Open Letter to Jose Cardenas, One of “McFarland, USA”‘s Real Life Champions

Dear Mr. Cardenas,

This past weekend I saw “McFarland, USA,” a movie about one phase of your life, growing up in the agricultural town of McFarland, California.

You and your friends worked in the mornings before school and on the weekends in the fields picking vegetables and fruit, just about the hardest (and most important) work anyone can imagine. Then you spent afternoons running miles upon miles upon miles.

A day later, I read in your essay in the L.A. Times that your State Championship race was “one of the biggest disappointments in my youth.” Your long-held regret stirred the nurturer in me, and although you are a grown man, a journalist, husband, father, and Army sergeant, in my mind you are still that high school kid, and I can’t help my motherly instinct to tell you how I see what you did that day, and what lessons you have taught me and my children.

You saw the film as being about your disappointment. I saw the film as being about your tenacity, determination, loyalty, perseverance, athleticism, and strength. The movie was about much more than a state championship race, it was about the people you became.

(Spoiler alert for movie fans who aren’t aware that Disney movies have happy and dramatic endings).

But let’s talk about that race. You set out sprinting, on fire to prove something. You pushed too hard; you didn’t last. Even that teaches everyone who sees your story to see these truths:

1. No one is perfect. You are a father. Your child will strive, and will sometimes fail. You will guide her through heartbreak or disappointment by scrolling through your youth, looking for a moment that fills your reservoir of empathy. That race is going to heal your daughter’s heart some day.

2. Keep going. You didn’t like your race performance. You moved on, kept running, went to college and graduated, creating opportunities that didn’t exist before.

3. Give others a chance to shine. Your personal disappointment gave another teammate (who, according to the movie, had nothing to offer the team but keeping his faster brothers on the team) his first chance to make a difference.

4. Try to see differently. You saw your “mistake” of setting out filled with fire and speed as failure; we thought you may have inspired your teammates to run faster, push harder than they otherwise might have.

5. Pace yourself. Sometimes we are overcome by adrenaline and ambition. We push too hard and flame out. It’s a chance to pause, slow down, get our bearings before we get up and go again at a kinder pace.

6. Have a team. When our fire burns out, we need friends to help carry us for a while.

I was born in a family where everyone goes to college. I took it for granted that I would go. You were born in a community where that was not true, but with the blessings of a great coach and other adults to point the way to other paths, you made that your reality.

You close your essay with this glimpse of forgiveness: “‘McFarland, USA’ suggests my teammates became winners in life. And by that measure, maybe I can let go for good the sour memory of the state race. A caption says what became of me, a sort of champ in my own life, too, I guess.” Mr. Cardenas, there’s nothing to guess about.

After McFarland, U.S.A. at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood.

Apres enjoying the glamorous, one-of-a-kind El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, California.

P.S. By the way, these are me and my kids — two sons from the ‘burbs and a foster daughter from Guatemala — the ones you are helping me to teach that anything is possible if they work hard enough.

12 thoughts on “Open Letter to Jose Cardenas, One of “McFarland, USA”‘s Real Life Champions

  1. Thank you laura for your take on my essay. Appreciate your different philosophical way to look at things. I enjoyed your essay as well -jose

  2. I too did not see your performance as a failure. In fact quite the opposite it was an inspiring, a wonderful example of perseverance and what it means to work as a team. I can understand your disappointment at your personal performance and I cannot take away those feelings but I what I can share is how I felt and that was a profound sense of pride and admiration toward fellow Mexican-American. Too often I have found that our own will criticize those of us who want something better and different.
    The mantra at our house has all ways been that good luck and opportunity comes through HARD WORK. I thank you and your fellow team mates for a real life example for ALL the young folks.

    • Dr. Barragan, I appreciate your comment and couldn’t agree more. I wish I could say I never fell short of working hard; I often do. Perhaps that is why stories like Mr. Cardenas’ and his teammates resonates so strongly, as reminders that what may seem impossible isn’t.

  3. Ms. Diamond,
    I google searched Jose Cardenas after watching “McFarland, USA” out of curiosity, because as you may see, my last name is also Cardenas. I came across this letter of yours, and I must say I am touched and inspired by your words. I used to run in races when I was around the age of twelve, and much like Mr. Cardenas did duringg the state championships, I pushed too hard at the start and didn’t last. I haven’t ran another race since middle school because of it. It isn’t an important hobby of mine, but what you had to say about it is very applicable to my life right now, so I’d like to simply say thank you

    • Dear Gabriella,
      It gives me great pleasure to hear from you, and that you found something you needed in my letter to Jose Cardenas. We all know different moments of defeat and victory. Sports can be a great teacher, in the losses as much as the wins. I was never good at sports — I chose ballet after my volunteer coach shamed me in pee-wee baseball — and appreciate all the more how people can rise after defeats. I wish you great strength, grit and joyful moments. Warmly, Laura

  4. I’m a german journalist, living in Paraguay with my adopted son and two other paraguayan foster children. We watched the movie together and they loved it. An hour of discussions and plans and ideas followed – and they all said: you gave it a try, you had so much heart and wanted to give victory to your team mates. That’s want counts as much as a victory itself. You didn’t let your team down. You might have miscalculated your strengths, but you took out energy from others as well who tried to follow you. You won as a team – and you played such an important role in this team. I love the film as an example for human strengths and will power – yours as well. I wish you and your family all the best. Hey, and I would love to show the film to a certain Donald T. so he could learn from… Mexican American Power and warmth and character, tenacity and team spirit. Like yours. Yours sincerely, Bettina, Johnny, Alexis and Natalia from Paraguay.

  5. Yes….after i watched the movie …i’m curious about what happen to JOSE CARDENAS…so true…there are times that we would like to give our best but then somehow it was still not enough…but you know MR JOSE CARDENAS…you played a very big role from the beginning ..the first MCFARLAND had won until the state championship…you are an inspiration to us all…your hardwork in how to balance your life and do rigorous trainings , so did the rest of the team and the dedication of the coach were so amazing

    Thanks Laura for this wonderful and insightful letter to MR JOSE CARDENAS….
    and it was also nice of Mr Cardenas to reply your letter …this only shows how honorable man he is…. :

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