This Aztec Ball Game Is Intense And Painful But It’s Reaching A New Level Of Popularity Among Mexicans

Mexico has a complex relationship with its indigenous past and present. On one hand, there is an enormous sense of pride in the magnificence of civilizations such as the Aztecs, the Mayans and the Olmecs. Mexican love visiting ruins and proudly boasting about the technological and scientific advancements of these cultures. Additionally, they see the Spanish conquest as the watershed moment in history when it all went wrong. 

On the other hand, urban Mexico remains a society in which the indigenous is looked down upon. The media and marketing campaigns perpetuate ideas of white superiority, and whenever an Indigenous Mexican has mainstream success, there is some racist backlash. This was the case, for example, of Oscar-nominee Yalitza Aparicio. That is why the recent return of the traditional Indigenous ballgame known as ulama is a welcome addition to mainstream culture. 

After five centuries, people are starting to play Aztec ballgame.

Credit: “El juego de pelota regresa a Ciudad de México”. YouTube. Agence France Presse

After the Spanish conquistadores totally trashed years of human development in the Americas, many traditions died or lay dormant for centuries. Such is the case of the different varieties of ballgame practiced throughout what is now modern Mexico and Central America. The Mayans, the Aztecs and even the Incas (all the way down in South America!) played different variations of the game. A cultural center in the traditional municipality of Azcapotzalco in Mexico City is bringing the game back! 

The people involved are trying to reconnect with the country’s indigenous roots.

Credit: “El juego de pelota regresa a Ciudad de México”. YouTube. Agence France Presse

Emmanuel Kakalotl coaches players at the cultural center in Atzcapotzalco, where the ulama court was built. He told AFP: “The game had been forgotten. It was toppled 500 years ago, but now we’re raising it up again”. Azcapotzalco was the political center of the Tepanec dominion, which was conquered by the Aztecs. There are deep roots of indigenous tradition in this site. 

The game could provide a source of identity and pride to contemporary mestizo Mexico City dwellers.

Credit: “El juego de pelota regresa a Ciudad de México”. YouTube. Agence France Presse

Most Mexicans are a genetic mix of Native American and European heritage, and identify as mestizo. Mexico City inhabitants are largely mestizo and are deep in touch with their European background as Mexican cuisine, institutions and obviously Spanish language are an echo of the Old World. However, indigenous heritage is more hard to come by and the opportunities to celebrate it are few and sparse.

The game comes complete with rituals (no human sacrifice in the contemporary version, of course!)

Credit: “El juego de pelota regresa a Ciudad de México”. YouTube. Agence France Presse

Players in Azcapotzalco follow classic rituals. This is not just like any sport, it establishes a connection with the soil on which it takes place. 

Seashells and incense, the pre-game ceremony is much more solemn than a pregame show.

Credit: “El juego de pelota regresa a Ciudad de México”. YouTube. Agence France Presse

Players perform a ritual in which seashells are blown and incense is burnt. Before the court was built the place was a dumping ground. The court and the traditional game are now triggers for community building. 

Juego de pelota, also known by indigenous names such as ulama, was practiced all throughout Pre-Hispanic Mexico.

Credit: Instagram. @chicomoztoc_7_cuevas

Ancient artifacts such as this one are evidence of the vast reaches of the game. The Mayans played it for all sorts of reasons including fertility rituals and wars. And yes, there was sometimes human sacrifice involved. Researchers argue that sometimes the winners were killed because it was the ultimate honor, but sometimes it was the losers who faced their destiny. In an interview with AFP Belgian researcher Annick Daneels, who teaches at the UNAM, Mexico’s largest university, explains how the game disappeared after the conquest: “When the Spanish arrived, because of the political and religious aspects of the ballgame, it was probably one of the first things they banned”. 

Can you imagine using your hips to propel a hard rubber ball AND put it through that hole? Damn hard we say!  

Credit: Instagram. @yliesse14

The game is very very hard. The ball is made out of rubber, so it is hard and sturdy. It weights four kilos, so putting it through that small hole, which has less extra room than a basketball hoop, is extremely hard. For players, the game also involves changes in their daily habits.  Lia Membrillo, coordinator at the cultural center, which is operated by the city government, told AFP: “There are some basic fundamentals in the indigenous worldview: the unity of our physical, intellectual, emotional and energetic beings. A lot of times, when people lose their way, it’s because they don’t have that unity. We help find it again”. Like many community initiatives, resurrecting the game has the ultimate goal of keeping kids and teens off the streets and away from drug and alcohol addiction. 

Contemporary Mexico is now obsessed with this indigenous sport.

Credit: Instagram. @thinkmexican

Popular culture seems to be obsessed with this game, and it wouldn’t surprise us if a league opened soon. Even the highly popular Netflix show Club the Cuervos dedicated a few episodes of its last season to theorizing what a modern league of juego de pelota would look like! 

And of course touristy places use it to lure gringos!

Credit: Instagram. @josueissac

Touristy places such as the Xcaret park in the Yucatan Peninsula stage their version of the game! You can watch it here.

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