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Students of the Game

When the Aztec and Maya played it 500 to 1,000 years ago, the losers sometimes lost their heads—literally. Today scholars are visiting remote Mexican villages to study the oldest sport in the Americas, ulama, now on the verge of extinction

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After a midafternoon lunch of pozole, a traditional Mexican hominy stew, Páez leads us to the town’s playing field, or taste (pronounced TAS-TAY), a name believed to derive from tlachtli (TLASH-TLI), the Aztec word for ball court. Scholars have documented about 1,500 of them and excavated about 450. With their two long, low, parallel mounds forming an I-shaped alley, ulama courts are as distinctive as baseball diamonds.

Sixteenth-century Spanish chroniclers of the New World, most of them Franciscan friars bent on spreading the Christian faith, described with awe their first encounters with this peculiar sport, played with a solid ball that appeared to have magical properties. Hernando Cortés was so impressed with the game that he brought a team of players back to Spain in 1528 to perform in the royal court. But the friars soon learned that for the Aztec and other Mesoamericans, ullamaliztli was as much religious rite as sandlot sport. In their codices, or sacred books, the Aztec compared the bouncing ball to the cosmic journey of the sun into and out of the underworld. Highly ritualized ballgames enacted at key religious festivals helped to ensure the continuous cycles of nature and the cosmos. Ball courts in Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital (in what is now Mexico City), were adorned with sculptures depicting local gods and other supernatural beings. Priests initiated important games with offerings of incense in nearby temples.

At least some of the games saw human sacrifice. The losing players—or unlucky stand-ins captured in battle—could literally lose their heads in post-game ceremonies. In one graphic depiction on the walls of the monumental ninth-century Maya ball court at Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán, serpents and squash plants sprout from the neck of a kneeling, decapitated player, bestowing fertility on the land and the living. A rival player wields a stone knife and the freshly severed head as his grisly trophy.

In 1585, the Spanish, citing such practices, banned the ballgames. But in remote frontier villages, ulama survived. “When the Spanish friars drove the game underground,” Aguilar says, “it almost certainly lost most of its religious overtones.” But some intriguing practices seem to hint at a residual link to ancient beliefs. According to Spanish accounts, for example, the Aztec played primarily on religious feast days; today in Los Llanitos, the game is played on Christian holidays. And while the ancient ball courts were often next to pyramid temples, today’s tastes tend to be located next to village cemeteries.

Not that the game was ever entirely spiritual. In an early account of the sport’s dark side, chronicler Diego Durán describes how some players “gambled their homes, their fields, their corn granaries, their maguey plants. They sold their children in order to bet and even staked themselves and became slaves, to be sacrificed later if they were not ransomed.”

The los llanitos taste hardly suggests the grandeur of its ancient precursors; it is a long, narrow alley of hard-packed clay lined with palm trees, about 12 feet wide and the length of roughly half a football field. At two o’clock on a Sunday, the first of eight players arrives. He is soon joined by others in a corner of the court that serves as a makeshift locker room. They strip to their underwear and put on fajados, four-piece leather-and-cloth girdles that protect the stomach, hips and buttocks. As the players take to the field to warm up, spectators stake out the best, and safest, spots—mostly in the end zones, the better to avoid a hurtling ball, which travels upwards of 30 miles per hour. Young boys, wearing fajados and the occasional baseball cap, imitate the players on the sidelines, while toddlers play safely behind the chain-link fence.

The game begins when a team of three to five players throws the ball high (male por arriba) or rolls it low (male por abajo) across a chalk-marked centerline. Play continues back and forth, with contestants using only their hips to strike the ball, until a point (raya) is scored when a team fails to return the ball, as in tennis, or when the ball is driven past the opponent’s end zone, as in football. The first team to total eight rayas wins, though due to a complex scoring system that not only awards points but also takes them away, games can go on for hours or even, when halted by nightfall, days.

For Brady and his colleagues, what began as a purely academic study has turned into an all-out effort to save one of the Americas’ oldest traditions. The pair recently petitioned the Mexican Ministry of Tourism, without success, to nominate ulama for UNESCO recognition, to attract more interest and support. But in the end, ulama’s survival may hinge on something far more pedestrian: the availability of rubber balls.

At one time, during the Aztec Empire, the southern Gulf Coast of Mexico was the heartland of rubber production. But since then, the rubber trees that once grew there have been wiped out by development, and the people of Los Llanitos and nearby communities have to travel hundreds of miles into Durango, a region increasingly under the control of Mexican drug lords, to find rubber trees to milk. As a result, the price of a single ulama ball has reached a staggering $1,000, or about $250 more than the annual income of the average Los Llanitos player. The town has only one playable ball—and regular use is shrinking it.

Mazatlán businessman Jesús Gómez, a longtime supporter of the game, has taken the lead in the search for an artificial substitute, and the Ulama Project’s scholars have teamed up with members of the Mazatlán Historical Society to experiment with commercial latex from as far away as New York City. “If we can’t get natural rubber,” says Gómez, “we need to find another way. Otherwise, ulama will not survive. It’s that simple.”

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