MEXICO CITY BUREAU
December 19, 2008
VILLAHERMOSA, Tabasco Athletes file onto the field carrying a mystifying array of sporting tools: tree trunks, gourds, dried palm fronds and balls made of woven cornstalk.
MEXICO CITY BUREAU
Instead of jerseys and spandex, the girls wear brilliant white dresses embroidered with purple and red flowers; the boys wear the track suits of yore: loose-fitting pants made of flowing cotton.
Five centuries after the Spanish conquered the Aztecs, soccer is the premier sport of Latin America. But dedicated indigenous groups and aficionados are trying to keep alive the ancient sports of the Americas.
"We have 4,000 years of history in Mexico, and these games connect us to that," said Alida Zurita Bocanegra, president of the Mexican Association of Traditional and Autoctonous Games and Sports . "Globalization is permeating us, and that's why it's so important at this moment to revive the roots that give us identity."
Once a year, supporters of the ancient sports stage an exhibition of games like pash pash, corozo, garabato and kuachancaca. In November, they came to Villahermosa, a humid, lowland capital in southern Mexico's Tabasco state that was once home to the Olmec, an ancient civilization that predates the Maya.
Organizers hope to keep the sports from dying off, as have a number of indigenous languages and traditions in the modern age. Their goal is to teach the games in schools and arrange tournaments among indigenous groups from around the country.
King of the pre-Hispanic sports scene was "ballgame," a fiendishly difficult game played on a court in which a 9-pound rubber ball is moved along with the hip or thigh something like volleyball without a net .
Once the continent's dominant sport, a version of the game was played by both the Mayans and the Aztecs.
In a remote ranching town near Mazatl?n in the state of Sinaloa, residents still play the game with the passion most of their fellow Mexicans reserve for soccer.
"When we were young, there was no other sport to play," said Aurelio Osuna Bonilla, 34, who came to Villahermosa with three other players to give a demonstration of the lost sport. "We would get out of school and run to the field to play. It's a beautiful game."
As beautiful as it might be, even its staunchest supporters say the sport is not for the faint of heart. Players in Sinaloa wear special leather wraps because cloth shorts leave their midsections peppered with bruises.
"You can't be afraid of the ball," said Jesus Paez Izarraga, who is teaching the sport to his 13-year-old son. "Not everyone can hit the ball if you show 20 people how to play, only five will get it. You have to carry it in the blood."
At the recent exhibition in Tabasco, the ancient ballgame was just one of dozens of sports on display from nearly 20 Mexican states.
The best conditioned athletes at the indigenous games might have been the Tarahumara Indians of Chihuahua, who run as much as 100 miles in a day while kicking a ball a ritual called "rarajipame" in which runners compete for money, clothes and other valuables.
The Tarahumara run to give thanks to the their creator but also out of necessity: In the remote canyons of the Sierra Madre mountains, it's not uncommon for children to run 20 miles to the nearest school.
Such training has produced world-class ultramarathoners. In 1993, a Tarahumara won the prestigious Leadville 100 mile ultramarathon in Colorado.
Spend any time watching one indigenous sport in particular, and the closest comparison is hockey: From the deserts of northern Mexico to jungles near the Guatemalan border, native groups played games resembling the national sport of Canada, minus the ice. In the south, players used dried and hardened palm leaves and called the sport "corozo." In the north, players fashioned L-shaped wooden sticks and played "uarhukua."
The game reached its greatest expression among the Purepecha Indians of what is now the state of Michoac?n. Not only has the sport been rescued, there is now a national championship contended for by teams from several states.
"(Foreigners) say they invented hockey, but we have been playing this game for 3,000 years," said Mario Huante, 18, a player with a team from Tirindaro, Michoac?n.
At the recent exhibition, the Purepecha players played a rare night game, which is meant to give thanks to the sun. It's played with a ball, dipped in lighter fluid and set on fire, that players block with their chests and legs as though it weren't burning at all.
For participants at the games, it's vital that the spirit of the original inhabitants of the Americas burns just as brightly through their sports.
"Huichols, Mayans, Tarahumaras all these groups make up the living mosaic of Mexico," said Marcellino Chan, a teacher in a Mayan village of Campeche. "These games bring together all the peoples. Mexico lives because we keep living."