LEON, Guanajuato - The industrial metropolis of Leon, Guanajuato is known primarily for being the home of Mexico's footwear industry, filled with boot factories and outlet shoe stores. Alejandra Arellano recently bought one of these shuttered factories with the notion of continuing to build a different legacy for her hometown of Leon. Basketball.
She and her family tore out the conveyor belts, hammered down new wooden courts, and manually installed basketball nets to turn the factory into a professional-looking gymnasium. After two weeks of hard labor, the children's basketball and athletics club that she founded seven years before, Panteras (Panthers), had a brand new home.
But Arellano is used to breaking new ground.
In September of last year, the 35-year-old made history when she became the first female assistant coach in Mexico's top male basketball league, the Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional (LNBP). When she took to the sidelines to help guide the Leon Abejas (Bees), she said that “we broke the paradigm,” because although she may have been the first female coach in Mexico's highest hoops league, she doubts she'll be the last.
“There are many women who are dedicating ourselves to this, lots from the professional women's league that are already coaches,” said Arellano. “I could give you tons of names, and I think the next step after being a head coach in the women's league, is [being a female coach in] the men's league, and it wouldn't be a problem.”
Alejandra Arellano addresses the Leon Abejas in a timeout during a game in the 2020 season. Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz for VICE World News
The NBA has seen a cascade of female assistant coaches since Becky Hammon broke the gender barrier in 2014 with the San Antonio Spurs after a storied career overseas and in the WNBA. While no female coach in the U.S. has yet made the leap to being a full-time head coach, in the past years Hammon has interviewed for the position with other teams and in 2020 became the first woman to act as a head coach in an NBA Game after Spurs Coach Greg Popovich was ejected from a December contest.
Arellano hopes that her milestone will allow the same sort of progress to happen in Mexico with players from their own women's league, the Liga Mexicana de Baloncesto Profesional Femenil (LMBPF).
But while Arellano's most recent accomplishment was historic, she was already a local basketball legend on the Mexican women's basketball scene. Not only did she play on Mexico's national team, she also led the Guanajuato Mieleras (Honeysuckles) to back-to-back championships in 2015 and 2016 in the LMBPF. But even with the highest level of success, her accomplishments from the women's league are mostly unknown to Mexican sports fans. The LMBPF has only existed since 2014 and its players generally receive meager salaries compared to its male counterparts.
But Arellano says that in the past few years the league has been gaining more support, and it's “starting to level out.” Some players are receiving salaries that allow them to not have to work second jobs to play.
Ana Guadalupe Flores Gómez, one of the founders of the Guanajuato Mieleras, said that it's important to have a thriving women's league in Mexico because “it opens a lot of doors.”
“So we've been working for years in Guanajuato state, and for society on the national level,” she said. “Our goal, our vision, is to expand and reach areas that previously were uncomfortable, the small pressure points where we can do something that helps women through sports, which right now, is a very special moment.”
The importance of the LNBP's first female coach in a country steeped in machismo can't be understated. After 2019 alone saw a record-breaking average of over 10 women killed every day in Mexico, feminist protests rocked the nation in 2020. On March 8 last year, International Women's Day, hundreds of thousands of women took to the streets in peaceful protest around the country. In August, a group of activists made international headlines when they occupied the National Human Rights Commission office in Mexico City demanding justice for unsolved femicides.
The hiring of a female assistant coach in Guanajuato is particularly relevant because of the growing student movement there. After the rape and murder of a recent graduate of the University of Guanajuato in December 2019, students across the state walked out and occupied public plazas demanding meetings with university rectors and the governor to address the safety of female students.
As the movement grew, the Guanajuato Mieleras became involved in supporting the activists.
“We got involved in the discussions with their campaigns and their demonstrations, we'd publish messages on your social media in support of the women,” said Flores Gómez. “We've always been united with that.”
Arellano reflected on the protests, although she didn’t support the destruction of property that happened in various parts of the country, she understood the anger, because “the problem is that the femicides aren't stopping and I believe they'll continue.”
Guanajuato state hit its highest number of femicides ever in 2020.
“It's an ugly situation,” she said. “But destruction is not the message that we want to send. We can protest in other ways, by working, by studying, by showing that there are other ways.”
In her opinion, becoming the first female assistant coach with the Abjeas is a “great step” in the right direction.
Manuel Lozano, the General Manager of the Leon Abejas, said that he was inspired by the success of Becky Hammon with the San Antonio Spurs to search out a female assistant coach because he believes in “inclusion.” When he began to explore what candidates might be interested, Arrellano was the obvious choice. Within three days of their first phone call, she joined the team.
While the Leon Abejas have been a leader in the LNBP with progressive initiatives such as putting slogans on their jerseys in the 2020 season like “Use face masks” and “social distance,” Lozano made it clear that the team's interest in Arellano wasn't only about her gender.
“She has a basketball school and this interested me a lot. I'm interested in people coming here that want to help and want to encourage the sport with children,” said Lozano. The Abejas have also run various initiatives around Leon to build basketball courts and clinics for local children in the industrial city.
On a weekday afternoon in Leon, dozens of children filed into the new Panthers gym, ready for one of Arellano’s practices.
Alejandra Arellano watches on as Maria takes a jumpshot during a scrimmage. Nathaniel Janowitz for VICE World News
She lined the kids up in rows, led them through stretches, and ran various drills. The sound of bouncing balls, competitive shouts, and laughter filled the former shoe factory.
A man named Roberto sat on the side of the gym with his 14-month-old daughter on his lap holding a baby-sized basketball. The infant and her father watched on as her big sis, six-year-old Maria, participated in the practice. Maria, wearing her hair in a ponytail with a pink scrunchie and matching Jordan socks pulled high, passed the ball with her friends, both boys and girls.
“She's always asking me constantly, ‘Papa, when can I go to practice and play?’” said Roberto, who grew up playing basketball. He's glad that Maria has the opportunity to learn from a player as accomplished and groundbreaking as Arellano, who also represents her, because in the past “men have stood out more.”
“It's very important for girls, and also boys, that they can train with women and have an example of a progressive way forward, and in this case, it's basketball.”