How an annual soccer tournament brings together Vermont’s farmworker community

Migrant Justice held its ninth annual soccer tournament this summer. This is the second year that women’s teams have officially participated. (Elodie Reed / Vermont Public)

It’s a sunny summer Saturday at the Tree Farm in Essex Junction, Vermont. A sign announcing “¡Torneo de Fútbol!” greets drivers arriving at the park. Soccer nets sit at either end of five, bright green fields. A crowd gathers as Mexican pop artist Natalia Lafourcade plays over the loudspeakers.

Today’s emcee is Migrant Justice field organizer Thelma Gomez. She grabs the microphone to welcome everyone to the tournament, which is in its ninth year.

“So, colleagues, we are about to start with the welcome ceremony of the 2022 tournament, which has been one of the most important events for the entire community,” Gomez says. “We have not seen this space only for sharing, right, but also a nice way to raise funds and continue doing the job we are doing, right, to continue fighting for the rights of all of us.”

Hundreds of people, both spectators and players, turn out for the tournament each year. (Elodie Reed / Vermont Public)

Fourteen teams — 10 men’s and four women’s — are signed up to play, including two from New York and Maine.

And volunteers like Anthony are there to help keep score.

“To support on the charts, taking note of scores, the t-shirt numbers, who scored, and all of that,” he says. “The truth is that I like this sport a lot.”

Anthony adds that this Saturday couldn’t be more different than a normal Saturday.

“We are always working on the farm, with the cows, so well, we are always focused on that, we are not distracting the mind, and this is the perfect moment to do so,” he says.

But today, today is about soccer!

Most Saturdays throughout the year, many of Vermont’s farmworkers are usually in a barn, working with cows. But the day of the Migrant Justice soccer tournament is something completely different. (Elodie Reed / Vermont Public)

Just before lunchtime, the referees blow their whistles, and the men’s games begin. Among those to win an early match is Roman Juarez. He’s competing with the team Misty Knoll, named for the chicken farm he and his teammates work for in New Haven.

Juarez says his team practices when they can.

“We have matches with teams around here, and well, right now sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, what’s important is that it’s a relaxing and distracting activity from work,” he says. “And yes, exercising helps a lot.”

He says this special, once-a-year event brings him joy.

“You are so happy now that you wake up in the morning to get ready and come to live this day,” Juarez says. “This doesn’t happen every day, only each year.”

Alejandra stands for a portrait with the banner for her Bridport, VT, business, Doña Alejandra Tacos. She’s been serving food at the Migrant Justice soccer tournament for the past four years. (Elodie Reed / Vermont Public)

A big part of what brings joy to this day, of course, is the food. The smell of sizzling meat wafts through the air from a row of tents along the edge of the park.

Behind her bright purple and pink banner reading “Doña Alejandra Tacos,” Alejandra cooks, chats and advertises her taquitos and aguas frescas to potential customers.

“Oh well, I’m so happy, very happy that the community is growing, and now offering my food, my traditions, my roots,” she says.

Alejandra says she’s happy to share the traditions and food of her country. (Elodie Reed / Vermont Public)

Alejandra is also signed up with one of the tournament’s four women’s teams.

“In fact, there is a women’s team called ‘Las Chicas del Sur,’ [Women from the South], and that’s us,” she says.

Under the shade of a tree, Maria Neuri is sitting with a group of women. They’re all braiding each others’ hair before their soccer matches begin.

“Today is the big event, and I come with my teammates from my team ‘Mujeres Sin Fronteras’ [Women Without Borders],” Maria Neuri says.

In the last few years, more women have been finding time — and rides — to join the tournament.

More women are finding time and transportation to join in and play at the annual Migrant Justice soccer tournament. (Elodie Reed / Vermont Public)

“We have been training for three Thursdays in a row, and well, most of us met there because we are from different [farms], and well, now in training we are getting to know each other,” Maria Neuri says.

This day is about soccer, yes, but it’s a lot more than that, according to Thelma Gomez, the field organizer for Migrant Justice.

“And not only the space to play soccer, we not only talk about that, but about connection to women, [this is] a space where they’re heard and recognized, and where we feel good,” she says. “The community has been growing, and I think that this is an example of how we feel here in Vermont.”

And on this sunny Saturday, this growing community fills an Essex Junction park, playing, eating, laughing, enjoying.

This story was originally published by Vermont Public, a partner of the New England News Collaborative. You can find a Spanish version of this story here, which Vermont Public produced in partnership with New Hampshire Public Radio.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send a message or tweet producer/reporter Elodie Reed @elodie_reed.