Ulama: The Pre-Columbian Ballgame Survives Today
Ulama players standing together

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

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

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.”

Although we would agree with Kelly that few explicitly religious traits survive, a number of aspects of Ulama practiced into the 20th century suggest that at one time religious beliefs were associated with the game. One of these is the custom of observing sexual abstinence before a religious or semi-religious event. This practice is frequently used as a means of beginning the process of gender separation and has been noted before corn planting ceremonies and rituals conducted in caves. Kelly notes that a prohibition against sexual intercourse before games existed in the 1930s. Our oldest informant, Rafael Cazares “El Huilo,”also comments on this practice. He says that, “The players could not be with their women because it is bad. You wear out and you could start losing your eyesight and this is not good for the game. Once the game is over, one can be with one’s woman and with a lot of gusto! Now it is not like before, players take care of themselves only if there is a bet (unamarre de dinero).”

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. 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.” Kelly says that in Nayarit in the 1930s,the chimali was made of the root bark of a particular tree. The third piece, a cloth belt (faja), holds the gamuza together and tightens the stomach area, providing additional protection. Kelly mentions that players wrapped 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. 

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 service 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.

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.

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. 

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.

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. There seem to be formalized rules on how disputes are brought to the veedor. In the game we observed between Los Llanitos and Escuinapa, a player from Escuinapa brought an issue to the veedor. While the point was still being considered, a second player from the same team made a comment to the veedor. The veedor immediately reprimanded the second player and threw out Escuinapa’s challenge on the grounds that only one issue could be raised at a time. Such a rule prevents the veedor from being surrounded and outnumbered by disputing players.

Age appears to be an issue of importance in disputes. In another disagreement between the same teams, an old player from Escuinapa assumed the role of veedor because his team had not brought one. Although a player, he appeared to overrule the veedor from Los Llanitos because he was older. In response, the team from Los Llanitos attempted to have a 94-year-old former player from La Savila settle the argument. At this point, however, the player from Escuinapa raised the issue of experience, telling the nonagenarian, “You may be older, but I have been playing longer.” Age and experience appear to be considerations that could be played off against each other.

In the past, the veedores may have had more control. Both Kelly and our 94-year-old informant confirm that inter-community competition was often in the hands of organizers who supported the players and supervised their practice. Kelly suggests that the organizer had the power to whip players not showing the proper intensity. These individuals, known as the “owners of the game” could also serve as juez. If the “owners of the game” were also the veedores, they would wield considerably more power than they do today. 

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. In the dispute with Escuinapa, Chuy Paez of Los Llanitos repeated a number of times, “We must play by the rules; we must respect the rules.” The players from Escuinapa, however, were making exactly the same point.

Another element evident in the disputes was the idea that the taste was set off by much more than simply a fence. When the team from Los Llanitos accepted to start the game with the male por arriba, the action slowed as neither side was able to keep the ball in-bounds. Several of the organizers of the exhibition game pleaded with the players over the microphone to switch back to the male por abajo. Having made their decision, however, the players totally ignored the large crowd on the other side of the fence. In a statement to one of the players, the veedor started his explanation by saying, “Within this fence, on this taste,” to emphasize that the taste was a separate space with its own set of rules that governed conduct. The players certainly reflected the fact that in coming to the tastebien fajados” (well decked), they had entered a separate social universe whose roots were grounded in a different world.

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. 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 in 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.

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 adequate 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. 

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.

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 show of “Maya Ballgame.” 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 to 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. 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 done 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. 

Although hip-Ulama has been at 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.

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