Thu, Sep 05, 2019 - Page 16 News List

Aztec ball game returns to Mexico City after 500 years


Men play a pre-Columbian ball game called ulama at the FARO Poniente cultural center in Mexico City on Aug. 21.

Photo: AFP

Five centuries ago, newly arrived in what is now Mexico, Spanish conquistadors banned an indigenous game involving a heavy ball, circular stone goals and human sacrifice.

Now, a group of young players are bringing the game back to life for the first time in Mexico City — without the human sacrifice — at the site of an old garbage dump.

The players proudly tie thick leather belts around their waists as they prepare to play ulama, as the game is known in the Nahuatl language, which is a mixture of sport, ritual and ceremony being used by its promoters to help at-risk youth in a downtrodden neighborhood on the Mexican capital’s north side.

Pre-Columbian ball games dating back thousands of years were once played across a broad swathe of the Americas by civilizations including the Mayas, Incas and Aztecs, and they have been revived elsewhere in Mexico and the region in modern times.

However, this is the first time in half a millennium that there has been a place in Mexico City, once the capital of the Aztec empire, to play the game known in Spanish as juego de pelota.

“The game had been forgotten,” said Emmanuel Kakalotl, who coaches players at the cultural center where the ulama court was built.

“It was toppled 500 years ago, but now we’re raising it up again,” he added.

Wearing their traditional belts and loincloths, his players hit the nearly 4kg rubber ball with their hips, trying to send it through a vertical stone ring that is 6m high.

The game is played by teams of one to seven players.

Centuries ago, they were all men, but here, the game is open to women, too.

“We’re women warriors at heart, because it isn’t easy. Not just anyone can play this sport. It takes a lot of practice, and your body takes a beating,” 25-year-old Beatriz Campos said.

In pre-conquest Mexico, ulama was played in various contexts, including fertility rituals and wars.

The court was a symbolic realm, representing the duality of the universe, but the outcome was very real for the players, who risked being sacrificed, usually by decapitation.

According to researchers, the tradition varied over the centuries: Sometimes, it was the winners who were sacrificed, which was considered an honor, while at other points, it was the losers.

“The game and its religious connotations changed over time. Firsthand accounts from the post-classical period [900 to 1521] suggest that by that stage, it was the loser who was sacrificed,” said Annick Daneels, an expert on pre-Columbian ballgames at UNAM, Mexico’s largest university.

The ritual died out soon after the conquistadors arrived in 1519.

“When the Spanish arrived, because of the political and religious aspects of the ball game, it was probably one of the first things they banned,” Daneels added.

It was never played again in what had been the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan — until the cultural center, looking for projects to revive the blighted site of an old garbage dump in the Azcapotzalco neighborhood, decided to build an ulama court there.

Players take the game very seriously. No alcohol or smoking is allowed at the court. For some, ulama is an escape from drug addiction or a history of crime.

“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,” said Lia Membrillo, coordinator at the city-operated cultural center.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top