Four towering beams of light flicker on Robert Banderas as he clutches a microphone. He adjusts his red, yellow and blue sports jersey and prepares to slip into his alter ego.
During the day, the 52-year-old is a welder. At night, Banderas transforms into “El Cuy,” one of New York City’s biggest Ecuavoley boosters.
Ecuavoley originated in Ecuador in the late 19th century and was named Ecuavoley because of its unique parallel to volleyball in the 1930saccording to academic Alex Galeano-Terán.
The ease of constructing a net and ball made it popular with farmers and people in small towns. Nowadays, the pastime is considered a part of everyday life in Ecuador, where each town has its own courtyard to bring parishioners together.
In New York City, almost every borough has ecuavoley. Hundreds of dishes are scattered across the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan.
Tonight, El Cuy is holding court at Cancha Don Erick, located behind a nondescript house on Junction Boulevard in Corona, Queens. The master of ceremonies booms into the microphone and announces the evening’s solidarity raffle with an effortless rhythm. Tonight they are raising money for a parishioner who is dealing with health issues.
“The lucky number is 7, 40…31!”
A family on the sidelines erupt in cheers as he presents them with their prize – headphones, a bottle of liquor and a shirt identical to his own. A young boy beams as he puts on his shirt and sits down right in front of the pitch.
“There is no more time. Please! “We have to start now,” he roars again over the loudspeakers.
When El Cuy takes command, the area swarms with people. They crane their necks for a glimpse of the action unfolding on the 9ft by 18ft slab.
“Juega, juega,” shout the audience in Spanish. Her eyes are fixed on a number 5 soccer ball. A player serves and punches him in the air.
“Bola, bola,” shout others. On each side of a tall net, a team of three men play the ball across space. You’ll dash, jump, and scurry across the terrain, fighting to score a point.
Suddenly there is the sound of the ball hitting the sprawling concrete, marking the end of the game.
The players shake hands before going back to their seats. El Cuy crosses his arms and smiles contentedly. After a short break watching the game, he doesn’t hesitate to continue.
Throughout the evening, the promoter enthusiastically greeted friends, checked in with the referee and occasionally yelled “Bola!” all while lugging around a tripod with his phone strapped to the top.
When he’s not setting the pace of the games, he makes sure his Facebook live stream is blocked for all of his followers. It’s only 8pm but he can already count on Ecuadorians from all over the world tuning in to follow the activities at Cancha Don Erick.
In the live stream, El Cuy captures the smoke of grilled meats in the air, countless families fill their plates with Ecuadorian dishes, and bachata tunes fill the time between performances.
El Cuy points out that Ecuavoley has become so synonymous with Ecuador that each of the 24 provinces is reflected in the city’s growing sports community.
“That’s the beauty of this sport,” he said El Cuy, “It’s already in your blood.”
The rise of Ecuavoley is due to the growing Ecuadorian population in the United States. Today, more than 184,000 people of Ecuadorian descent live in New York City.
Although Ecuadorians have immigrated to the United States since the 1970s, financial crises in the 1990s triggered larger waves of immigration. In early 2000 there was a coup d’état in Ecuador. Today, Ecuador finds itself at another political turning point – its current president, Guillermo Lasso, dissolved the country’s Congress to avoid impeachment.
As Ecuadorians continue to incorporate this pastime into their New York lives, they instill a unique cultural identity and create a community in a city they often see as invisible.
When a waitress at 12 Corazones restaurant in Queens was hit by a drunk driver in 2020, El Cuy immediately jumped to the phone.
“I spoke to the people here [and told them] that we would hold an event to help the girl in the hospital,” he said.
For many who have recently immigrated to the United States, the Ecuavoley community can become a place of support and mutual aid. Ecuavoley tournaments often also serve as solidarity fundraisers.
“Here we are all working together to help someone who may have had an accident,” said Ecuavoley fan Eva Iza, 30, at a game at Maria Hernandez Park in Brooklyn. “Why? Because we are family.”
Whether a friend is unemployed or has been in a car accident, many of these tournaments can see thousands of dollars spent in one night helping a fellow Ecuadorian.
“Many of us who are here are immigrants, we don’t have documents and getting here is very difficult. We are here to have a better opportunity to do what is best for our family,” Iza said.
Organizers such as El Cuy recognized Ecuavoley’s strong correlation with other Ecuadorian cultural characteristics and began using the Games as an opportunity to highlight local Ecuadorian dance troupes.
Dancers danced at a current game in Corona Folklore Andino New York brought to life a performance from the Andean region of Chimborazo. Her presentation “La cacería del venado” tells the story of men who go out hunting deer and women who stay at home to take care of the children.
The squad launched in 2020 and has already become a regular fixture on the Ecuavoley courts. The presence of groups like Folklor Andino hopes to educate younger generations about where they come from.
For El Cuy is able to convey local cultural pastimes and Ecuadorian folklore, which is vital in preserving the Ecuadorian identity.
“If you can bring life to an Ecuadorian group or music, you have to do it and take advantage of it.”
Alex Galeano-Terán has dedicated his life to researching and documenting the socio-cultural impact of this sport.
“A player who doesn’t have a nickname isn’t a player. It’s part of the culture – apuestas [bets]apodes [nicknames]go dichos [sayings]’ Galeano said on the phone.
Funny nicknames for players include Vinceño La Bestia, Súper Danny, Wero Tiwi “El Rey” and even Peso Pluma. As for the apuestas, most games have some sort of bet on players and teams. Gambling ranges from $20 to over $1,000 and offers another level of bets to participants.
“You sit there and enjoy being with your people, making a new friend, coming here to talk about work or the sport itself,” El Cuy said. “It’s stress relief.”
Other organizers such as Carlos Morocho are also key figures in promoting the emergence of Ecuavoley in the city. He co-founded the Morocho Volleyball League in the early 2000s and has been welcoming the Ecuadorian community ever since. He said the sport has evolved and younger generations have started to show interest.
“The roots have not been forgotten, that’s the good thing about it. You have to understand that our children, our grandchildren, even if they are born in this country, are still rooted in our countries.”
Ecuavoley has also begun to include other Latinos alongside Ecuadorians. Dominicans, Mexicans and Colombians also shape Ecuavoley’s presence in the city.
With the increasing integration of other cultures, the metropolis has also become a pioneering center for women in Ecuavoley. Arlett Ponce, 20, is one of many women who have created a new generation of female players.
Ponce started at the age of 13. Until the pandemic, she had only played with her father and his friends and began begging him to play with other people her age.
She remembers the day in southern Guayaquil, Ecuador, when a courtyard full of people gathered to watch her play.
“I didn’t even know it, but all these people who were crowding around me – all these people ended up just coming to see me because that’s how I played.”
Her powerful presence on the pitch prompted her to leave viral on TikTok, and earned her the nickname “Arlett Ponce La Revelación”. Ponce became such a sensation that she was booked to perform in the United States. In New York, she feels she’s finally found a community.
“I appreciate all the people who receive me with so much love at every court. Because feeling at home, not being at home, is something very nice.”