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Mexicolore contributor Manuel Aguilar-Moreno

Ulama: The pre-Columbian ballgame survives today

We are most grateful to Panel of Experts member Dr. Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Professor of Art History at California State University in Los Angeles, for allowing us to upload here our abridged version of his fine article with the same title that appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of American Indian, journal of the National Museum of the American Indian (vol. 17, no. 2).

Pic 1: Antonio Velarde aka ‘El Gallo’ who played in the Ulama exhibition game in the 1968 Olympics shows his Ulama gear
Pic 1: Antonio Velarde aka ‘El Gallo’ who played in the Ulama exhibition game in the 1968 Olympics shows his Ulama gear (Click on image to enlarge)

On the first day of the Olympic Games of Mexico City, Oct. 12, 1968, millions of astonished spectators around the world saw a unique exhibition ballgame known as Ulama. The game, in which the ball is hit with the hip, is a survival of the pre-Columbian game Ullamaliztli, which was popular among the Maya and the Aztec. Today, Ulama is on the verge of extinction. It is only practiced in four small towns in the state of Sinaloa in Mexico. 
The ballgame has a history of approximately 3,500 years (considering the recent discovery of the pre-classic ball-court of Paso de la Amada in Chiapas), and around 2,000 ball-courts in total have been located in Mesoamerica.

Pic 2: The ballcourt of Xochicalco
Pic 2: The ballcourt of Xochicalco (Click on image to enlarge)

Scholars have assigned diverse functions and meanings to the game: a portal to the underworld, a setting for reenactment of cosmic battles between celestial bodies, fertility rituals, warfare ceremonies, political affirmation of kingship, a setting for human sacrifices and so on. 
But after analyzing the similarity of diverse constructive patterns and styles of the game, it can be affirmed that the ballgame was a pan-Mesoamerican activity linked to a cosmology common to all the peoples of the region.

Pic 3: Team of the Ulama Project in Sinaloa during the 2006 season (María Ramos, Javier Cordon, Dianna Santillano, Luis Ramirez and Dr. Manuel Aguilar-Moreno)
Pic 3: Team of the Ulama Project in Sinaloa during the 2006 season (María Ramos, Javier Cordon, Dianna Santillano, Luis Ramirez and Dr. Manuel Aguilar-Moreno) (Click on image to enlarge)

Anthropologist Ted Leyenaar wrote in 1978 about the risk of extinction of Ulama. It was clear to me that if Ulama disappeared, we would lose the oldest team sport in the world. So in 2003, with the support of the Historical Society of Mazatlan and a grant from California State University, Los Angeles, I organized the Project Ulama 2003–2013, an interdisciplinary research program that included eight students of Cal State LA to investigate the present status of Ulama.

Pic 4: Game between La Savila and La Mora Escarbada
Pic 4: Game between La Savila and La Mora Escarbada (Click on image to enlarge)

Among the themes to be studied were the philosophy and symbolism of the Mesoamerican ballgame, the rediscovery of the rubber ballgame in the 20th century, the history of the ballgame from the Olmecs to modern Sinaloa, the survival of beliefs and religious practices in Ulama, the linguistics of Ulama, the rules, the scoring of the game, the role of the taste (ball-court, from the Aztec word tlachtli) within the current social setting, the implications of the production of rubber balls, the significance of the attire of the Mesoamerican ballgame through history, the heroes of Ulama, the “owners” of the game, the role of women in the game and the diverse primary documentary sources about Ulama.

Pic 5: Ulama de cadera
Pic 5: Ulama de cadera (Click on image to enlarge)

Of the surviving versions of the game we chose to study Ulama de cadera - played with a ball weighing about eight or nine pounds and struck with the hip or upper thigh, and found in the southern part of the state of Sinaloa, in the area around Maztlan - because it is at risk of extinction and it appears to be the form most related to the ethno-historic descriptions of the Aztec game Ullamaliztli.

