Making space for women of color on the soccer field and in the ivory tower
First-generation college student Kathy Pulupa will pursue a doctorate in American studies and ethnicity at USC Dornsife in the fall. (Photo: Courtesy of Kathy Pulupa.)

Making space for women of color on the soccer field and in the ivory tower

Graduating senior Kathy Pulupa looks at places where women of color — especially lesbians and undocumented women — can feel safe and supported. [6 min read]
Meredith McGroarty

When Kathy Pulupa was younger, the soccer field was a true safe space. Not only did she enjoy the game, but the companionship and support of her teammates — most of whom were, like her, Latina and children of immigrants — gave her the confidence to express herself freely and, when she was a teenager, to come out as a lesbian.

Now, as she nears graduation and prepares to start graduate school at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences in the fall, she hopes both to research similar safe spaces for women of color — especially those who are queer, undocumented or both — and to provide one for other young scholars of color.

“Everyone’s story is unique as to how they came to play soccer, but it always ends up at the same crux in that soccer is the place where they can feel most comfortable,” she explained. “Everyone has a path to coming to their sexuality. I knew since I was a little kid, but it became more apparent in sports areas.”

Pulupa is a first-generation college student, double-majoring in contemporary Latino and Latin American studies and American studies and ethnicity with a minor in gender studies. She has spent much of her time at USC Dornsife studying how queer Latinas can build communities through soccer. As a Mellow Mays Undergraduate Fellow and an assistant with the Boyle Heights Museum — a partnership between the USC Dornsife Center for Diversity and Democracy and the nonprofit arts organization CASA 0101 — Pulupa has conducted in-depth, hands-on research on the topic, work she will continue in the fall when she begins a graduate program at USC to pursue a Ph.D. in American studies and ethnicity.

Coming out to a Latino family

Pulupa’s parents came to the United States from Ecuador as undocumented immigrants and are now legal permanent residents. Pulupa and her older sister were both born in the U.S.

Pulupa admitted that her family’s experience was not as harrowing as that of many immigrants.

“I grew up in the Valley. My parents owned their house, and I never had to move houses,” she said.

As a child, Pulupa said her parents encouraged her to try dance and soccer, and while she enjoyed dance, she shifted to soccer as she grew older. Her father, who had been a very skilled soccer player himself, encouraged her. She started playing when she was 8 and grew more serious about it in high school. Soccer was the realm in which Pulupa first found the space to explore her sexuality and come out. At age 15, she started dating a teammate, who became her first girlfriend.

The situation was complicated, Pulupa said, because her father coached the team. When Pulupa came out to her parents, they were unhappy, she recalled. Her mother was hurt; her sister, whom Pulupa describes as “very conservative,” was not supportive; and her father was quiet, but not happy.

“I think a lot of Latino families still find it difficult,” Pulupa said. “My parents came around and are really supportive now, but I think it’s because I stood my ground and said, ‘I’m your kid; you have to accept me as I am.’” She added that being “gender-abiding” — “I have long hair and don’t dress like a boy” — has helped a bit with her family’s feelings.

Soccer’s safe spaces

The idea of “making space” for queer people of color is rooted in Pulupa’s own experiences with her family and wanting to make others feel they have a right to be comfortable as they are.

“When I talk about making space for queer Latinx people, I mean that I want people to be comfortable with themselves, but also feel that they don’t have to change because of what their families think,” she said.

For Pulupa this sort of space also has a lot to do with the soccer field. Whether or not their families or others in their lives are accepting of them, women, particularly those who are lesbian and Latina, often find a community that is welcoming and allows them to feel comfortable with themselves.

“Usually LGBTQ spaces are things like gay bars and Pride festivals, and there’s Mission Street in San Francisco,” she said, “but those are often for white people, and it’s like, where do you put queer people of color? At least for Latinas, it’s often soccer. And also each other’s homes. And Latina-dominated clubs.”

Soccer often serves as a safe space for undocumented women, and many in and around Los Angeles play on teams. They often open up their living rooms and kitchens to their teammates, extending that safe space and community beyond the field. This is especially important for a population that cannot go places where certain forms of ID are required, Pulupa said.

Making room in the ivory tower for students of color

Pulupa had a hard time adjusting to college at first; she felt isolated, unhappy. She wanted to leave, to transfer somewhere else. She, like many children of immigrants, also felt pressure to choose a “useful” major that would help justify the struggles her parents went through to come to and live in the U.S. She first opted for international relations but found it wasn’t for her.

“It’s a typical Latino thing — you need to be a doctor, lawyer, scientist or accountant, or something that would make immigration ‘worth it,’” she explained. 

Pulupa credits George Sanchez, professor of American studies and ethnicity and history, with both helping her adjust to academic life and inspiring her to pursue a career in academia itself. She initially went to see him because other students of color told her he was a good mentor. Sanchez advised her to switch her major and work for him as his assistant. After that, she said, she felt like she had an ally as well as a feeling of community at the university, and her studies and life turned upward.

“What would’ve happened if I hadn’t had a mentor like George? If I had left? A lot of people don’t give themselves like that, but George is my life mentor,” she said.

Sanchez also advised her to apply to the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program. As a Mellon Mays scholar, Pulupa followed in Sanchez’ footsteps and worked to provide mentorship and community for other students of color.

“Since I’m the oldest student, I’m not afraid to talk about platforms that nobody talks about, and since academia is so hard, I make sure all the younger [Mellon Mays students] know that we’re more than an intellectual community we provide guidance and support too.” she said.

A portion of Pulupa’s planned graduate school research will use geographic information system (GIS) mapping to see where women who play soccer live as well as where they come from and where they travel to play. Most play every day, and many travel up to two hours to attend games.

Although the road through academia has been hard, Pulupa does feel it is the right one for her.

“I’m happy with how everything worked out. And I feel like everything I’ve been through was worth it. But also, I try to remember that there’s always another day. Always.”