Restaurant workers find respite in late-night soccer tournament | Food | Indy Week

Restaurant workers find respite in late-night soccer tournament

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As a waiter at La Cocina Mexican restaurant in Mebane, Cesar Arturo Flores Valadez has got a tough set of feet. His nine-hour days include the tedium of wiping sticky food scraps off dining tables and repeatedly hauling bus bins back to the kitchen sink and its soggy vapors, all while never letting his friendly smile falter. He says he loves it.

On weekdays, he’s out by 10 o'clock at night. By 10:30 p.m., he’s kicked off his slip-resistant work shoes and has laced up a pair of cleats.

As captain of recreational soccer team Equipo La Piedad F.C., Flores Valadez will hit the field on Tuesday, July 24, at 10:45 p.m. at Fairchild Park in Burlington for the inaugural ceremony of the LUPE Champion League 2012 tournament.

The tournament and league include eight teams primarily composed of Hispanic immigrant restaurant workers in the Piedmont region. It is hosted by community organization LUPE (Latinos Unidos Promoviendo la Esperanza, or Latinos United to Promoting Hope). The opening ceremony will include live music and an introduction to all players.

Blanca Zendejas-Nienhaus, LUPE community director, helped launch the tournament to provide a space for restaurant workers to unwind and develop a community. Most teams are formed at work and games will be played on weekdays at 10:45 p.m. and 1 a.m., when the players are off the clock. She says the majority of the players are from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and countries in South America, with one American player.

“The players are so excited. For them, it’s a new experience to see their faces all over Facebook and our website,” Zendejas-Nienhaus says. “It gives the players a feeling of the importance they possess as a community.”

Flores-Valadez, who plays central defense, says his love for soccer was something he was “born with.” On the occasion that a midday lull at La Cocina affords him a break, he rallies his team over to a grassy patch outside of the restaurant.

“I love soccer. I want to motivate my coworkers and friends to do this. It’s healthy—when you run, when you play, it’s a stress relief,” he says. “At work breaks, sometimes we rest. But a lot of the time I take my teammates outside and we shoot the ball around for a little bit. Even if it’s just five or ten minutes, it’s practice.”

Zendejas-Nienhaus says that the Burlington Recreation and Parks Department has been very cooperative and helpful in providing a space for the tournament, which is free and will run through October.

Burlington, Mebane and 11 other towns are located in Alamance County, an area notorious for harsh immigration laws and practices. “This is being done in an environment that is, at many times, hostile to immigrants, or not very warm,” says Zendejas-Nienhaus. “Now, as immigrants, the restaurant workers and soccer players can be participants in a community event that embraces them. It’s also to show that the image of ourselves as a community is not always the image given to us here in Alamance County. We’re seen as people who do drugs or don’t work. We are people that work, people with families, people that live — and we’re involved in our community.”

“You coexist with people that may not understand you,” says Flores Valadez. But on a day of a soccer game, he adds, “nothing bothers you. You wake up in the morning at ease, like nothing can bother you."

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