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When most Arkansans think of sporting events and food, the usual combinations come to mind. Baseball and hotdogs at Dickey Stephens Park. Corned-beef sandwiches and horse-racing at Oaklawn. Fewer think about soccer and tacos at Otter Creek Park … but they should.
Every Saturday and Sunday, hundreds from the Latino community gather at Otter Creek Park to participate in the Mex-Ark Liga de Futbol. Women's teams play on Saturday afternoons and the men play on Sunday mornings. The games are a family event (though organizers say that tempers occasionally flare on the field).
Makeshift stands are placed around the fields. As many as four games are played at once while kids play pick-up games on the sidelines and ride their bikes from field to field to see their friends, cousins, moms, dads, aunts, uncles, brothers or sisters play.
Jose Vicente, president of Mex-Ark, started the league 10 years ago with only five teams. Since then, the league has grown to accommodate 37 teams total, 33 men's and 4 ladies'. For Vicente, soccer is a family affair. His wife, Mara, and his three daughters are always on hand, cooking up food to sustain the players and those who come to watch. Tacos and tortas are served up with care and a comforting smile.
Claudia Delacruz, Vicente's step-daughter, says the money from food sales goes to buy uniforms for teams who lack sponsorship, or to help insure players who are injured. She says she and her sisters are at the fields bright and early.
“We come out about eight o'clock to help get everything set up. We start cooking and do things to help our dad, like translate sometimes if he needs help.”
Vicente's English is actually pretty good. Standing near the food tent, he offered me a plate while we talked about the league. He talked about the early days, how quickly the league had grown and how it had become such a big part of the Latino community.
Delacruz translated over the rough spots and handed me a steaming plate of pork tacos. The white corn tortillas were dipped lightly in oil and warmed on the skillet until soft. The pork meat was tender and full of flavor. Fixin's included light, fluffy Mexican rice and two or three different kinds of homemade salsa. The pico de gallo tops everything off wonderfully. Mixed in with the tomatoes, onions and cilantro were chunks of jalapeno peppers, giving it a kick that served as a perfect compliment to the richness of the pork. Tacos cost $2 apiece, which is a steal.
Beef and chicken tacos are also served, as are quesadillas and tortas (Mexican sandwiches). The tortas, $5, are made with pan-fried chicken breast, topped with beans, lettuce, onions, tomatoes and served on a fresh-baked bun.
As I finished off the plate, I spoke with Rigo Chavez. Chavez has been involved with the league for years. He assigns the referees and helps Vicente work out logistics for the games. He says they are thinking about starting a children's league because the adult leagues have been such a success.
“You would not believe how many people show up to watch the women's games,” Chavez says. “It's literally standing room only because you have the husbands, the children, everybody comes. For every five people that come to watch the men's games, 200 come to watch the ladies. They love them.”
When asked about the food, Chavez said, “Tacos and soccer. What can I say? They mix well.”
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