The 44-year-old Julio Rivera- Torres, who now lives in Vancouver, Wash., began life in a small village called San Miguel Del Ojo de Agua in Colima, a Mexico state. The village was about a 40-minute bus ride to the nearest city (Tecoman, Colima); it had no running water or electricity, and the family used firewood for fuel and the corn it grew for food.
“We also relied on the local river for water and fish,” Rivera- Torres said. “If we needed extra supplies, the bus would drive by the village in the morning, take us to town and bring us back to the village in the afternoon.”
Rivera-Torres’ parents regularly brought him to the United States as an infant.
“We didn’t have money for daycare, so they always took me along to the fields,” he said. “I started helping my parents on my own when I was old enough to pick grapes (around 5 years old). Even though I couldn’t lift the pan full of grapes, I would fill it and my mom or dad would empty it for me.”
As the family grew, it had more hands available to help pick fruit. They picked oranges, plums, peaches, strawberries, grapes (for raisins or wine), tomatoes and jalapeño peppers. “If it grew in the San Joaquin Valley in California, we picked it,” Rivera-Torres said.
When he was just 10, Rivera- Torres became the tractor driver for the family. “We had more production when my dad stayed to pick and I drove the fruits to the drop-off point,” he said.
Every year, the family traveled back to Mexico in the fall and returned to the U.S. in the spring. That all changed when Rivera- Torres entered eighth grade and was allowed to stay with his aunt in Fresno, Calif. But he kept working in the fields until he left for the military when he turned 19.
Avoiding a Gang Life
Like many kids in Mexico and those working the fields in California, Rivera-Torres played soccer in what free time he was allowed. “We had a little ball and played in the fields or in the streets,” he recalled. “We played to stay out of trouble. I played soccer and ran crosscountry in school when I got older. Where we lived wasn’t the most ideal of conditions. We were exposed to gangs and my parents wanted me to set an example for my younger siblings by staying out of trouble.”
He did, but it wasn’t easy. “The gang life was something we couldn’t get away from,” Rivera-Torres said. “Since we lived in the projects, I was exposed to it every day of my life; drive-by shootings, stabbings, fights. It was just another day in the projects. When I was 13, our next-door neighbor pulled out his gun and shot a local gang-banger right in front of our eyes. … (W)e couldn’t ever get cops to come down and patrol our neighborhood. Only one sheriff would come to our neighborhood and check up on us.”
Rivera-Torres said he was approached to join gangs more times than he could remember. He tried to stay away from the projects as much as he could by staying busy with sports and work.
Rivera-Torres recalled running home after school from the bus stop. “Every time I got off the bus, I would run home just so I wouldn’t get jumped,” he said. “I was lucky because I was faster than most of them and simply outrunning them kept me from getting my behind kicked.”
He added, “My younger siblings were thinking about (the gang life); that’s one of the reasons my dad decided to leave (for Washington) when we did. Plenty of my childhood friends went down that path and their lives turned out much different than mine.”
Rivera-Torres bounced around in schools a bit. As a boy he attended Escuela Primaria 15 De Mayo and Palatines de la Revolution in Tecoman, Colima, Mexico. He attended Martinez Elementary School and then Parlier High School, both in Parlier, Calif., for one semester before moving on to Sanger High School in Sanger, Calif., from which he graduated in 1993.
“I was fortunate that my parents gave me a chance to get an education in the U.S. and they didn’t have me travel every year to Mexico,” Rivera-Torres said. “I stayed with an aunt and that helped me stay in school, so that once I hit eighth grade, I didn’t have any break from U.S. schools until I graduated and went to college.”
In high school, one coach would have a lasting mark on Rivera-Torres’ approach to life.
“My cross-country coach, David Dodson, brought me out to run for him after the soccer season because he wanted to keep me doing something positive so that I would stay out of trouble. He was keeping me on the straight and narrow,” Rivera- Torres said. “If a kid didn’t have money for shoes, he would open his wallet and pull out the money for the kid to buy shoes. He always told me the only thing he wanted was for me to pay him back by taking care of kids when I got older. Once I became a youth coach and started doing what he said, I understood why coaches do what they do. They don’t do it for money or glory; they do it for the kids.”
