Friday marks 32 years since the Happy Land Social Club fire in The Bronx killed 87 people. In the aftermath of the tragedy, a neighborhood soccer league became “a lifesaver for some men who did not know how to handle the flood of grief.”

City Limits Archives/Eric Wolf

Carlos Zavala, 19, pictured here in the September 1996 issue of City Limits.


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Friday marks 32 years since the Happy Land Social Club tragedy in The Bronx, in which an arsonist set fire to the stairwell of a Southern Boulevard building, killing 87 patrons and workers at the second-floor nightclub inside. The event was a stunning blow for the Tremont neighborhood, particularly for members of its Honduran immigrant community, many of whom lost loved ones in the blaze. Each year, residents gather at the site for a memorial marking the somber anniversary.

In the September 1996 issue of City Limits, writer Linda Ocasio profiled another way some residents were coping in the aftermath of the event: on the soccer pitch. Happy Land had been a popular hangout for members of a local soccer club, and a year after the crime, neighborhood activist Astin Jacobo started a team “to help heal the pain felt by those who had lost loved ones in the fire.”

“Most people here had someone die in Happy Land,” Jacobo told City Limits at the time. Within a few years, his one team grew into 10, with players regularly meeting for games at the sports fields along Mapes Avenue.

The coalition had just succeeded in convincing the city to put up bleachers and lights at the adjoining softball field, and “Jaco,” as he is greeted affectionately by players, had sports on his mind. “Soccer is the main sport in Central America,” he says. The competition, he thought, could help fathers and sons come together and forget, at least temporarily, their terrible loss. And it has. Today, the league provides opportunities for sportsmanship, national pride, camaraderie and the comfort of familiar faces.

“Mothers of some of the kids who died come to the field with happy memories of the past,” Jacobo says. “Instead of leaving them grieving alone, they can come here.”

City Limits Archives

Members of the United Friends Soccer League in The Bronx, 1996.

The league became “a lifesaver for some men who did not know how to handle the flood of grief,” Ocasio wrote. “We have a lot of young people who began drinking when their fathers died in Happy Land,” one team member told City Limits.

You can read the full story from our August/September 1996 issue here, or below.

City Limits Magazine, Augus… by City Limits (New York)

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