Each summer, Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens hosts one of the most distinct, continually functioning sporting events in New York City. It features hundreds of players hitting balls, delicious food on offer and spectators sipping drinks while soaking in the entertainment. And on the other side of a fence, there is also a tennis tournament.
For virtually as long as the U.S. Open has been held at its current site, families, mostly immigrants from Ecuador, have made the surrounding parkland and parking lots home to their own kind of championships.
Their game is known to many as ecuavoley, a brand of three-a-side volleyball believed to have originated in Ecuador, where many consider it a national sport alongside soccer. It is also one of the primary activities in this corner of New York.
“This is my game,” Miguel Tenecela, 41, an electrician from Corona, Queens, said between games. “It is in my blood.”
Because of its diversity, Queens is sometimes called the world’s borough, but some areas enjoy a pronounced Ecuadorean flavor. Some estimate the number of people in Queens originally from the Andean country at well over 100,000, with many concentrated in Corona, the neighborhood just west of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. And as it is with the U.S. Open, the park is where they showcase their favored sport.
Last weekend, Tenecela and many of his friends and family members gathered, as they often do, for hours of ecuavoley, also called voley or boley, a game with Andean roots dating to the 19th century. On Friday, Yarina’s “Rosalia-Ecuador” pumped from a speaker as barbecue grills billowed savory smoke from under the many red and blue canopies surrounding the playing courts.
People laughed, children darted around on bicycles and scooters, young parents — including some women in traditional Andean clothing — pushed baby carriages, and players hustled and perspired as spectators cheered. At night, portable lights were hoisted into tree branches, powered by batteries and generators, and money changed hands, the wagering adding some sizzle to the heated competition.
Mostly on weekends in the summer, dozens of courts are lined out by thin ropes anchored into the dirt by metal spikes. The courts are carefully placed alongside the New York Hall of Science, near where many tennis fans park their cars before entering the U.S. Open. Some of the tennis enthusiasts glance at the festivities on their walk to the stadiums and see scores of players, many wearing the jerseys of Ecuador’s national soccer team or their favorite club teams, pushing large, highly inflated soccer balls over thin nets.
At least twice as many canopies, courts and people — ecuavoley and soccer players, spectators and picnickers — were spread across other areas of the park on Sunday, at least a few thousand in all, a parallel sporting universe to the trendier tennis championships on the other side of the tall fences.
Years ago, the game was played almost entirely by immigrants from Ecuador. But as people with backgrounds from other countries, like Peru, Mexico and Colombia, saw their Ecuadorean neighbors play the game, some joined. On Sunday, a large Mexican flag was draped over one of the tents. But the vast majority of players last weekend were from places like Cuenca and Chimborazo in Ecuador.
“It is very important for our community,” said Arnold Saquipulla, a welder who is from near Cuenca and has been playing ecuavoley in the park for 20 years. “People work hard. This is what we love to do to relax. It keeps us connected.”
The sport has been especially important for the community after the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 ravaged Corona, Elmhurst and other parts of Queens. One in every two people in the neighborhood was diagnosed with Covid-19, according to the city health department, and one in every 160 residents died from it in that area. Many were friends of Teresa Benitez and her family, longtime ecuavoley participants from Corona.
“We lost maybe 200 people we knew from here, people who came here to play volleyball with us,” said Benitez, a retail worker. “There was a time I was afraid to look at my phone. I did not want to see another text about someone who was gone. It was terrible.”
“Now,” she added, spreading her arms to indicate the entire area of play, “we make sure we enjoy all of this.”
During the U.S. Open each year, some minor restrictions are imposed, Benitez said. Some areas are lost to temporary parking lots, and a heightened police and security presence can sometimes limit movement. Still, the games go on.
“It’s only a couple of weeks,” Benitez said. “You have to share. It’s the fair thing.”
Benitez came to New York from Cuenca in 1982 at age 11 with her family, including her younger sister, Blanca. Back then, people played their special brand of volleyball close to the Willets Point-Shea Stadium subway station on the No. 7 line. Gradually it has grown and moved to other locations nearby.
Most of the players are men, but Benitez said her father encouraged her and Blanca to play sports, too, and she passed that on to her children. She loves playing soccer the most, as does her daughter Adriana Tito, a nursing student. Tito won her league championship game in soccer on Sunday morning, then went to the park to play ecuavoley with her mother, father, aunt and family friends. Her knees were scarred and bloodied from both games.
“I hate losing,” Tito said with a laugh. “I’ll do whatever it takes to win.”
With three players per side, each team is allowed to touch the ball only three times before sending it over the net, which is higher and thinner (more like a banner) than an ordinary volleyball net. Players may carry the ball in their hands a bit longer than in traditional volleyball. The large, hard ball takes its toll on arms and wrists.
“When you start playing in the spring, after a long winter with no playing, it can hurt a lot,” said Segundo Roque, 42, a construction worker, who is also originally from near Cuenca. “Now I can only play about six games, then it is too much on the arms.”
Games are usually divided into sets of 10 or 12 points, and the first team to win two sets takes the match. On rare occasions, teams stop after one or two sets, which is called medio pollo, or half chicken — a dodgy tactic employed to avoid losing a bet. Tenecela, the electrician, was noticeably sour after an opposing team pulled a medio pollo at one set apiece.
“I don’t like playing against people like that,” he sneered. “It’s not the right spirit.”
Of course, not everyone shares that passion for ecuavoley. Soccer is fiercely contested across the park, and that is the game that Luis Cueva, 51, prefers.
“For me, the volleyball is boring,” said Cueva, a construction worker. “But so many people love it.”