in a sense. There was so much influence of Mexican culture. You saw more tiendas that were coming up, more just Mexican stores and grocery stores, taco trucks. And all of my friends were Mexican growing up.
This environment shaped Fabio’s early experiences and identity. Despite his Peruvian roots, he often found himself absorbed in a culture not entirely his own. “My friends didn’t know where Peru was, they’d ask if it was in Mexico,” he recalls with a hint of humor, illustrating the common misconceptions he faced about his heritage.
But Fabio’s story isn’t just about the struggle to fit in; it’s a deeper exploration of identity in a multicultural landscape. Born in Switzerland and raised in the United States, he embodies a blend of cultures that challenges the conventional notions of belonging. This unique mix influenced his understanding of himself and the world around him. The immigrant experience was also extremely influential.
We came here with nothing, my mom and I. I remember I came here with just a backpack. My mom worked a lot in the restaurants and in hotels. She would always take me to the restaurants of the hotels. I would always just be there eating all day, so I was happy. We walked a lot. My mom and I would walk a lot because we didn’t have a car. We slept in a small room that’s probably the size of my closet, to be honest. Coming from that experience, it influences my advocacy. Others have had way worse, I want to acknowledge that, too. My story is not unique to the immigrant story.
Fabio’s reflections on identity are a powerful reminder of the nuanced experiences of many who grow up in immigrant communities. From his words we can view the broader themes of cultural assimilation, identity formation, and the challenges faced by those navigating multiple heritages and the oppressive systems of immigration. These early experiences with identity and culture laid the groundwork for his later involvement in sports and community building.
Choosing the Other Kind of Football
My conversation with Fabio wove through various topics, including advocacy and leadership among people of color in Indianapolis. Fabio’s commitment to the advancement of diverse communities, not just his own, struck a particularly resonant chord. When I asked Fabio what led him to this work, his answer was clear: football. “It started for me when I was in middle school. All my friends that were Latino were going to play soccer. And, I was like, you know what? I want to do something different. And so, I played football. I was the only Brown kid on the football team.”
Fabio’s decision to play football was more than an athletic choice; it was a pivotal step in his identity journey. He already knew that he was much more than the boxes society tried to force him into. In a setting where he was the sole Latino among predominantly Black teammates, Fabio found an opportunity for a broader, more inclusive view of the world. This unique environment of team dynamics opened up new perspectives and understandings, shaping his approach to leadership and community engagement. “It was a unique experience, and I grew to love my friends. When you play football—any sport together—you bond, you know what I mean? You’re with them five days a week during practice and maybe on the weekends during games. You hang out with them. You get to see and live life with them.”
He described this time as an opportunity to be in community, in relationship with a group of people who he may never had known otherwise. This concept of “I see you” made all the difference.
I feel like that definitely shifted how I viewed the world. During that time in high school, I feel like kids go through so much. I remember being in the locker rooms with my friends, and they tell me, “man, my friend just got shot” or “I just lost somebody.” One day, I still remember it to this day, Coach caught us in early morning. We were all in the room, the whole team, and we were all like, “Why are we here?” And that morning, one of our friend’s dad had gotten shot and killed. The coach brought us all together in that room and was like, “Hey, we got to be there for him.” With experiences like that, you realize that it’s more than just being in solidarity. It’s living life with them. It’s about the “I see you.”
As a social scientist, this concept of “I see you” became a central focus in my research. This was not about scoring touchdowns or winning games. Although they did do that. Sharing deep meaningful experiences with his teammates, seeing them, realizing their full humanity built a bridge of solidarity that could not be quickly severed. Fabio did not have to find common ground or a common interest. He did not have to experience gun violence to understand the immense pain his friends were going through. They did not have to experience the hardships of immigration to see Fabio. They only needed to see each other, as brothers, as humans, to develop a deep empathy for and loyalty to each other. This profound sense of connection and understanding was a pivotal element in Fabio’s life, shaping his approach to community and solidarity.
It there was a unique experience because at Ben Davis there was a lot of tension between Black and Brown kids. There were a lot of fights. And so, you had me in the middle. I’d ride the bus and I’d eat lunch with my Latino friends. You can always go to a high school and just go to a lunchroom and see all the racial groups separated. But after school, I’d go practice with my Black friends, too. There was a lot of tension building up and I remember one time I literally saw a racial fight in front of me. I didn’t know what to do. So, I just began separating them until police came and shoved people aside. I remember that day because again, Coach brought us on the field and was like he was like, “On this field, we’re all one on this field. We’re a community, and we’re family, and we got to look out for each other. Whatever happens outside this field, just remember that you have a family here too.” I think it’s things like that—the importance of family, the importance of community that made the difference. I was only Brown kid on that field, and during the racial fights, they’d be like, “Hey, get your boy!” And I was like, “Which one?”
From the Field to Building Community Bridges
Fabio goes on to talk about how persistent learning about history and antiracism has continued to shape his view. He is now a community leader that advocates for solidarity among communities of color. He was one of the organizers of the “Black n Brown Get Down”—a community festival designed to bring Black and Latino communities together to see each other more fully.
We need to “do joy.” What’s missing are opportunities to engage in a meaningful way and see that we’re all human. I think there are stereotypes and that sometimes influenced our way of thinking and our way of viewing certain communities. And if that’s all we’ve ever known and you’ve grown up that way, I feel like it’s hard to disassociate that with certain communities.
As we close this chapter on Fabio Yataco’s inspiring journey, it’s evident that his experiences transcend the mere act of playing sports. Through football, Fabio found a powerful platform for building bridges across diverse communities, fostering understanding and empathy among his peers. His story highlights the importance of seeing and supporting one another beyond surface-level differences, highlighting the role of athletics in promoting social justice and community solidarity. As Indianapolis buzzes with excitement for the NBA All-Star game, let’s remember the broader impact athletics can have in uniting us for a more equitable and just society. Fabio’s narrative is a compelling reminder that when we truly see each other, the possibilities for change are limitless. Fabio’s words have inspired me, and I hope they’ve inspired you too, as we strive to make our communities stronger and more connected.
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