Mariángel Vargas, from migrant shelter to chess champion

The Vargas family migrated to the United States from Colombia in 2022 after receiving death threats. Their 12-year-old daughter is now among the 100 best young female chess players in the country

Mariángel Vargas during a chess game.Jamaal Dozier (The Gift of Chess)

Mariángel Vargas grew up in Colombia with her family until the age of 10. She was a serious child, who enjoyed studying and liked to swim. A normal girl with a normal life until 2022. That year, she was forced to migrate to the United States with her parents and her two older siblings. She arrived in an unknown and hostile world, where she was able to find her place amid the upheaval thanks to a chessboard. Two years after crossing the border on foot, Vargas, 12, is now among the top 100 young female chess players in the U.S.

Mariángel’s first contact with a chessboard was at her school in Manhattan, where she took her first chess class several months after arriving in New York thanks to Impact Coaching Network (ICN), which promotes chess programs in educational centers. Mariángel’s mother, Alexandra Gómez, recalls that she was not exactly enthusiastic when her daughter first told her about the chess program. “I thought it was a hobby, like playing cards, and I was afraid it would rob her of the time she needed to learn English,” she says.

But chess seemed to be tailor-made for Mariángel and her rise in the chess world has been meteoric. A year after playing for the first time, she had competed in 65 tournaments, making her one of the most active chess players in the entire state of New York. She is currently ranked seventh in her division in New York State, is among the top 100 girl chess players in the U.S. and has already cracked the 1,200 ranking set by the United States Chess Federation (USCF), scoring 1,257. She is also the Elite Quads and ICN Citywide Team champion.

“Chess is different from any other activity for me because I always have something to learn and that motivates me,” she says from Chicago, where she is competing in a tournament, accompanied by her older sister. She trains for one to two hours a day, she adds. Her mother corroborates this, explaining that Mariángel’s interest is so intense that she watches chess games on YouTube even when she eats.

The backdrop to Mariángel’s success story in the world of chess has been one of turmoil. The family lived in Neiva, a city in central Colombia on the banks of the Magdalena River in Huila. Her father, Régulo Francisco Vargas, worked as a lawyer and, together with her mother, founded the NGO ACADESURCOL to help the rural inhabitants of southern Colombia who had been displaced by the guerrillas.

Escape from Colombia

As head of the organization, Gómez says that she and her husband’s sole motive was to provide help to the locals. They used their legal knowledge to provide free advice to subsistence farmers, informing them of their rights and of government subsidies they could apply for to help them get ahead. But one day, as they were on their way to a meeting in one of the villages, they were stopped by an armed group who had been looking for Gómez.

“They asked me to kneel down and put a gun to my head,” she says. “They told me the names of each of my children, my schedule, what we did from the time I woke up until I went to bed. They knew everything.” After threatening to kill each member of her family if she did not stop what she was doing, the men let her go.

Gómez spent two days without eating and sleeping and without letting any of her children leave the house in case they were killed. Eight days later, the family decided to leave the country. They had no money to pay the mafia involved in people trafficking known as coyotes, so they flew to Mexico and from there decided to make their way on foot across the border into the U.S. Mariángel had the worst time. She was only 10 and had been told they were going to Disneyland to see Mickey Mouse, but the little girl didn’t understand why they weren’t going by plane, and why they had to walk for six hours, without water. “At first she kept asking us why we were doing that. The last few hours she just cried,” says her mother.

The family ended up in a Texas detention center where, according to Gómez, they were treated like criminals. At first, the men and women were separated. After weeks, Mariángel and her parents were released. Her brother and sister, who were over 18, remained in detention for another month, in different facilities. A year and a half later, the family is still living in an immigrant refuge near Times Square, waiting to be granted an apartment where they can start afresh.

“The girl is extremely focused, determined and diligent,” says Russell Makofsky, one of her chess coaches, who is also a founding member of ICN and also of The Gift of Chess. “She never tires of training and never misses an opportunity to compete.” The NGO aims to donate one million chess sets worldwide by 2030, in order to empower children. Thanks to this organization, which also helps Mariángel get sponsors to cover her travel costs, this little girl’s life has been turned around. “My dream is to become an international master or a chess teacher,” she says.

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