HE WAS once the youngest player involved with getting Latin Americans into rugby league, but now Inala teenager Chris Castro is ready to take his place as an enforcer for his people.
Just 14 when he was among the first half-dozen players to support the Latin Heat concept, exposing the sport to people of South and Central American heritage, Castro is now aged 19.
And the proud son of Salvadoran migrants is primed to take on an important role as time edges closer to the inaugural Latino Origin match at Davies Park, West End on Saturday, May 27.
Castro will be one of the forwards rolled out by Queensland Latino, who go into the match outsized by the visiting Cucarachas, but determined to put in a spirited showing on home soil.
“I’d say one of the proudest moments of my life was representing El Salvador against Thailand in an international back in February, but it’s also going to be special playing for Queensland Latino,” says Castro.
“I grew up here. I played junior footy for Forest Lake, Souths and Springfield.
“I’ve been a Broncos supporter ever since I was born and watched all the State of Origin games at home with my family.”
Harking back to the ‘mate against mate’ mentality of the early Origin years, Castro is also prepared to light the fuse on a rivalry with some of his Salvadoran buddies who will represent New South Wales Latino.
In particular he has put the blowtorch on elder statesman and similarly robust Fredy Arteaga-Figueroa, who at 36 is almost twice Castro’s age.
“First of all, I want to win and show the New South Wales boys we’re better than them,” says Castro, whose email address carries the words ‘vato loco’ (the crazy dude).
“But I especially want to give it to Fredy.
“He’s a cool guy and he’s encouraged me along, but yeah, I’ll try and put a shot on him at some stage, and I’m sure he’ll do the same. Haha.
“It should be fun.”
Aside from the storyline about the team’s one-time apprentice graduating to the senior squad, there’s another narrative to this story which is worth following.
Castro missed the entire 2016 season after he badly fractured his ankle while playing in the 2015 junior rugby league semi-finals.
It took him more than a year before he could run again, but slowly he is working his way back to pre-operative form.
“I can remember a junior game where Chris came up against Payne Haas (current Broncos squad player and former Australian Schoolboys star) and he didn’t take a backward step,” says Latin Heat co-founder Robert Burgin.
“He’s a really quiet guy in training, but he has that mongrel about him once the body contact starts.
“If Chris hadn’t injured his ankle in 2015, he was a chance of being our youth squad captain.
“Way back when Latin Heat first started out we couldn’t wait for him to be old enough for seniors, because he was bigger than most of the adults even then and always enthusiastic.
“Chris has leadership qualities about him, but after such a tough injury at a relatively young age, it’s to be expected he is only now just getting back into the swing of things.”
Helping Castro rediscover his mojo has been ‘bash brother’ Rafael Mendoza, who at 24 and 117kg will be one of the pivotal members of the Queensland pack.
Despite growing up only a few suburbs away from each other, the two Salvadoran bookends didn’t meet each other until last year, when they struck up a firm friendship.
“I am starting to get my confidence back and part of that has to do with seeing how Rafa does things at training,” says Chris.
“He’s one of the biggest blokes out there and he always goes hard.
“You see him belt people at training and it makes you want to lift.”
An interesting subplot to the upcoming Latino Origin match is that, although Chris will play for Queensland, his father Pastor normally cheers for New South Wales.
That’s because after the Salvadoran Civil War, when Pastor was placed under a four-year arrest as a teenager, he fled to Sydney where he was given an opportunity at a new life, prior to moving north to Queensland.
- The Latino Origin event on May 27 at Davis Park West End will feature a full 80-minute contest between the QLD and NSW Latino sides, played under full tackle rules.
Players will be able to nominate to wear culturally themed maroon or blue jerseys based on where they live, or for heritage players, where they were born, while overseas-based Latinos can nominate for the team they support.
Curtain-raiser tag games (non-tackle) will be played between Colombian and Brazilian teams, and between Latina female teams. Gates open from 4pm.
Latin Heat aims to encourage mutual appreciation of Latino and Australian culture at all events, and provide a welcoming networking group for Latinos interested in an active lifestyle.
The efforts of the 100% volunteer-run Latin Heat Rugby League are supported by Guzman y Gomez Mexican Taquerias, S.H.I.E.L.D Security, Tattoo Tears, OneBigSwitch.com.au, Cast Graphics, SeriousAboutRL.com, Retrocom Digital TV Specialists, Colombianos en Brisbane, EMSA Education and Migration Services, Raw Juicery, SEMCAR Mechanics, Lichtnauer and Associates Accountants, Cabramatta Ink, Majestic Property Maintenance, musician Royal El Latino and Darkside Studio Photography.