Pic 6: Team of Los Llanitos dressed with their ‘fajados’
Pic 6: Team of Los Llanitos dressed with their ‘fajados’ (Click on image to enlarge)

The ancient Mesoamerican ballgame is frequently described as having had ritual or religious connotations. Our ethnographic investigations collected a good deal of evidence to suggest that this pattern survived but was transferred to the celebration of Christian saints’ days and maintained up until the very recent past.
Until recently, Ulama was played in Los Llanitos in the morning before fiestas. Fito Paez said that as a teenager in the late 1960s and early1970s, he used to play the game every time there was a fiesta. During the same period, Antonio Velarde “El Gallo” (who played in the historical Ulama game in the Olympics of 1968) stated, “Every June 24, the day of San Juan Bautista, the patron saint of Villa Union, they used to celebrate and the game was part of the celebrations. In the same way, in other towns whenever they celebrated their patron saints they played the game.”

Pic 7: Ballgame players taken to Europe by Hernán Cortés (Weiditz, 1529)
Pic 7: Ballgame players taken to Europe by Hernán Cortés (Weiditz, 1529) (Click on image to enlarge)

The similarity of the modern game to its ancient counterpart is immediately apparent in the dress of the players. The garb, called the fajado, consists of three parts. The first, called the gamuza, is a piece of leather or cloth worn as a loincloth; it is similar to the ancient dress shown in Weiditz’ painting from 1529 of Aztec ball-players taken to Europe by Hernan Cortes (pic 7). In Los Llanitos, the gamuza is supposed to be made of deerskin. (Today, it is prohibited to hunt deer, so cow or goat hide is used). The second element of the fajado is the chimali or chimale, a leather belt approximately two inches wide that straps around the buttocks and waist area to keep the buttocks tight and prevent injury. The name appears to be derived from the Nahuatl word chimalli meaning “shield” or “protection.”

Pic 8: The four pieces of the ‘fajado’ (L); the complete ‘fajado’ put in place (R)
Pic 8: The four pieces of the ‘fajado’ (L); the complete ‘fajado’ put in place (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

The third piece, a cloth belt (faja), holds the gamuza together and tightens the stomach area, providing additional protection. Players have been known to wrap sections of automobile tire under the chimali for additional protection. The fourth piece is called bota and is a slice of leather that some players use under the gamuza to absorb the impact. When not in use, the fajado is neatly wrapped and hung from the rafters of the house in a manner that appears to be identical to that described for the Aztecs by Fray Diego Duran in his 16th century Historia de las Indias or in the Popol Vuh for the Hero Twins. 

Pic 9: ‘Taste’ during a game in La Mora Escarbada
Pic 9: ‘Taste’ during a game in La Mora Escarbada (Click on image to enlarge)

Ulama is played on a field, called a taste, approximately 225-feet long and 13-feet wide. The taste is divided into two halves by a line called the analco, a term that appears in colonial chronicles. In Los Llanitos, this line is marked by two stones set into the ground on each side of the taste. Parallel lines running the length of the taste mark the boundaries on each side. Finally, the end lines are known as chichis. The size of teams can vary but is generally between three and five. Play begins with one side throwing a high serve (male arriba) across the analco or by rolling the ball across (male abajo). The type of serve changes according to the score. Points or rayas are scored when one team fails to return the ball past the analco or when the ball is driven past the opponent’s end line. The first team to score eight rayas wins.

Pic 10: Passing the ball over the ‘analco’
Pic 10: Passing the ball over the ‘analco’ (Click on image to enlarge)

The rules of Ulama are complex, and it took us a good amount of time to understand them. We realized that the logic of the game is not “Western.” In our modern games we are used to linear cumulative scores, and ties can result. Once you have gained one point, you keep it. In Ulama the score is not linear, but oscillatory, and works as a type of teetertotter where the points (rayas) of the teams go up and down. The Urria phase that occurs between scores “2” and “3” and between “6” and “7” is a transitional step that determines whether the score goes up or down.

