small groups of immigrants play big games in Queens

September 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

Each August, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park gets a sprucing up. Lots of police officers show up and the Unisphere fountains are turned on — they have been renovated and this year look especially spectacular.  “We joke that they do it for us,” said Jesus Rodriguez, 29, a Mexican immigrant who was playing  soccer last weekend in a not-so-grassy patch a lob away from the south entrance of the National Tennis Center, where the US Open was in its 4th round.  With the men’s final on Sunday, the television trucks will hit the road, along with the fans, with their white outfits and unaccented English. They are, after all, the foreigners in Flushing Meadows, a haven for immigrants who favor soccer, volleyball, cricket and softball over tennis. Much of the soccer is played in a dusty haze. Dribbling, trapping and kicking take more attention because the ball takes strange hops and paths. “It’s a different game than playing on nice grass — you can’t take anything for granted,” Mr. Rodriguez said. On the weekends, players arrive in waves, often grouped by nationality as if in the opening ceremony of the Olympics. South American soccer players show up around midday for their league play. Dominican softball players take to their fields in late afternoon. South Asians and West Indians come early to grab enough space for cricket, and stake their claims with wickets.  But Mexican immigrants are the earliest, boasted Mr. Rodriguez, who lives in West New York, N.J., and works in a Times Square pizza place. He said he had spent the night with some friends in Queens so he could get to the park by 7 a.m. The men come from Corona and Jackson Heights, many of them riding bicycles that look meant for boys.  “A lot of Mexicans work in kitchens in Manhattan and start at 5 at night,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “We have to stop playing by 2 or 3 in the afternoon to get ready for work. We finish work late at night, and sometimes we come here without sleeping.”  As evening falls, Chinese and Korean young people, from nearby parts of Flushing, come for golf at the Flushing Meadows Pitch and Putt course, near the tennis center.  Volleyball at the park has blossomed in recent years. This is not the hard-nosed, bump-and-spike style of collegiate or Olympic volleyball. The game played at the Mexican or Central American immigrant picnic is family-style, with lots of long volleys, partly because the ball is nearly caught and hurled back and forth, instead of hit with the fingertips.  “Latinos play rough soccer, so if you don’t want to break a leg, you play volleyball,” explained Gustavo Surida, 43, who was barbecuing next to a volleyball game last Sunday.  Nearby, on practice courts open for public viewing, world-class tennis players were warming up for the Open. But Mr. Surida, a union carpenter in Manhattan, cared only about the volleyball — and the chicken, cow lung and jalapeño peppers he was cooking for his family.  For competitive soccer, there are full-size turf fields along the Eisenhower Mall. On one, a team of Salvadoran immigrants played a team of Ecuadoreans. On an adjacent field, teams in the Paraguayan league battled it out, shouting in Guaraní, their native language. A group of Venezuelans sat on big logs lining the field, sipping tea made with yerba mate out of a leather-lined gourd with a metal straw. Nearby a food truck sold empanadas and plates of ceviche, fresh raw fish marinated in lime.  The Paraguayan league attracts retired World Cup players: legends like Romerito and Roberto Cabañas have played here. Prosperous Paraguayans sponsor teams and fly top players to New York for the summer, said Luis Ferreira, the league president.  On the west side of the park, across Grand Central Parkway, Dominican immigrants play softball, often organized according to their home cities or regions. Two teams from the Monte Cristi region were battling on one field, while two teams of El Cibao natives played nearby.  Past the skateboard park filled with young people and across the Long Island Expressway, cricket. Partap Manger, 48, a Guyanese immigrant from Mount Vernon, N.Y., who plays for the Horizon Cricket Club — sponsored, according to the club’s all-white uniforms, by the Global Shipping Company — said the league had mostly Indian, Pakistani and Caribbean players. But, he said, anyone can play.  “That’s the great thing about playing in this park,” he said. “Everyone is from somewhere else.”

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