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Extreme Sport Volume 56 Number 5, September/October 2003
by Colleen P. Popson

Once the game of Maya kings and Aztec warriors, ulama lives on in the dusty playing fields of western Mexico.

Children in the Mexican village of Los Llanitos still play ulama, a game whose roots reach back 3,000 years. Jesús Paez returns the ball with his hip as his father, Jesús Sr., gives the play-by-play from the sidelines. (Luis Ramirez)

Every Sunday afternoon around this time of year, while millions of Americans crowd around their television sets to watch 250-pound men in helmets and pads pound each other over pigskin in huge stadiums, another Sunday sports tradition is honored in a tiny Mexican village 800 miles south of the border, between the Sierra Madre Mountains and the Pacific coast. There, two five-man teams of farmers wearing nothing but headbands and deerskin loincloths ricochet an eight-pound rubber ball off their hips across a packed-dirt playing field. Each explosive thwap of the ball is an echo of similar games played throughout Mesoamerica for more than 3,000 years.

I've come to the village of Los Llanitos, population 151, with a motley group of academics, tourists, philanthropists, and bureaucrats from the nearby coastal city of Mazatlán, where we've been attending the First International Congress for the Mesoamerican Ballgame. The version of the game played here is ulama de cadera, or hip ulama (from ullamaliztli, the Náhuatl, or Aztec, word for ballgame), and from what scholars can tell, it is the game that most closely resembles what was played in the large Prehispanic stone courts from this part of Mexico to the Maya lowlands of Yucatán, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. Today it is found only in a few tiny pockets of the western state of Sinaloa. (Cancún's tourism industry, in an effort to provide an authentic Maya experience, stages games with Sinaloan athletes imported from 2,000 miles away.)

Ulama has survived in western Mexico for millennia; excavations here have turned up ceramic figurines and ballcourts as old as the fourth century A.D., and rubber balls have been found near the Gulf Coast that date to 1500 B.C. Yet today it is an endangered sport. "Hip ulama survives in only a few communities," says Manuel Aguilar, an art historian at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA). He and CSULA archaeologist James Brady have brought a small group of graduate students here as part of an interdisciplinary art history and anthropology project focused on ulama. A tall man with long arms and a lilting voice, Aguilar talks passionately about Mesoamerican culture to anyone who will listen. Awaiting the start of a game, he tells me there are only about two hundred players in the whole state, and the number of younger ones is declining. "The game is at risk of dying," he says. "We'd like to make the tradition more known to the public, to show people that it's not just another game, like baseball, but one that has deeper roots."

Brady, Aguilar, and their students have started to canvas Sinaloa, interviewing players and their families about where the modern game has survived and why it has died out elsewhere, and investigating possible connections with the past. Specifically, they have looked for sacred or ritual aspects of ulama; links in terminology (the word for the field, taste [TA-stay], for example, is very similar to the Náhuatl word tlachtli, which means ballcourt or ballgame); how the balls are made and what that might tell us about ball making in the past; how the game, with its quirky, elusive rules, was played; and the role of women in the sport, past and present.

The CSULA project seeks to establish continuity with past research, bring scholarship up to date, and search for more links to the past to help ulama gain the support and attention it deserves as a survival of a significant ancient tradition. A recent attempt to convince the Mexican ministry of tourism to nominate ulama for protection by UNESCO as intangible patrimony of humankind was declined in favor of the Day of the Dead, arguably a better known, and therefore less endangered, cultural phenomenon.

Colleen P. Popson, associate editor of ARCHAEOLOGY, thanks the CSULA Ulama Project, the residents of Los Llanitos, the Mazatlán Historical Society, and Manuel, Jesús Ernesto, and Alfredo Gomez of Mazatlán for their support.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America