Pic 11: ‘Dynamics... movement... balance... oscillation... duality...’ Movement glyph, Codex Borgia (L), ballcourt, Codex Zouche-Nuttall (R)
Pic 11: ‘Dynamics... movement... balance... oscillation... duality...’ Movement glyph, Codex Borgia (L), ballcourt, Codex Zouche-Nuttall (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

This scoring behavior is consistent with Mesoamerican ideology, for the game was in its origins a ritual practice in which there was a representation of the dynamics of the cosmos and the movement of the celestial bodies. The Mesoamericans believed that life in the universe was held by the balancing action of contrary and complementary forces, which needed to be in perpetual movement. The oscillation in the Ulama score symbolizes that duality between contrary and complementary forces, such as light-darkness, day-night, high-low, heat-cold, life-death or fertility-drought. 

Pic 12: Argument between Fito Lizarraga and Chuy Paez of Los Llanitos against Modesto Huaira of Escuinapa
Pic 12: Argument between Fito Lizarraga and Chuy Paez of Los Llanitos against Modesto Huaira of Escuinapa (Click on image to enlarge)

This brief overview belies the complexity of the game. A majority of the players actually do not know all of the rules. Several players stated that the rules are so complex that one has to play the game for many years to understand all of them. Because the rules are not formalized, there are many differences of opinion about the rules, and during our discussions in Los Llanitos intergenerational differences were common. There also seem to be regional differences as well. In an exhibition game we observed, an argument broke out between teams from Los Llanitos and Escuinapa over the form of the serve used to start the game.

Pic 13: The ‘veedores’ refereeing a game in La Mora Escarbada
Pic 13: The ‘veedores’ refereeing a game in La Mora Escarbada (Click on image to enlarge)

Because the rules are so complex that not all of the players might understand them, the role of the veedor or juez is important. The veedor, generally an older or a former player, is the referee who has the final say, according to the players. In games between communities, there should be a veedor from each side, and they only become involved if the two sides do not agree on a play or point.

Pic 14: Young Los Llanitos player returning the ball in mid-air (L), La Savila player returning a ‘male por abajo’ (top R), Luis Lizarraga returning a ‘male por arriba’ (bottom R)
Pic 14: Young Los Llanitos player returning the ball in mid-air (L), La Savila player returning a ‘male por abajo’ (top R), Luis Lizarraga returning a ‘male por arriba’ (bottom R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Differences in rules may be a serious problem to those interested in standardizing the game as a means of promoting regional development. We suspect that each of these small communities will have developed slightly different rules over time, and it is interesting to see how tenaciously the players hold to their particular regulations. These are not simply a collection of rules, but are seen as a community tradition stretching back unchanged into the distant past. In playing by the rules, the players consciously connect themselves with that long tradition.
One of the most critical aspects of the present situation of the hip-Ulama is its future. Given that there are only four communities in which this variant of the game is played, and that the number of active players falls between 30 and 40, it would seem that the game is in imminent danger of extinction.

Pic 15: Dr. Manuel Aguilar-Moreno and Roberto Rochin teaching the ancient technique of making Ulama balls to the players of La Savila
Pic 15: Dr. Manuel Aguilar-Moreno and Roberto Rochin teaching the ancient technique of making Ulama balls to the players of La Savila (Click on image to enlarge)

There are several causes of this crisis: at present few fathers teach the game to their children; the game is perceived by some of the youths and people in general as violent and dangerous; the game presents few economic benefits as opposed to other sports such as baseball or soccer where there is the possibility to play in professional teams; governmental support has been very sporadic, and perhaps most important, it is difficult to get materials to make rubber balls. In addition to the almost complete disappearance of the rubber trees in Sinaloa, it is very difficult to have access to the zones where some of them still survive. A bucket with sufficient latex to make one or two balls costs about $1,000 U.S. dollars. There are large plantations of latex trees in the more distant southeastern Mexico, but since the Ulama players are peasants with limited resources, either option is prohibitively expensive.

