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Feminine Mystique

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For Lincoln High School, the football game was already over. With their team way behind in the fourth quarter against Garfield High’s Bulldogs, there seemed to be nothing left for disconsolate Tiger fans to cheer. Then coach Leo Castro sent in No. 20, one of his reserve fullbacks. Taking the handoff from quarterback Jorge Delgado, Luisana Cruz, No. 20, went up the middle for a five-yard gain—and the stands erupted. Once again, one of the Four Tigresses—the four girls on Lincoln High’s varsity football team—had shown she could play with the big boys. The Tigresses—Cruz, 17, along with lineman Imelda Chaparro, 16, lineman Patricia Mora, 16, and running back Diocelina Macias, 16, aren’t the first girls to play high school football—or even the first to play at Lincoln High in Los Angeles—but having four girls break the gender barrier at the same time has created a buzz in the school and on the streets of their largely Latino neighborhood. “You hear about the four girls,” laughs Cruz, 5’6″ and 151 lbs. in full equipment. “They don’t know exactly who we are—just the four girls who play football!”

When, with their parents’ approval, they approached Coach Castro at the beginning of the year, he was surprised but agreeable. He told them they would have to work hard with the rest of the team through the spring and summer; Castro also warned them that they could expect to be razzed by their peers.

Why did the four decide to take their chances with injury, teasing and possible humiliation? Says Macias (5’6″, 137 lbs.), who ran track in tenth grade and wants to be a coroner: “I like the contact in football. And I wanted to do something different. Everyone is a cheerleader.”

For Chaparro (5’8″, 226 lbs.), like Mora (5’7″, 170 lbs.) a native of Mexico, who came to L.A. with her family when she was an infant, it was the challenge of competing with boys on their own turf. “I wanted to see if I could stay there and take the guys’ hits,” she says. “It’s fun; you get thrown—and you get up.”

On the first day of spring practice, the girls got a taste of what their lives would be like. Chaparro found herself doing push-ups in a mud puddle. “I had mud all over my face,” she says, “but I had to show them I didn’t want any special treatment.” The girls hung in there, and it was one of the boys who fainted during a day of grueling practice. Gradually the boys on the team came around to the idea of having female teammates. “Now,” says Macias, “if we do a good play, they cheer us.”

Yet Chaparro, Mora, Cruz and Macias have not attained total acceptance. Some opposing players, realizing they are playing against girls, try extra hard to knock them over. And their own cheerleaders sometimes seem ambivalent. “They say, ‘Wait a minute, we’re the beauty queens,’ ” explains Coach Castro. ” ‘We’re supposed to be the ones who get attention.’ ”

For Castro, 48, having so many girls on the team meant setting some guys straight right at the beginning. “I told them this is good for Lincoln; it’s good for the football program. And they’ll take your jobs if you don’t work hard enough.” There were, however, some adjustments. “One of the girls complained about having cramps,” says Castro, “and one guy told me he gets cramps all the time. I had to explain the difference.”

While the girls, who get their own dressing room whether at home or on the road and who wear improvised protective padding on their upper bodies—Cruz and Macias wear catcher’s vests—are comfortable playing with the boys, they’re adamant that they’re not becoming boys. “We still have our ladylike things,” says Macias. “We don’t burp or pick our noses. We don’t spit. When you’re out there, you’re out there to be one of the guys. But when you’re at home or at a party, you’re a girl.”

Mike Neill

Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles