Eduardo Antonio Laing is the new New Orleans. For 32 years Tony Laing was the last Honduran player to score in the World Cup. His flying header in 1982 against Northern Ireland made him famous in his homeland where he is forever known as “the needle” and strangers stopped to shake his hand and shout his name.
“I think about that goal all the time,” Liang says in Spanish through an interpreter. “It’s a memory I cannot erase.”
Since 2007, Tony Liang has been painting buildings in New Orleans. He drives a beaten old white pickup truck and blends into the hum of the city not as an international soccer hero but an anonymous face with a ladder and bucket slapping flat latex on the sides of revival. In the rise of a re-building New Orleans people drive by his work without a thought as to how it got there, never knowing the man who painted it once made a nation glow.
That one of Honduras’s most-beloved soccer heroes lives almost unknown here is as much a story of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as it is about him. He is a piece of the invisible city – the one you find along Williams Boulevard in the suburb of Kenner, where storefront signs are in Spanish, gleaming new grocery store chains sell Central American preserves, and newspapers with names like Meridiano 90 and El Tiempo sit in racks outside.
You do not find the new New Orleans in many portrayals of a re-emerging city. It gets lost in the narratives of race, recovery and the fight over gentrification. But the tens of thousands who came here from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico in the last decade are part of the post-Katrina story. They arrived for rebuilding; ripping out waterlogged floors, knocking down mildewed walls and reviving blocks given up for lost.
“So many of them stayed,” says Raul Carbajal who has hosted a Spanish-language sports radio show in New Orleans since 2000. “I’m surprised. I feel like I’m in Honduras already. I don’t need to go back home to Honduras now. This feels like Honduras.”
Since the 1950s there has been a community of Honduran immigrants in the New Orleans area, established by workers at the United Fruit Company. But before Katrina, census records say, there were only about 58,000 Latinos. In the 10 years since that number has grown to somewhere between 103,000 and 115,000 depending on who you ask, though most in the Central American neighborhoods believe these figures are far too low, failing to account for the thousands who are undocumented.
The people of the new New Orleans brought with them their own food and music and dance; threads of which have been assimilated into the mainstream of a city that has always taken from diverse interests to create its own culture.
They also brought soccer.
There are many Tony Laings in New Orleans. You can find them on weekends in City Park, playing in the Spanish-speaking leagues that have boomed since Katrina; professional stars who once played before big crowds back home. Now they work construction jobs in America’s south, speaking a language the rest of the city doesn’t understand, living in the open, but hidden all the same.
Before Katrina there was one Spanish-speaking league at City Park. It was called Islano and had 10 teams. Now there are three leagues with a total of 46 teams and discussions about their matches fill much of the radio show Carbajal hosts with Marco Piedy, the former president of Islano who runs Champion League, the newest of the three leagues. The demand for soccer in the new New Orleans is so big that Piedy regularly arranges to bring in big professional teams from Central America to play exhibitions at City Park’s 26,500-seat Tad Gormley Stadium. These matches draw thousands of people even if sports fans in the rest of New Orleans are oblivious to their existence.
“I was surprised at how good the soccer is here,” Laing says.
On the day Katrina hit, Piedy’s 11-month-old grandson Kaleb took his first steps. The family didn’t leave town, choosing to bunker at home in the Kenner apartment building Marco owned. Everybody was looking out the window, watching the storm, when Piedy’s daughter Mavis turned away and saw Kaleb wobbling toward the door.
“He was saying: ‘you idiots I’m out of here,’” Mavis Piedy says.
Eventually they retreated to a hotel across the street not long before a tornado ripped the roof off the apartment building. Trapped for three days at the hotel by police who would not let anyone leave, she watched as looters scoured the neighborhoods below. The sight of people running away with televisions particularly amused Mavis. With no power, no homes and streets filled water where were they going to watch TV?
But New Orleans had been changed in ways no one could imagine. For a month most of the Piedys lived with Mavis’s brother in Baton Rouge. When they returned, people were already pouring in from Central America, lured by construction work. As the water slowly drained from New Orleans and its residents – scattered throughout the south – tried to assess what had happened to their lives, a new community boomed just outside the city limits in the Jefferson Parrish towns of Kenner and Metairie.
The rebuilding began immediately. Building jobs were everywhere. A new world blossomed in the ruins of the old. Taco trucks appeared from nowhere, their grumbling engines sometimes the only power around. The manager of a local car dealership later told former Saints and Hornets (now Pelicans) Spanish play-by-play announcer Emilio Peralta that the end of 2005 and early 2006 “changed my life,” as Latino workers came in daily, looking for work pickups.
It took Marco Piedy six months to get Islano started again. When he did, the crowds were huge, bigger than anything the league had ever had. The small, tight Honduran community had exploded with more people from Honduras as well as El Salvador and Mexico. All of them missing soccer, willing to pay the $5 to park and $5 to enter the stadium and watch.
“I remember that first year after Katrina the first place winner got $22,000,” Mavis says. “Before Katrina they would have probably gotten $2,000. That’s how many people came through.”
Soon it was clear there were too many players for only one league. The Pelican League formed a few years back, playing its games on a ratty grass field surrounded by trees and tucked behind a lagoon in City Park. Four years ago, Marco Piedy split from Islano and started Champion League in Tad Gormley.
