Tender Portraits of Brooklyn’s Latin American Football Clubs

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Mateo Arciniegas Huertas
Photography by Mateo Arciniegas Huertas

In his own words, Mateo Arciniegas Huertas talks about shooting Latin American amateur soccer leagues in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and fostering a sense of home away from home through sport

Men splayed on green turf in their soccer cleats, T-shirts wrapped around their foreheads collecting sweat, a cardboard box full of cold Modelos, footballs resting in a wide net; Mateo Arciniegas Huertas creates art that makes you emotional, conveying the beauty of what sport can do for the human spirit. Through stunning projects shot on 120-millimetre film, like Madison, Domingo Alas 4 and Public Displays of Love: 01 Affirmations, Arciniegas Huertas captures the community fostered by Latin American amateur soccer leagues in Bushwick, Brooklyn. An amalgamation of the collections will be featured in New York with Adidas to celebrate the forthcoming Copa America Championship, which begins on June 20.

In 2010, at 16 years old, Arciniegas Huertas and his mother sought asylum, immigrating to the United States from Bogotá, Colombia. As a teenager, he often felt heartbroken, missing Bogotá and feeling lost while adjusting to life in a foreign country. Over time, photography became both his trade and an artistic medium through which he could document his attempt to find home in the US.

Below, in his own words, Mateo Arciniegas Huertas talks about Madison and Domingo Alas 4, named after the parks at which his league plays each week. He also discusses a continuation of his photographic series, Public Displays of Love: 01 Affirmations, inspired by South American Barra Bravas football culture.

“My friend Memo invited me to play in a Latin American league at Reinaldo Salgado Playground. It’s organised by an Ecuadorian person who everyone knows as ‘El Profe’. I began photographing us before, during, and after the games, not knowing what I wanted but knowing that I needed to photograph what I was part of. Now, I’ve been photographing them since 2021, but they’re also my friends who I see more than most. We play football, play cards, we drink, we get food, then we go to a bar on Myrtle Avenue.

“It’s transitioned from a project into my life. It’s autobiographical. It’s part of me because I’m equally as obsessed with football as they are, or we love the same music, like vallenato, cumbia, or merengue. It’s sharing things that I don’t share with many people outside of that environment, a sense of home. They’re not performing for me. I have this big camera in their face, and they don’t care. It’s a level of comfort that only comes with time.

“For one day only, we’re there to enjoy ourselves and each other’s company, to dream, to eat, to share. Nothing else matters. For six hours, all of our worries are gone and we are there to exercise. It’s an act of freedom. While playing football, you have to be present. Most of my friends work in construction. It’s such a physical job. By the time you are 40 or 50, your body is destroyed. This is the one day they’re not doing hard labour. They’re thinking with their bodies, and we’re communicating in a language that’s nonverbal.

“I started hand-painting banners called trapos with acrylic or spray paint, evoking South American Barras Bravas. All the hardcore fans have banners representing love for their team or city. I’m merging football culture with romantic love, another obsession of mine. Bayanato is Colombian folklore music played with an accordion, and all the words are about heartbreak or love. After a very big breakup filled with tragic heartbreak, I was trying to understand it through the lyrics. When creating these monumental banners, I thought that, seeing these larger-than-life letters, it would register that it’s over, or that I have to change, like an affirmation.

“As immigrants, it takes a long time to settle. Our migration was nonvoluntary. We decided to leave, but we didn’t want to. If you had a choice, who wants to come to a strange place, where you don’t speak the language, and you have to work 50 hours a week? There’s a level of understanding in our impermanence that makes our community so tied to each other. We’re finding a permanence within impermanence. You might feel at home and at ease, but you are always thinking of what you left behind, your family, your culture. When I go to Bogotá now, I realise that I forget the feeling of the altitude, I forget about the smell, the way the sun hits.

“I want people to understand that this group exists. It’s unique to me, but there are hundreds of groups like this in New York City that show up, play football, bring a speaker and some Modelos. This is cross-cultural, too, and can be done with many different sports. To engage your community, you don’t need much. You don’t need this big apparatus to dictate how you interact with one another. You don’t need money or no one telling you what you should or shouldn’t do. You can just exist as a self-sustaining ecosystem. You just have to commune.”

Works from Mateo Arciniegas Huertas’ MADISON, Domingo Alas 4 and Public Displays of Love: 01 Affirmations are currently on display across Adidas activations in New York.