Rugby league helps heal scars of the past
"To see a dead body on the streets… it wasn't a big deal."
Paul Alarcon was 15 when his family fled El Salvador in the midst of a bloody civil war, granted refugee status by Australia.
If he'd stayed in the Central American nation, which underwent 13 years of sustained civil unrest, he has little doubt where he would have ended up.
"As soon as you turned 14 or 15 you were expected to fight for one side or the other," he says.
"It was insane. You saw things that you'd never ever expect to see.
"There were a lot of death squads back then and you couldn't say anything bad about either side or someone would report you and they'd track you down.
"Your body could end up in two or three different places… you know, decapitated, that sort of thing."
Paul doesn't like to dwell on the past, but in a week where his two sons and two nephews will play intercontinental rugby league, it's been appropriate to reflect on how much his circumstances have changed.
Indeed, it's a remarkable feat for the quartet of Javier, Junior, Alvaro and Miguel Alarcon to be selected for the GYG Latin Heat in matches against North America and Africa United on NRL grand final weekend.
To have four members of a family with such ability is rare, particularly in a sport the Alarcon family had never seen until relocating across the world.
"When I first arrived, I played soccer as you'd expect, as that's the sport most Latin Americans grow up with," says Paul.
"Then I saw a police rugby league team play an exhibition match on our school oval and I asked a friend 'what type of game is this?'. I honestly didn't know.
"After that I started following rugby league more and more. I liked the big hits and I became a fan."
Now a Sydney Roosters supporter, Paul admits that when he first arrived in Australia, he moved in circles where it wasn't necessary for him to learn English.
But one of the things that helped him branch out and meet others was through rugby league, particularly when sons Javier and Junior began playing with local club Canley Vale Kookas.
"I became a team trainer and my wife helped in the canteen," he says.
"We dedicated most of our weekends to the club and the boys both won premierships, so we became a really tight group and rugby league became a way of life."
While his nephews Alvaro and Miguel grew up further afield and initially played for other clubs, they did have a couple of seasons in their teens where they all represented Canley Vale.
Once they reached adulthood, each of the quartet started pursuing other passions and careers, seeing them walk away from rugby league.
Then, through social media, they heard about Latin Heat – an organisation which wanted to help give Latinos the same opportunity to represent their culture as had been afforded other nationalities.
"I was surprised to be honest, because there was never a group identity for Latinos who liked rugby league," Paul says.
"My son Junior in particular, he's always been a bigger kid, so people would forever ask him what Pacific Islander background he had.
"I'd tell them we were Latin American and they'd say 'are you sure?'. Ha ha, yeah I'm sure.
"Through Latin Heat, all the boys have now played together for El Salvador at the Cabramatta International Nines, but this week will be the first time all of them have represented Latin America."
The final piece in the puzzle has been Javier Alarcon, whose commitments to athletics have seen him unavailable for previous Latin Heat games.
He is likely to play fullback or five-eighth for the Latin Heat Development squad against Africa United on Saturday at Liverpool, a match which will feature refugee families on both sides.
But first Javier will need to make a mad dash back from Perth, where he is competing in the Australian University Games.
Brother Junior will line up in the forwards in the same game, while cousins Alvaro and Miguel will play the night before in the Latin Heat Elite match against a combined North American side at St Mary's.
The North American team will be known as the CanAm Grizzlies, a composite of Canadian and USA players who have been in Australia fine-tuning their skills.
LATIN HEAT ELITE v NORTH AMERICA (CanAm Grizzlies)
Friday, September 30, 6.30pm
St Mary's Stadium, Forrester Rd, St Mary's.
Squad (Alphabetical): Daniel Aguirre Acevedo, Alvaro Alarcon, Miguel Alarcon, Matthew Booth, Nicholas Cama, Juan Carlos Carrion, Steven Clarke, Sebastian Delapaz, Nicholas Doberer, Jonathan Espinoza, Jacob Guiliano, Jesse Graham, James Horvat, Jaden Laing, Bradley Millar, Trent Millar, Joshua Munoz, Daniel Navarro, Jacob Parker, Andres Rossini, Eduardo Wegener (Vc). Coach: Aaron Raper.
Latin Heat Development v Africa United
Saturday, October 1, 3pm.
Moorebank Sports Club, Heathcote Rd, Hammondville.
Squad (Alphabetical): Javier Alarcon, Junior Alarcon, Chris Brantes, Javier Britos, Mana Castillo, Juan David Espinal Cano, Pablo Florentin, Luis Fhon, William Gomez, Jeff Lopez, Jc Mendez, Gabriel Papa, Roque Perez Mejia, Daniel Rickard, Edgar Santamaria, Daniel Sarmiento, Diego Vejerano, Jayden Yasar