The 2023 Pan American Games are currently underway in Santiago, Chile, and Israel Enrique Mateos is there, making history as the first and only competitor from the USA in Frontball – a ball-and-wall sport that resembles American handball.
With roots in both Pacoima and Sylmar, Mateos, 31, is one of three Team USA athletes currently competing in Pelota Vasca (Basque ball), which kicked off at the Pan Am Games on Tuesday, Oct. 31, with four variations of the sport: Doubles Trinquete, Individual Fronton and Doubles Frontenis, which are played with a rubber paddle or wooden racquet, and Mateos’ division, Frontball, which is played barehanded.
“It’s not just slapping the ball against the wall – it’s kind of like a chess game,” said Mateos, describing his Frontball strategy during an interview with the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol before traveling to Chile. “You’re positioning yourself so you can get your opponent to a certain area where you can shoot … to score your point. There’s a lot of tactics and timing to it.”
Family Travels to Support Him
Mateos’ loved ones are cheering him on in person in Chile – his girlfriend Christina Chaidez, his sister Viri Diana Mateos, his niece Kylee and his mother Guadalupe Bernal.
“I just feel blessed to be able to be here and [also] have my daughter [Mateos’ niece] here to watch him play,” said his sister Viri Diana. “They have such a close bond that this is a lifetime experience for her, too. She’s been practicing how she’s going to cheer for him.”
Viri Diana shared her family’s excitement via a message sent to the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol from Chile, one day before the Frontball competitions began at Spanish Stadium in Las Condes.
“God has truly blessed our family by allowing all of us to be here to watch him play the sport he loves,” she continued. “He’s making every single one of us proud – he’s the son of two immigrants from Mexico competing for the U.S. That in itself is such a great accomplishment.”
Mateos’ mother used to be against him devoting so much time to playing handball when he was a kid, and especially when he continued playing into adulthood, but now she understands what he’s accomplished isn’t an easy feat and has value.
“I always thought he needed to be doing something different,” said Bernal before leaving for Chile. “But now I realize that someone who perseveres achieves [success], and Israel is one of those people who perseveres doing something he loves and, at the end of the day, that is living.”
Mateos’ story first published last week in the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol has received the attention of fellow residents of Pacoima, Sylmar and others from the Northeast Valley.
“Congrats!! Proud of you! I’m from nearby Granada Hills!” wrote Patty Morrell on Facebook.
“Good luck to him and your family,” wrote another on Instagram. “What a beautiful story! Putting Pacas on the map! A big middle finger to anyone that ever said nothing good comes out of the hood.”
“This is a great story!!” wrote Daisy Harad on Facebook. “Congratulations to him and may his story influence and inspire our local youth.”
The San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol will follow Mateos’ progress at the Pan American Games. He will be posting on his Instagram page at: www.instagram.com/frontballteamusa.