In this 16th edition for the 2012 season we sat down with kicker Juan Bongarra and transitioning to the U.S. from Argentina, his passion for soccer and curiosity with spicy food.
Editor: You grew up in Argentina, but have now been in the United States since you were 16-years-old. Looking back, what kind of transition was that for you?
Juan Bongarra: It was very different, just everything about it, the culture, the food, the language and the people. Everything was different, and it was a shock at the beginning, but I embraced it a long time ago and now I consider myself used to it. Looking back I have to say that I’ve really enjoyed being here.
ED: Did you move directly to Tampa or somewhere else?
JB: No, I actually moved to Scottsdale, Arizona first. Then I went to school in Georgia, played football in Tulsa and now I’m here in Tampa Bay, so I’ve been everywhere.
ED: So it certainly sounds like you’re a well-traveled individual. What about the Tampa Bay area have you liked the most?
JB: I love how we live so close to the water. It reminds me of home. This week with the tropical storm has been crazy, but other than that you can’t beat living by the water, the sunshine and seeing beautiful women. I love the nightlife too, but most importantly, I feel like I’ve found a home here.
ED: Going back to when you arrived in the United States, which aspect of culture shock was the biggest challenge for you to deal with?
JB: I would say definitely the language. Not being able to communicate, just sitting in class during high school and not understanding what anyone was saying was frustrating and it made it very hard for me to make friends. It was very challenging because without communication you can’t do anything. For a long time, until I got more comfortable with my English, I used to communicate with my hands, almost like using sign language. Eventually I learned, but it was definitely challenging. English is not an easy language to learn at all.
ED: How did you come to learn English?
JB: They moved me back a year in high school and placed me in a class called ESL, English as a Second Language, which helped, but I think I learned more from talking to people and really making an effort to speak with them and to communicate properly in English. To be honest, people used to make fun of me, but I had to do it just to learn. I knew if I was shy or uncomfortable about my speaking I was never going to learn. It started as a joke, but you know, not long after, people always tried to help me and would tell me if I made a mistake so I would learn and not make that mistake again.
ED: Being from Argentina, you also loved soccer as a kid and still play, so what is it like to share the same passion that the majority of the population around the world shares?
JB: It’s a beautiful game, and I loved it as a kid and still do now, I just wish I could play more now. I think I still could if given the chance. I grew up kicking a soccer ball when I was two years old and I was fortunate enough to play on good teams that won soccer championships. Most of my teammates here with the Storm have been playing American football since they were young, and it was no different with me, but with soccer.
ED: Funny that you mention that, being an avid soccer fan, how did you get into playing American football?
JB: It was my sophomore year when I met a friend at school, who is still one of my good friends, and I invited him to watch one of my soccer games. He saw me out there kicking the ball around and afterwards told me that I should come try out for the high school football team. I had seen it a few times so I thought I could really do it. I tried it out, liked it and to be honest, I never thought I could get this far with it. I embraced it though, and the guys on the team embraced me, so since then I’ve just loved it.
ED: How much did you know about American football before coming to the United States?
JB: Well, Martin Gramatica is from Argentina, so because of him I knew a little bit. He was kicking in the NFL in 2002 when the Bucs won the Super Bowl, and that was right before I moved here to the States, and I remember a lot of people back in Argentina watching that game. I never watched too much, and my brother used to have a Brett Favre jersey, but to be honest we had no idea who he was. So, I had seen it a few times and I was a little familiar with some of the more famous players’ names, but overall I didn’t know much about it at all.
ED: How was it, going from kicking a round ball to a more oddly-shaped, diamond-shaped ball?
JB: Coming from soccer it’s harder to kick a football than it would be for a football player to learn soccer. I would go to camps though and always try to get better. Unfortunately things aren’t really going my way this season, but it’s difficult. I don’t want to make assumptions, but I would bet at least half of the kickers in the NFL couldn’t make field goals in the Arena League. You have to kick it as high as you can and obviously the square to get it in is much, much harder.
