Ulama: The Pre-Columbian Ballgame Survives Today

Ulama players in Xcaret, Quintana Roo, disguised as ancient Maya.

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 at the verge of extinction. It is only practiced in four small towns of 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 Amadain Chiapas), and around 2,000 ball-courts in total have been located in Mesoamerica. 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.

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 the Ulama.

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 score 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.

We had to choose from three forms of rubber ballgames that have survived in Sinaloa: Ulama de palo, Ulama de brazo and Ulama de cadera. Ulama de palo, played with a heavy bat, was not considered as a focus of study because it had died out in the 1950s and then revived in the 1980s. Ulama de brazo, played with a small ball weighing approximately one pound and struck with the forearm near the elbow, predominates in communities in the northern part of the state of Sinaloa and still has a good number of players. Ulama de cadera, played with a ball weighting about eight or nine pounds and struck with the hip or upper thigh, is found in the south. We selected Ulama de cadera, played in the area around Mazatlan, 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. 

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. The same way, in other towns whenever they celebrated their patron saints they played the game.” Isabel Kelly records that in Acaponeta, Nayarit, in the 1930s,the game was “entirely secular, except for the fact that religious feast days were favored for play.”

Dr. Manuel Aguilar-Moreno is a professor of art history at California State University in Los Angeles. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, he is a renowned expert on pre-Columbian civilizations, the colonial history of Mexico and Mexican Muralism. Dr. Aguilar-Moreno has published on a wide range of subjects, including Mesoamerican art and history, colonial art and history of Mexico with emphasis in the Indian-Christian art of the transculturation process, funerary art and the pre-Columbian ballgame.