Rivera-Torres moved with his family to Washington state after he graduated high school in 1993. “We heard Washington was beautiful and our friends told us to come check it out,” he said. “We rented a U-Haul trailer, took our belongings and never looked back.”
He served in the military for four years, opening the way to full U.S. citizenship.
“They asked me for two years and I gave them four, serving in the Army from 1994-98,” he said.
Rivera-Torres was stationed for much of his time in New York state at Fort Drum, during which time he met his wife, Tammy, at a dairy farm where she was working. She was friends with the family that ran the farm.
While he was in the Army, Rivera-Torres continued his education, attending Jefferson Community College in New York and eventually finishing his degree at Clark College in Vancouver, Wash. He had aspirations to become a teacher, but put that on hold when he began working three jobs to support his family and his wife while she was attending school to become a nurse. Tammy Rivera-Torres has been employed at Peace Health Southwest Washington Medical Center since 2003.
Along the way, he managed to find some time to coach his daughter, Modesta, and her soccer team, and get involved with officiating.
“My daughter said, ‘Hey, dad, why don’t you coach me?’ and for seven years it was a way for me to give back to my former coaches. I made a few mistakes along the way, but my daughter’s team went pretty far in the local leagues. But it was too much to juggle — work, coaching and refereeing — so I stopped coaching. But I think I became a better referee through coaching.”
Working directly with kids, teaching them how to play the game properly and directing them on the field of play taught Rivera-Torres a lot about the nuances of the game. “I was constantly learning the game, and coaching the kids kept pushing me to learn more about the fundamentals and intricacies of the game,” he said. “I thought refereeing would be a logical step because I enjoyed working with kids.”
He started officiating youth games in 2013 and advanced to the high-school level within a few years. He officiated at the regional President’s Cup two years ago and got to work a State Cup U-17 boys’ semifinal game and a U-19 girls’ championship game. He also officiated 3A and 4A girls’ high school championships in Washington.
Drew Brooks, the high school officials assigner for soccer games in southern Washington state, has known Rivera-Torres for about six years.
“He came to our organization as an official that had experience at a recreational level and wanted to improve his skills and work more challenging matches,” Brooks said. “He has grown as an official by learning from his game experiences and seeking input after matches and asking questions about scenarios that arose during his matches.”
“He is always one to take on any challenge that he is asked of and always puts forth a great effort,” Brooks said. “He has shown that even if he has a rough match, he will work his way through it and then seek out guidance on how he could handle a situation differently in the future. The coaches in our leagues know that when they see Julio, he will be fair and impartial.”
Rivera-Torres called Katina Salvy, president of the Columbia Soccer Referees Association in Clark County, a valuable mentor.
“Julio wants to become a better official and often calls me after games he works asking my opinion about things that happened during the game,” Salvy said. “That’s something we don’t get from all officials. The phone will ring, I see it is Julio and I know he is on his way home from a game and wants to ask me some questions and for guidance.”
Rivera-Torres works as many games as he can, considering his busy work schedule, officiating youth, high school and local adult leagues. “I will do whatever they need me to do,” he said.
He said when he’s working a game, he tries not to blow the whistle looking for every small infraction, but instead to keep order and allow the kids to enjoy themselves and grow as players.
“My approach is to talk to the players and maybe talk a kid out of a foul instead of waiting for it to happen,” he said. “I’m vocal and I control the game, but it is the players’ game and I never try to force them into a certain style of play. I believe that allows them to be more creative as players. I always say the people aren’t there to watch me officiate. They are there to see the kids play and to watch a good game.”
Todd Stordahl, executive director of the Washington Officials Association, has met Rivera-Torres several times and has come away duly impressed.
“I have seen him work at the state tournament, four matches, and was able to hang out with him in the press box in between matches,” Stordahl said. “He seemed to really enjoy being out on the field, which led me to strike up a conversation about his passion for the sport. He seemed dedicated to whatever he was doing. In this case, it was his focus on providing the best possible product to the players that weekend. His passion for soccer was evident by the huge smile he had at the conclusion of the game that he centered. His life story was even more fascinating and his path to that point was definitely not an easy one.”
On the officiating side, it’s a path that he’s no longer walking alone. Officiating became a family affair when Rivera-Torres’ son, Josiah, joined his father on the field.
