Meet the original “dynamic dozen” – the Henderson Middle School chess champions:

Pedro “Pedrito” Escobar was an 11-year-old sixth grader who looked like a miniature Elvis Presley. He was a little GQ kid with slick dance moves. He came from a supportive family and had a 14-year-old brother, a 16-year-old sister, and a 20-year-old sister who was living on her own. He was a real character. He liked to tell “Yo mama” jokes (you know, the kind of jokes like—“Yo mama is so big that when she steps backward, she beeps”).

Next was 12-year-old Eduardo Retana, Pedrito’s buddy. He liked to be called by his last name. Even when he wrote his name, he always put his last name first. His mother worked as a cleaner at a spa, and also worked a full shift at a restaurant. She had only Sundays and Mondays off. Retana’s dad lived in Juárez, so Retana would often cross the border to work with him to make money. He was a kid who carried label—the kind that bother kids of that age: special ed, English language learner, economically disadvantaged. But in Retana’s case all you saw was a quiet kid with sweet eyes who was determined to succeed at the Champion’s Game. He was a budding musician who loved corridos.

Third was Leo Andres Gonzales, a first-generation American, who, until September of 2014, had never even touched a chess piece.  That fall, his dad brought him in and told me, “Leo wants to play chess.” He was 12 when he joined, an only child who enjoyed a comfortable life with very actively involved parents. His dad was an accounting professor at El Paso Community College (I could relate; my dad was an accountant). His mom was a volunteer at Henderson and was always around, helping out. One interesting note, Leo had a pet snake. His mom said the snake was his only friend. He needed the chess team.

Brandon “Classic Man” Caballero was an 11-year-old sixth grader who had family in Juárez that he would often visit. He had one brother and parents who were very present in his life. The kids on the team called him “Classic Man” because of his clothes. He always looked classy, even though he was economically disadvantaged. The kids weren’t picking on him; it was just that he was very stereotypically “Mexican.” He also happened to enjoy playing soccer. He loved being on teams. Brandon was not very organized when it came to school; however, in chess, he strategically planned the death of his opponent on the board!

Steven Alexis Mejía was 11 years old when his mom pushed him to join the chess team that fall. At first he was hesitant about spending his afternoons after school learning how to play chess, after all it was his mom who had “encouraged” him to join the team. He struggled at first with the game, but soon became an avid player and a top performer in tournaments. His dad was a security guard and his mother was a teacher. Although soft spoken, Steven came across as a natural leader. He dreamed of becoming an architect.

Christopher Andrew “Babyface” Carmona was 12 when he joined the team. He and his 15-year-old brother lived with their grandmother, who had been taking care of him since the day he was born. His parents were not around. He was a diligent student who consistently got good grades, even though he really had to work hard to achieve them. His life experiences could have hardened him, but when people met him they said he projected a kindness that was hard to forget. When he joined the team that fall as a sixth grader, all he knew of chess was that “it’s something you put your toys in, ?”

Thirteen-year-old José Rodrigo Vanegas was in seventh grade and from Juárez, where he often visited family. He, along with his two brother and two sisters, lived with their mother who was working while finishing school and raising her children. In fact, they had lived in a shelter for awhile. When I heard he was from Juárez, I thought, “This is going to be a good kid.”  He had been playing chess for two years. And, just as I did when I was his age, he felt more comfortable speaking Spanish than English.

Lirio Amanalli Gomez was a very shy and soft-spoken 12-year-old seventh grader when she joined the team in 2014. At first glance, you would think a strong wind would carry her off, but I discovered a backbone of steel in her as time went on. She was the youngest of three sisters who lived with their mom, who was very involved in their school activities. When she was younger, her father would practice chess with he, mostly just moving pawns around the board. In elementary school she’d been in a chess program. Now she wanted to get a little more serious about it. It brought back bittersweet memories.

Manuel Esteban “Manny” Tejada was 12 years old and in sixth grade when he joined the Henderson Chess Club. He played football and basketball on the city league teams and was very accomplished at both. He was also in the Henderson band. He enjoyed trying new things and liked that chess was “a gentleman’s game.” He wanted to learn more, so the first day of school, he joined the team. A gifted and talented student, Manny was a real character and would quickly prove to be the spirit of the team. He had a larger-than life-personality, and his presence filled any room he entered with joy and energy.

Next on the roster was René Ezequiel “The Swag Kid” Rodriguez. René was 13 when he joined the chess team in early 2015. He had an older brother and sister, but didn’t know his father. There were occasions when he wouldn’t be able to stay after school for chess practice because his mom was sick. In spite of his challenges, the kid had a lot of swag (oh, could that little guy dress up!). He had a different kind of swag than Pedrito (who was the cool cat). He played classical guitar and enjoyed composing.

Francisco Jesus “Frankie” Marquez hadn’t quite turned 12 years old when he joined the team as a sixth grader in early winter of 2014. He lived with his mother and a 19-year-old sister; his dad wasn’t present in his life. Like most of the students, Frankie had family in Juárez. He was a gifted student. Unlike talkative Manny, Frankie was introspective, and even a bit eccentric. Watching him play chess was a trip!  All he had to overcome was his tendency to wander off.

Last, but NOT least, of the final dynamic dozen was Joshua Yosef Alvarado “Josh” Valero. Josh was competent at chess, but he was also a star athlete and loved playing football, basketball, and soccer. His real interest level in chess was a little iffy. Time would tell.