Mesoamerican Ball Bounces into San Fernando

F. Castro / SFVS

Marco Antonio Chávez, National Representative of AJUPEME USA (left) and Alejandro Carlos Cárdenas Estrada of Mexicali, Baja California, give a demonstration of how to play Pelota Mesoamericana, an ancient game that is starting to be practiced in the City of San Fernando.

Hips and constant movement is required to play the difficult Mesoamerican Ball game – the oldest sport in the world to use a rubber ball.

The game has now made it to the City of San Fernando.

On June 20, local city officials and representatives from Mexico hosted a special indigenous ceremony at Rudy Ortega Sr. Park that officially named Raul Herrera as the California Delegate of the San Fernando Valley for the Mesoamerican Ballgame Association in the United States (AJUPEME USA).

“My job is to select the first city to create a team and work with that team,” Herrera explained. “I also have to reach out to other cities in California [to create teams] so we can compete locally, regionally.”

The first city in California that Herrera selected to create a team is the City of San Fernando, his home base where he has longtime roots as an Aztec instructor and dancer.  

Herrera is known throughout the Northeast San Fernando Valley and surrounding communities for his work to educate and practice indigenous traditions and culture. He has already introduced the ancient sport to those who want to learn and has started informal practice sessions at San Fernando Recreation Park.

So far, six male and five female players are taking part in those practices that include teens and adults. The team, in its beginning stages, doesn’t have a name yet, but Herrera hopes more people will want to learn to play and join in the practices held every Sunday at 5 p.m. 

Herrera describes Mesoamerican Ball as a “warrior sport which was used to resolve conflict,” although there are various  accounts about its history.

Ball courts can still be found among ancient ruins in Mexico and Central America. The game is physically challenging and requires keeping the heavy ball made of solid rubber in constant motion without using your hands or feet.    

 The next team Herrera plans on developing will be at Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles.

The idea is that once those other teams are ready, they will play against each other, as well as against teams that will also be started in other parts of the state.

The indigenous game that was practiced for millennia has been revived in Mexico and is now slowly making its way onto this side of the border. Marco Antonio Chavez, National Representative of AJUPEME USA, already formed a team in Las Vegas — where he lives. Another team was founded in Salt Lake City, Utah.

All states in Mexico now have teams and tournaments and the goal is to hold the First International AJUPEME Tournament in the City of San Fernando in October, 2020.

 How the game is played

The original version of the game is played in an enclosed ballcourt with five members of each team playing at a time (there is a total of seven players per game) try to bounce the Ulama rubber ball –  that weighs about six pounds – into a tall hoop.

There are no such quarters in the US, so the version to be played here is one where the goal is to get the ball beyond the opposite team so they can’t return it.

Players have to meet the ball with their hips and often find themselves needing to move up and down from the ground. It’s difficult, say those who practice it.

“It requires a lot of physical prowess,” said Chavez, who was in San Fernando last week to announce Herrera as delegate and who provided a demonstration of how the game is played along with Alejandro Carlos Cardenas Estrada, from Mexicali, Baja California, who is also trying to build a team there.

The game is split between two 20-minute halves with a 10-minute break in the middle.

And yes, Chavez confirms the ball — made with rubber from an Arbol de Castilla tree and sulfur (which leaves an overpowering odor and that’s why it can’t be used for two to three months) — is very heavy and leaves a mark.

“At first you do get big bruises but then they disappear,” said Chavez, who admitted that after one of the first practices he had to go to the hospital because he feared he had broken a rib.

Members of the teams wear a “fajado” or “calzonera,” outfits that symbolize the uterus, the ovum and the birth in honor of Mother Earth.

 “You have to get used to the hits”

And women are actively taking part in the development of the sport in the City of San Fernando.

One of them is 37-year-old Veronica Leon, an Aztec dancer.

“It’s difficult,” Leon said. “The movement is very hard. You have to get used to the hits.”

A native of Michoacan, Mexico, Leon says it’s important to keep the game alive for the next generations.

“It’s our history, out tradition. We have to keep it alive and for (the kids) to know where they come from.”

Julian Venegas, Director of Recreation and Community Services for the City of San Fernando, the first in the country to recognize this game, said the decision is meant to send a message of inclusion in the City.

“San Fernando is a traditional city that receives a lot of people from other places who might be at a loss in a new country. We want to let them know they’re welcomed and valued members of our society and our community,” Venegas said.

Herrera added bringing this game to California is a cultural exchange that “recognizes we have a native ancestry, reinforce other people who feel stuck in between, ni de aqui ni de alla (not from here nor from over there),” and that it “empowers youth about their heritage.”

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