Competition in the three leagues is fierce. Each team has a sponsor and they battle for talent, luring coaches and top players with cash offers to jump to their teams. Professional players back home in Honduras and Guatemala and Mexico are recruited with promises of construction jobs and side cash payments for each game. Some pros come up after their seasons end, playing two or three months in New Orleans, perhaps hooking on with a construction crew to make extra money, then slipping back home in time for their professional team’s training camp.
Since teams in the City Park leagues pay the best players $150 to $250 a game in cash it is common to see a player play a match in one league, rip off his jersey, jump in his car and race to game in another league just down the road. Marco Piedy calls this “jumping.”
“He’s making money,” Piedy says.
Building a team can be expensive. Beyond paying a coach, the top players and finding construction jobs for the best talent, teams will send new players to a local soccer store for cleats and sometimes buys the player’s meals. Sponsors can spend more than $20,000 in the hope of winning a championship prize of $12,000.
But there is a glory in winning a soccer title in the invisible world. The chance to hoist a title trophy is worth more than red numbers on a spreadsheet. Tony Laing makes this clear while talking about his World Cup goal, interrupting an interview about his World Cup goal to instruct an interpreter to be sure to include the fact a City Park team he coached won four league championships in five years.
“Oh you know Spanish men and their pride,” Mavis Piedy later says rolling her eyes.
Pride is what brought Laing to New Orleans. Although his World Cup goal earned him the love of his nation it did not get him an offer in Europe. He played for club teams in Honduras before becoming a coach. He gave up coaching in the mid-2000s and moved to Tampa. That’s when a former teammate living in New Orleans called and asked if he would coach his Islano team.
“I came to work and coach in the leagues,” he says. “I fell in love with the city and decided to stay.”
He found a job with a painting company and found he could make more doing construction and coaching in City Park soccer leagues than he did as the coach of a Honduran professional team. Soon, New Orleans became home.
“It does surprise some people to see a World Cup player here,” Laing says, standing under the Tad Gormley stands. “People have a misconception that because you scored a goal and played in the World Cup that you have a big contract. But it was for the love of the shirt, not the money.”
There are many people who are not happy about the new New Orleans. The arrival of Latino workers has caused resentment in many communities, especially among African Americans whose neighborhoods were among the hardest hit by Katrina. Families who had lived in the city for generations could not easily return, unable to afford the cost of rebuilding. Politicians complained that construction jobs were not going to local, longtime residents but rather Central Americans fresh across the border, who spoke no English, had no to New Orleans.
Outside Tad Gormley Stadium on a recent Sunday afternoon, a longtime observer of the Spanish-speaking leagues, was asked how many of the players are undocumented.
“Probably 70%,” the person said.
Nobody really knows how many of the residents of the new New Orleans are here without papers. Published reports have put the number around 50,000 but there is no way to officially count. Latinos who were here before Katrina greet newcomers by asking the last time that person had been back to their home country. If they say it has been years there is an excellent chance they are undocumented. Those who do have papers usually go back once every year or two to visit family.
The issue looms over everything, adding to the feeling of being invisible. Azucena Diaz a news anchor for the Telemundo 42, one of the local Spanish-language television stations, said she was recently told of a Latino man who had been severely beaten. When she called the parish sheriff’s office to ask why there was no press release about the crime she said an officer told her: “Oh he’s Hispanic he didn’t have any documents.” As if that fact alone made the attack irrelevant.
“The person who did this is still out there and they didn’t seem to care because the victim was just Hispanic,” she says.
Many times the station’s advertising people have gone on sales calls only to be told the business did not want to be attract Latino customers. Peralta, who grew up in Chile and came to New Orleans from ESPN Deportes in 2006 was stunned when the same thing happened to him as he looked for sponsors for his Saints and Hornets broadcasts.
“It has taken the labor of Latinos 10 years for New Orleans to be what it is now,” says Ernesto Schweikert the station’s general manager. “People say it is a miracle that the city got rebuilt. Without Latinos New Orleans would not be what it has become.”
A summer rain has stopped falling at City Park and a late-afternoon sun broils the Pelican League fields. Gnats buzz everywhere. Nobody seems to mind. Nearly 1,000 have gathered around the sidelines to watch the semifinals of the league’s season-end playoffs. They sit on coolers, eat homemade food and shout at the players on the field. The players are screaming too – yelling at every missed pass or defensive lapse.
Pride is at stake. Nobody wants to lose. Winning means a chance to gloat for months, walking around the new New Olreans saying they had played for the Pelican League title. Carbajal, who makes announcements and plays Spanish music from a small tent at Pelican League matches, will talk about the game for much of his show that next week.
“We have too many players now,” he says.
But this is New Orleans after Katrina. Before the storm he personally knew every caller. These days strangers stop him in the grocery store when they hear him talk, telling him they recognize his voice.
“So many people are here now,” he says. “And there are so many kids who were born here in New Orleans and they are on the soccer field too.”
A few blocks away, Tony Laing walks under the Tad Gormley stands, heading toward his truck after his team finishes a Champion League game. He is asked about his goal in the World Cup and he smiles.
“Every day in the community it is brought back up,” he says. “That’s the beauty of it – to be remembered for that.”
Time moves on. Tony Laing is no longer the last player from Honduras to score a in the World Cup. His 32-year run ended last summer. He doesn’t seem bothered. He has a new life here – a new home, new job, new team.
He waves goodbye then jumps into his pickup and drives away from soccer and fame, fading into late-day traffic. Invisible once more in the new New Orleans.