Thursday, June 13, 2024

After nearly dying out, the pre-Hispanic ballgame ulama is thriving

In 1968 — on the first day of the Olympic Games held in Mexico City — millions of spectators from around the world watched the ancient game of Ulama, most of them for the first time. 

The players are spectacular to watch. The game requires skill, endurance and athleticism — players must leap into the air with great strength, yet with the grace of a ballet dancer as they twist their bodies to hit the ball with their hip.

Members of an Ulama team play a modern-day version of the game
Members of an ulama team play a modern-day version of the game. (Courtesy of José Lizárraga)

The Mesoamerican ballgame of Ulama — the oldest continuously played team sport in the world — has existed for 3,500 years.  The oldest ball court — discovered in 1974 in Paso de la Amada, Chiapas — dates back to 1400 B.C.  Ulama balls have been found that are even older: dating back to 1600–1700 B.C.

Ulama was widespread in Mesoamerica, played by the Olmecs, Aztec and Maya. More than 2,500 ballcourts have been found — the most famous can be seen in Mexico’s archeological sites of Chichén Itzá, Tikal, and Monte Albán.

Ulama reflected the shared cosmological beliefs of a vast region stretching throughout much of Mesoamerica. When the Spanish saw the ritual and its religious aspects and regarded it as a threat to the Catholic Church, they banned the game, and the tradition began to disappear.  

By the beginning of the 21st century, historians were concerned that Ulama was becoming extinct. In 2003, California State University and the Historical Society of Mazatlán began a 10-year interdisciplinary project to study the status of the Ulama tradition.

drawing by Christophe Weiditz of Mesoamerican ballgame players in 1528
Ulama was documented in 1528 in this drawing by Christophe Weiditz, who was in the audience as indigenous men brought to the court of King Charles V played a version of the game for the monarch.

They found that the game continued to be played in just four communities in Sinaloa but that  the practice had died out in the rest of the country, alarming them that this ancient tradition might become extinct. 

Then the Lizarraga family almost single-handedly rescued Ulama from extinction.

The family had kept the Ulama tradition alive since 1900, passing down the training and rituals of the game from generation to generation. More recently, family members also became concerned by the lack of interest in the ancient game. They started reaching out to distant relatives and others to provide training and help organize teams.  

Don Manuel Lizárraga taught his eight children (including a daughter) to play Ulama, and they exported it to the theme park of Xcaret near Cancún.  The park built a ball court and hired players from Sinaloa — at the time, there were no players left in the Yucatán Peninsula — for exhibition games as a tourist attraction.

For the Lizárragas, Ulama is a family tradition.  The clan has produced 150 Ulama ballplayers.  That tradition is now being carried forward by José Lizarraga, an Ulama player and promoter.

I ask Lizárraga about the symbolism of the game.  

“Historically, it was a sacred ritual related to seasonal or agricultural changes, such as marking the beginning or end of a harvesting season. It was also used to end conflicts,” he says.

There are historical records of games played between teams of two civilizations or their kings to decide the winner of a conflict; often, the losing team or king would be sacrificed to the gods. 

The Aztecs made Ulama a high-stakes game.  Players and team supporters would wager their home, their fields, their children and even themselves — if their team lost, they could lose everything and be forced into slavery and ultimately sacrificed.

Mexicans playing ulama, including Luis Lizarraga, foreground
The Lizárraga family has been a linchpin in saving knowledge of ulama from disappearing. Here, Luis Lizárraga makes a play in a match, date unknown. (David Mallin)

“There is also deep symbolism regarding the creation of the world and the continuous battle of opposites,” Lizárraga says.  “Fire and water, good and evil, day and night.  The ball court — called a taste (tās-tāy) — represents the portal to the underworld. The players represent the stars or celestial bodies. 

Often, there were ritual offerings to the sacred energies, and the players would present themselves for purification.  The game of ulama symbolizes the perpetual movement and duality of the universe.”

INAH archeologist Gibrán de la Torre tells me, “There are three different versions of Ulama: In one, you can only advance the ball by hitting it with your forearm. The second version is to advance the ball with a stick or club called a mazo — similar to the game of cricket. The most popular version is the ‘hip ulama,’ where you can only hit the ball with your hip.  It is a continuation of the pre-Hispanic ullamaliztli played by the Aztecs and Mayans.”

In El Quelite, I meet with another Ulama ballplayer, Juan Carlos Osuna, to have him explain how the game is played. I quickly discover that the rules are different depending on the team and the community.  

“The ball court is a long, narrow rectangle with end lines, or goal lines, at each end. In the middle is the center line (analco), which separates the two teams.  The goal is to get the ball over your opponent’s endline using only your hip,” he explains.  

“If you touch the ball with any other part of your body, you lose a point. If it is a low ball, you must drop to the ground and hit it with your hip.  I have had many cuts and bruises, but your body gets used to it.”  

Osuna raises a cloth sack he is carrying and almost reverently removes a rubber ball the size of a large cantaloupe and hands it to me.  The ball is surprisingly dense — weighing almost nine pounds — but it bounces like a much lighter ball.  

an artifact ulama ball
Example of a ulama ball on display in Sinaloa. (Sheryl Losser)

“The balls are made from the sap of a rubber tree — the arbol de hule — that grows in Tabasco. They must be constructed by special artisans. The technique is passed down from generation to generation.” 

The balls are expensive, costing US $1,000 due to the amount of latex required and a scarcity of artisans who know the technique.

Each team consists of three to five players and a referee. Players wear protective gear around their hips — a loincloth, a wide leather belt that straps around their hips and a cloth belt or sash that holds it together and hangs down in front as further protection. The first team to score eight points (rayas) wins the game.

The rules and scoring are so complicated, it can take players years to fully understand them — which is why each game has one or two referees. There are three phases of the game, known as urrias, during you could lose all your points.   

Due to the scoring’s complexity, games could have lasted for days — they are now limited to a certain number of hours agreed to by both sides. 

Despite all this, Ulama is currently undergoing a serious comeback: through his organization FEMUC Ulama de cadera, Lizárraga has trained and organized teams and tournaments in 11 states in Mexico, as well as in California and Guatemala.

Members of a Ulama team in action.
The game’s rules are complicated and in this version seen here, players drive the ball with their hips. (Courtesy of Jose Lizarraga)

He now has eight women’s teams, 12 men’s teams, four for children and four for youth.

Games can be seen regularly at the Xcaret theme park in Playa del Carmen and at the Xachikalli cultural center in Mexico City. You can even request an exhibition game by contacting Lizárraga at 984-166-8181. Or contact him on Facebook at FEMUC ullama de cadera.

Sheryl Losser is a former public relations executive and professional researcher.  She spent 45 years in national politics in the United States. She moved to Mazatlán in 2021 and works part-time doing freelance research and writing.

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