Pic 16: Creation of an Ulama rubber ball using modern methods
Pic 16: Creation of an Ulama rubber ball using modern methods (Click on image to enlarge)

Another problem is that very few persons in Sinaloa still know the ancient technique of mixing latex with machacuana root to make the balls. To help the survival of the game, our Ulama Project attempted the creation of experimental balls using processed industrial latex with a chemical catalyzer, as a cheaper alternative to the ancient Pre-Columbian process. After 11 attempts, we succeeded in making a ball that complied with the requirements of weight, size, texture and flexibility of a correct Ulama ball. We documented this exhausting process, and film-director Roberto Rochin and I taught the most relevant technique to a group of young players of La Savila in a workshop in 2013. In this way, the Ulama players can independently produce their own balls.

Pic 17: Children playing Ulama in Los Llanitos
Pic 17: Children playing Ulama in Los Llanitos (Click on image to enlarge)

Although the very existence of hip-Ulama is at risk, some miraculous events have helped the game to survive. The Paez brothers and their uncle Fito Lizarraga have motivated the people of Los Llanitos to instill in their children the practice of Ulama, and they have preserved with great zeal their only ball and the magnificent taste that they have. The cousins of the Paez brothers who live in the neighboring village of El Chamizal have also formed a team to play during weekends against the people of Los Llanitos.

Pic 18: Ulama players in Xcaret, Quintana Roo disguised as ancient Maya
Pic 18: Ulama players in Xcaret, Quintana Roo disguised as ancient Maya (Click on image to enlarge)

In La Savila, Don Manuel Lizarraga taught his eight children (including a daughter) to play Ulama, and they exported the game to the theme park of Xcaret, located near Cancun in the state of Quintana Roo. The park of Xcaret, in its goal of impressing tourists, created a court and a “Maya Ballgame” show. As there are no more ball players in the Yucatan peninsula, the park hired the players of La Savila, dressed them as Mayas and set them to play there. The Sinaloan players appear wearing headdresses and loincloths in the role of fake Mayas, converting Ulama into a commercialized and “exotic” activity that caters to foreign tourists. However, this situation has brought economic benefit to the players. Even though their salaries are not comparable with professional sports, they still help to improve the economic position of their families.

Pic 19: Martina Velarde, great female player of Los Zapotes
Pic 19: Martina Velarde, great female player of Los Zapotes (Click on image to enlarge)

Several of them have married Maya women, staying permanently in the region and teaching the game to local Maya youths, who eventually can have jobs as players in Xcaret. 
This “internationalization” of Ulama in the Maya Riviera (Xcaret), together with the efforts that Dr. Marcos Osuna has made in El Quelite and La Savila to promote the game as a tourist attraction, is bringing working opportunities to local people and is helping Ulama in its survival. 

Pic 20: The youngest players with the oldest, looking to the future of Ulama in the ‘taste’ of Los Llanitos (2003)
Pic 20: The youngest players with the oldest, looking to the future of Ulama in the ‘taste’ of Los Llanitos (2003) (Click on image to enlarge)

Although hip-Ulama has been on the verge of extinction for a long time, so far it has reinvented itself and continues to demonstrate its will to survive. We should continue to support the existence of this millenarian tradition that, like the phoenix, has risen from its own ashes. If hip-Ulama dies, it would be the end of what is perhaps the oldest team sport in the history of humankind, and with that would also die a part of ourselves.

Picture sources:-
All pictures kindly supplied by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, except picture 11 - scans supplied by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: photo by Luis Ramírez
• Pic 4: photo by David Mallin
• Pic 5: photo by Mario Dávila/Ulama Project
• Pic 6: photo by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno
• Pic 8: photos by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno
• Pic 9: photo by David Mallin
• Pic 10: photo by David Mallin
• Pic 12: photo by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno
• Pic 13: photo by David Mallin
• Pic 14: photo (L) by Mario Dávila/Ulama Project, (top R) by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, (bottom R) by David Mallin
• Pic 15: photo by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno
• Pic 16: photo by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno
• Pic 17: photo by Luis Ramírez
• Pic 18: photo by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno
• Pic 19: photo by Karla López
• Pic 20: photo by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 15th 2016

Read the full article by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno in American Indian magazine

Visit the original Ulama Project website

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