ED: You live here now, but are you still a big soccer fan?
JB: Oh yeah, my favorite team is called River Plate, it’s a club team back in Argentina. We have a red and white jersey and we went to a lower division last year, but now we’re back in the first division. I always used to go see them and that’s my favorite team for sure. I was just listening to one of their games on the radio the other day.
ED: So coming from a soccer background in Argentina, and seeing how soccer is here in the United States, do you see the game ever gaining popularity in this country as it has overseas?
JB: I do, but it takes time. Every year it’s getting better and better, more and more popular. All the competitions are going on right now on ESPN, so that helps. A lot of people don’t understand, but the US women doing so well in the World Cup definitely helps. That really pushed the game. You can tell even in the MLS, look at teams like Portland and Seattle, they sell out, and I think that’s great and it’s impressive. The talent is not as good as the highest levels in Europe, but it takes time and they’re making progress.
ED: We have a team in the area here, FC Tampa Bay, so have you been to one of those games yet?
JB: No, I haven’t but I’ve wanted to. That team actually stays in the same housing facility as us so we always see those guys, ask how they’re doing and we tell each other they should come to each other’s games. It’s something I’d like to do though.
ED: So if you haven’t been to a soccer game yet in Tampa Bay, what activities do you enjoy doing with your Storm teammates?
JB: We found this little breakfast place called The Ranch House and we like to hang out there, just not be in a rush, and get to know each other. We go to the beach, go out at night, and it’s great to have such a close team. I’m not really into video games, but some of the boys in the room go at it pretty hard. Overall I don’t think any of us like to be bored, so we just do whatever, even it’s not doing anything, we’re still doing it together.
ED: Your parents live in the United States, but you still have some family in Argentina. I’ve noticed when you guys break the huddle at practice everyone yells “family.” Do you feel like the Storm is your second family away from home?
JB: No doubt, no doubt. Like I said everyone is very close and when we break the huddle and I say “family” I really mean it. I think other guys in there mean it too. We see each other every day, so sometimes if someone is going through a hard team, they reach out to their teammates, they don’t reach out to the coaches. So, not just me, but definitely I think a lot of us feel like this is a family.
ED: And I understand you speak three languages. Care to share with us which ones?
JB: Spanish and English are the most obvious, and I speak a little Italian, but not enough to say that I can speak fluently.
ED: That’s pretty impressive, so would you say you’re the most fluent language speaker in the locker room?
JB: No, actually Steve Octavien speaks about four languages. He speaks a bunch of stuff, even Creole. So he and I will speak in Spanish to each other sometimes and some of the other guys will come up and ask us what we’re talking about or if we’re talking about them.
ED: Do you ever try to teach your teammates some of the languages you speak?
JB: Yeah I’ve tried a little bit, but you do it and then you realize they’re not really serious about it. They just want to know the cuss words.
ED: What’s the one thing you miss most about Argentina?
JB: Mostly my nephews and my niece and my friends. There’s not just one thing, it’s many. It’s weird to grow up in one place for 16 years and then leave it all behind. One day I think I’d like to go back and settle down, but for now I love being here in the United States and I’m focused on football.
ED: What about food? Is there one type of food from back home you miss a lot?
JB: Yes, the barbecue. The barbecue there though is different than here. You usually buy a kind of steak and it takes three hours to cook. It’s called Asado. It’s just different, I don’t know what it is exactly, but it tastes different.
ED: And when you arrived here, what was one thing people ate in the United States that you were surprised to see?
JB: For me it was the spicy food. Everywhere I went, people put Tabasco on everything. They put it on their pizza, their eggs, their pancakes, whatever it was. I saw it and I was like, ‘come on, you can’t be doing that,’ so it was strange to me. I was really surprised to see how much spice they put on their food here.
ED: Alright, very cool. Thanks Juan for joining us.
JB: Thank you, appreciate it.