“He wanted a little extra money and he liked the idea of becoming an official,” Rivera-Torres said. “At the beginning, he wouldn’t work games unless I was involved. He approached it slowly and I didn’t push him. Finally, I said that he had to make his own name, and the last three years he has been working on his own doing local matches.”
Josiah Rivera-Torres said officiating has been something he and his father could bond over.
“I realized that spending time with my father doing something we both love made it feel like less of a job and more like a hobby,” he said. “Unfortunately, as I get older, it’s harder for us to officiate together, but I have lots of memories of officiating with my father. There were many times we would spend 12 hours straight officiating in the summer and we’d have a blast.”
In 2017, Rivera-Torres was hired by the Federal Department of Energy and now works as a substation operator and switchman, helping to supply power from federally owned and managed dams to local utilities in the western U.S. Before he began his new job, he and his wife decided to go to Hawaii. The trip would not quite go as expected.
”One morning I woke up and I was urinating blood. My wife is an oncology nurse and she asked me what was happening. I showed her where it hurt in my lower back and she thought it was kidney stones,” Rivera-Torres said. ”We went at midnight to Queens Memorial Hospital in Honolulu and the prognosis was that it was kidney stones, but that they were going to do a CAT scan to be safe. The doctors came back and said they found a shadow (mass) on my right kidney and that I should go back home and take care of it.”
After a few more days of trying to relax and enjoy the sun and surf in Hawaii, the family headed home to Vancouver. Rivera-Torres was able to see a urologist, Dr. Eric Kline, who gave him some bad news.
“He said by looking at the CAT scan that he could pretty much guarantee it was cancer,” Rivera-Torres said.
More tests and a biopsy were done, and the mass was indeed found to be cancerous. It was decided it would be best for his longterm health to remove the kidney, where the cancer seemed to be and, as it turned out, was localized.
“The cancer had destroyed the kidney and there was no saving it,” Rivera-Torres said. “The surgeon told me that I may have only one kidney after the operation, but because the cancer was encapsulated in one kidney, there would be no chemo or radiation needed.”
Using the same determination he displayed as a youngster helping sustain his family (he is the oldest of nine siblings), Rivera-Torres met his health issue head-on and with full vigor. “I was going to bounce back quickly and get out of the hospital,” he said. “The doctors told me that if I was walking by the morning rounds, they would let me go home.” So, he was standing at midnight and took his first few steps at 3 a.m. “At 6 o’clock, I was walking around and they let me go home. The doctors told me to take it easy.”
He rested for a while but couldn’t endure the sedentary life for the full stretch ordered by his doctors. After a while, he got up off his chair, put on his official’s uniform and headed for the local soccer field.
“I was doing a game at a local tournament and one of the people in my care group was there and said to me, ’What are you doing here?’” Rivera said. “I told her, ‘Please don’t tell my doctor who saved my bacon that you saw me here.’ But here I was, a month and half after the operation, back doing games and what I love.”
Rivera-Torres had his own post-op philosophy. “Being back on the field officiating helped me psychologically and physically,” he said. “In my mind, the human body doesn’t recover sitting on a couch. I needed something to get me going, to be with the kids and back with the sport I grew up with. So, the cancer only stopped me for a few months.”
He indeed made a full recovery, doctor’s orders or not, and has being going full throttle ever since.
The cancer was a quite unexpected blow, “the biggest battle in my life,” he said. But for a man who, as a youngster, grew up working the fields in Southern California from sunup to sundown to help his family make ends meet, being tough was a lesson he learned at a young age. The cancer wasn’t going to stop Rivera-Torres, although he admitted it scared him a whole heck of a lot.
“I feel good now and am living life as usual,” he said. “Really, the cancer was a blessing. It makes you realize that you shouldn’t take life for granted. I feel I got a second chance.
“The experience gave me a renewed outlook on life. It is all about appreciating what I have and what I do. I didn’t pick up a whistle until I was in my mid-30s but I think I have done some pretty nice work since then. I love that my son is officiating as well, and I believe I am giving back to those coaches that helped me and kept me out of trouble in school.
“Hey, I got a second chance at life and I’m taking advantage.”
A former Little League umpire, John Torsiello is a veteran sportswriter from Torrington, Conn.
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