It’s 11 p.m. on a Monday night, and in a warehouse off Capital Circle, soccer balls are hitting beige corrugated iron walls.
Dull noises dominate the lyrics of reggaetonero Don Omar over the speakers.
While most of Tallahassee is asleep, the kitchen staff at El Jalisco, Los Compadres and other Mexican restaurants are just starting a game of football at the Level Up Fútbol indoor complex.
It’s time for them to relax after a night’s work. They split into two teams; half put on yellow bibs. Some speak English, some don’t. It does not matter.
“If you have a soccer ball, it doesn’t matter what language you speak,” said Manuel Rico, owner of the resort. “If you play football, you understand that. “
Read in Spanish: Los latinos del Panhandle hacen amigos y relajan en un campo de fútbol donde el idioma no es una barrera
For many migrant workers who have settled in the Panhandle, when they’re not shingling house roofs or grilling steaks in a hot kitchen in the back, they’re on the football field.
Men from Latin American countries who are essential to Florida’s economy have created a community of teams, from Tallahassee to Panama City, north to Bainbridge, Georgia, and south to Apalachicola, to play one of the most popular sports in the world.
To relax, make new friends and remind them of their home.
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In Florida in 2018, 1 in 4 workers was an immigrant, according to the American Immigration Council, and nearly 600,000 people in the state worked in the construction and restaurant industries.
Also in 2018, immigrant-headed households in the state paid $ 23.2 billion in federal taxes and $ 8.5 billion in state and local taxes.
Rico was born in California to Salvadoran parents, but moved to Tallahassee as a child. The son of a housekeeper and a restaurant worker, he launched Level Up last July with four other Latino business partners, Ramon Piris, Edgar Raymond, Victor Carranza and Tyrone Nunez.
Rico, also Florida High’s head coach, started the club for people like his parents: hardworking, honest, social, and welcoming.
“I see a lot of second and first generation players,” he said. “I am proud. I am proud and I tell them that they can build their own future.
One game request: several football leagues in the Panhandle
There is such a demand for play that there are several leagues in the Panhandle. Players even travel to different parts of the state, sometimes Atlanta, Georgia, to compete in tournaments.
It’s not just about the game, it’s also about knowing the country in which they work and live.
Danny Cruz, the creator of the Cruz Champions League, calls his pitches “la casa de futbol” or “the home of football”. Cruz bought nearly 100 acres of land outside of Quincy, using part for farming and the other as a soccer field. The outdoor space is reminiscent of the complexes of Latin America; wide strips of grass outside, the smell of sopes on the grill and the flags of Latin American countries welcoming everyone.
After a sharp turn on a two-lane covered road, the only way anyone will know there are football fields further down another dirt road is a large sign that pops out of nowhere, advising drivers that ‘they arrived.
It’s more than a section of grass mowed between acres of wildflowers and farm plots. It is a place where migrant workers, immigrants, high school students, college students, friends and family can feel at home.
“It gives me great joy and happiness to be able to see people from all of our community, our neighbors, enjoying the sport,” said Cruz, 30.
Football has been an important part of Cruz’s life. He used to play professional football in Mexico, and now he is a football coach at Quincy High School. He started the league, which currently has 10 teams, in 2013 because he saw that there wasn’t much for the Hispanic community to do when it came to sports.
“I’m Hispanic and my family is very important to me, but I don’t want it to be fair to me. I want it to be for everyone, ”said Cruz.
Footballers on the pitch are now just Latinos
The players on the pitch are no longer just Latinos. They are white, black, old, young. The attackers can speak English, the defense Spanish – and the midfielder is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Piris, co-owner of Level Up, speaks Spanish and Guaraní, a language of Paraguay.
“Faster” means “rapido” in Spanish and “ipua’e” in Guaraní. “Let’s go” means “vamos” in Spanish and “jaha” in Guarani.
It is not uncommon to pass the ball to players who speak Quiche, Mam and Acateco, Mayan languages spoken in Central America.
During the week, Klinton Gomez Lopez, 21, paints houses in Apalachicola. On weekends, he drives about two hours with his teammates to Quincy to play in Cruz’s soccer league.
Sunday is the only day he doesn’t have to work, he said. Otherwise, he is still standing on a ladder or on a roof. When he plays football with his teammates he has to run and that gets rid of all the bad energy from his body, he says.
He might not understand everyone on the pitch, even if they are on the same team. Guatemalans and Hondurans speak a different dialect than Lopez, originally from Chiapas, Mexico.
But they make it work.
“A todos les decimos, my brother,” he said. “We call everyone brother. “
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