Food and football make friends

Updated: Oct 4, 2020

More than a goal…

Paraiso Tropical football team
Photo: Paraiso Tropical album

Jesus Gonzalez Rivas Jr. was ten years old when he kicked his first football (“soccer ball” for Canadians & Americans) on a bright summer Sunday in 1996. His mother and father, Alba Gonzalez Rivas and Jesus Gonzalez Sr., proudly watched their son play futbol (football or soccer) from the sidelines. Afterwards, the family feasted on boiled yuca (boiled cassava), pupusas, and a special Salvadoran turkey sandwich called pan con pavo.

Looking back with a smile, Alba Gonzalez Rivas recollects how Latino men would have a few drinks and break into funny arguments over futbol, which often turned into serious fights.

Their wives, trying to make a buck by selling hot Salvadoran lunches, would yell at the men to stop fighting while cheering for their sons to win the Hispanic soccer tournament.

Paraiso Tropical Football team
Photo: Paraiso Tropical album

Filling a Cultural Gap

Gonzalez Sr. and his wife Alba Gonzalez Rivas arrived in Edmonton in June of 1986. The couple – four months pregnant with Jesus Jr. and his twin sister Alba – were lucky to escape the ongoing civil war in El Salvador. The decades long war from 1979 to 1992 forced thousands of Latino families to seek refuge in American and Canadian cities like Edmonton. With the rise in the population of the local Latino community, so too, did the demand for Latino culture and food in Alberta’s capital city.

Around 1989, Gonzalez Sr. and Alba Gonzalez Rivas set up a small corner shop called “Paraiso Tropical” close to Edmonton’s Chinatown to provide the local Latino community with a taste of home. As the couple’s name and fame spread amongst the town’s Hispanic community, their business grew. Within two years, Paraiso relocated to a larger space on 118th Avenue and 87th Street.

The store sold beans, corn flour, music, movies, festival candles, magazines, chilies and several other traditional items unique to Latino kitchens and homes. Gonzalez Sr. enjoyed supplying food materials but also wanted to create a Latin American cultural identity through his business. What was missing was the store’s association with football – the sport that connects and defines the entire Latin American community.

Paraiso Tropical football team
Photo: Paraiso Tropical album

“If there is one thing that all Latino people care about and are proud of – its football,” shares Gonzalez Sr. “I missed it.

“It’s a part of our culture and passion. We play it in nooks and corners. I wanted my kids to play it, too, in Canada.”

A Football Team is Born

Gonzalez Sr. eventually decided to start a football team for local teenage Latino boys in 1996. Just like the store, he called the team “Paraiso Tropical”.

Paraiso Tropical football team
Photo: Paraiso Tropical album

The Paraiso team welcomed children of all backgrounds and heritages. However, it especially became popular amongst the Salvadoran community. Players practiced on cement basketball courts in Latino housing co-ops in north Edmonton and practice seasons ran every Sunday afternoon from April to September.

In the second year of Paraiso Tropical’s football team – as the team itself and enthusiasm of parents grew – Gonzalez Sr. sought better practice grounds with proper facilities to organize a full practice.

“In the 90s, the majority of the Salvadoran community was based in north Edmonton, so we approached the local schools in Kingsway [to ask] if they would let us use their facilities and they said ‘yes,’” recounts Gonzalez Sr.

As the football rivalry between the Guatemalans, Mexicans and Salvadorans increased in the third year and as the community continued to take a deep interest in football in years to come, Paraiso Tropical continued its investment in the game. Sometimes, they supported Salvadoran football coaches to come to Edmonton and, on other occasion, visiting teams from El Salvador.

Latinos' Shared Love of Football

Around 400 to 500 people attended the main game in August held in Kingsway, Edmonton. It turned out to be a big event for the Latino community as it was perhaps the only major sports and cultural get-together.

Football tournament in Edmonton
Photo: Paraiso Tropical album

The Paraiso Tropical football team was active until 1999. While the group fizzled out in early 2000, the friendships that the young players made continued on for a lifetime.

“I met some of my best friends for life while playing while playing at Paraiso Tropical’s football team,” recalls Gonzalez Rivas Jr, who is now the current owner of Paraiso Tropical Latin Food Market. “We were a bunch of young Latino kids in north Edmonton that wanted to fit in. Football helped us to connect and feel included.”

In 2016, Gonzalez Rivas Jr. was proud to sponsor a local Salvadoran football team which was playing in the Mini World Cup tournament in Edmonton. He and his wife, Bruna Campos Gonzalez, would love to kick-start the Paraiso sports team again and they think now is a great time as Edmonton is a top candidate to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

Paraiso Tropical football team T-shirts
Photo: Paraiso Tropical album

Campos Gonzalez, who is from Brazil, echoes Latinos’ love of football.

“Football runs in the family. It’s a part of our identity, just as hockey is for Canadians.”

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