The ancient Ulama game still being played in Escuinapa Sinaloa

For several generations, the Huaira family has practiced this ancestral sport in the municipality

Escuinapa, Sin.- Keeping alive a tradition that is hundreds of years old, is the main objective of Raymundo Huaira López , who is considered in the municipality as a teacher in the practice and teaching of the “hip ulama” game , which in accordance History has been practiced since before the arrival of the Spaniards to the American Continent.

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The ulama is a sport that is practiced with a rubber ball made in an artisanal way and the players use the leather clothing.

The famous “Rayo” Huaira, as he is known, said that according to what his father, Modesto Huaira, has told him, he has more than 100 years that this sport is practiced in his family, although there was a lapse in which He stopped playing because of the lack of the ball, which is a difficult item to obtain.

I learned to play it (the ulama) for my dad, he says he learned it from my grandfather and his brothers, we can say that it is already more than 100 years that in our family is practiced; there was about 20 years that was stopped playing because there was no ball, but 30 years ago, more or less, I had the chance to resume the game and here we are, we have not stopped doing it, now we are my brothers, my children and Other younger nephews who practice it, we are about 20, more or less.

Escuinapa is a referent of the ulama, which was on the verge of disappearing, but in this municipality practically never was lost and the school of the Huaira, that has been the one of its family, is the one that has maintained it current.

He stressed that in the few more than 30 years that he has as a master of this sport, the main satisfaction he has had is that after he restarted with the tradition, new groups have been formed throughout the country to practice it.

When we started again we were few, it was the group of us, there in El Quelite (Mazatlan) there were others and nothing else, there were people who motivated us to give exhibition games, we have traveled all over the Mexican Republic giving demonstrations of this game and right now I understand how they are already like 18 groups that have formed and are practicing it.

El Quelite

He stressed that his school has left players who are in Xcaret park, located in Cancun, where demonstrations of what is the game of ulama and where the best players in the country are concentrated.

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“We have that pride, that players from Xcaret have already left here, when you start practicing the ulama, the illusion of everyone is to get to that park, because that’s where the best are, right now there are two of them here that they are there, one of them, Francisco Hernández Medina, we can say that he is the ‘Lionel Messi’ of the ulama, because there is no other better player than him here in Mexico “.

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He commented that being one of the few practitioners of the ulama has taken him to be part of audiovisual productions, since at the age of 22 he was the image of a National Geographic documentary, as well as being part of a film called “Las Cities of Ancient Mexico “.

He stressed that the main goal he has always had and has achieved is to prevent this tradition from being lost, as it is one of the few remaining of the ancestors.

My desire is to continue fostering this tradition, not to be lost, now I am sure that it will continue, because we have done a good job and it is something that is brought in the blood and we do not want it to stop doing.

And although the practice of this game is part of the culture, the group of players does not have their own space to carry it out or to do the demonstrations that they sometimes perform for groups of tourists that visit the municipality, so they have to do it in borrowed spaces or sometimes in places that are not suitable for carrying it out, so they have asked the authorities for support to assign them a place and prepare it for the needs that this sport requires.

LA BALL DEL ULAMA, A WORK OF ART

The ball with which the ulama is practiced is considered an artisanal work since it must be made by hand.

Raymundo Huaira commented that one of the regulations that the ulama has is its ball, which must have a weight of 3.8 kilos and made with natural rubber field, material that is obtained from a tree that in Mexico there is very little, what the material has had to bring from Peru.

He is one of the few artisans, if not the only one in the country, who knows the secret of the elaboration of this ball, which currently has a cost for the sale of 8 thousand pesos.

He said that he has manufactured dozens of balls ordered by the groups around the country, in addition to the ones they use in the Xcaret park since he assures that they have sought to manufacture them by machine, but they have not been suitable for the game.

“The ball has its secret, if it is not elaborated correctly, it does not have the rebound that is required, besides that if they do it with a machine, as they have tried, it does not work, because it becomes more compact and the players get hurt , the ball has to be made by hand and that way you will find out what it is you need to put on it “.

DATA

3.8 kilograms is the weight of a ball to play ulama.

8,000 pesos is the price of a ball to play ulama.

30 years he has as a teacher of the ulama Raymundo Huaira.

IMAGE OF THE ANCESTRAL GAME

At age 22, Raymundo Huaira was the image of a National Geographic documentary, as well as being part of a film called “The Cities of Ancient Mexico.”

An Ancient Ballgame Makes A Comeback In Mexico

At a new court in Mexico City designed for ulama, a player drops to the ground to hit a rolling shot. The objective of the game is to hit the ball past the other team’s backline.

Drums rumble between the stone walls lining the court. An ancient ritual is underway. The smell of incense wafts across the concrete, as wiry men and a woman wearing leather waist wraps and headbands volley a ball back and forth. They use only their hip bone to hit it.

Emmanuel Kalakot tilts his head back and blows into a conch shell horn. The sound echoes off the brick walls of the apartment complex next door. For an instant, this doesn’t really feel like 2018.

“It’s not so much about returning to a moment that once was,” says Kalakot, 40. “But we want to take something that was great in its time and make it great again, in a new, contemporary way.”

Kalakot is leading a small group of players in the return of a millennia-old tradition to Mexico City: the ballgame known as ulama.

“There was a kind of pan-Mesoamerican ballgame played with the hip and we can say that it was prevalent, probably played in the majority of places,” in the period around A.D. 200 to 900, says Manuel Aguilar, an archaeologist from California State University, Los Angeles, and a leading scholar on ulama.

The players — mostly with no more than a couple of years’ experience — make it look easy. They gracefully jump to hit a cantaloupe-sized solid rubber ball squarely with their hip, arcing it toward their opponents. A low ball forces players to drop to the ground, a move that makes the leather waist wraps particularly useful.

But it’s painful to master, says Karen Flores, a 22-year-old medical student who’s been playing for about two years.

“You have to play a lot for your body to get used to the blows,” she says. “Ask anyone out here and they’ll tell you about the dead legs and bruises they get playing.”

That’s because the official ball, made by hand of natural rubber, weighs more than 9 pounds.

The group playing at this court boasts about eight experienced players, who act as coaches for the handful of newcomers hoping to learn.

“My dream is for the court to be full, for people of all ages to come, learn, play and then go out and share this tradition,” says Flores.

The Mexico City ball court — measuring about 30 feet by 120 feet — is the first piece of a brand-new community center called the Xochikalli in the northern borough of Azcapotzalco. The center is designed to practice a host of pre-Hispanic traditions, like xilam, a kind of Aztec martial art, and ancient farming techniques. There are also classes for Nahuatl, the most widely spoken surviving pre-Hispanic language in Mexico, the modern version of which is spoken by about 1.7 million people.

These players are excited to carry on the tradition of ulama because it endured across many centuries and civilizations in Mesoamerica. The oldest known court, discovered in Mexico’s Chiapas state, is dated 1400 B.C. The Olmecs, the civilization dating back to 1500 B.C., probably played it. From about A.D. 200 to 900, civilizations from across Mexico and Central America had courts for playing, many of which can still be seen today at ruins like Chichen Itza and Tikal.

We can see a continuity from the ones in the past to what exists today,” says Aguilar. “It may not be exactly the same rules or same courts but the game that exists today is real survival of the Mesoamerican game.”

The meaning of ulama has varied across time and place.

“From our studies, it looks like the game was originally ritual, it was a religious activity,” he says. “And in time, it became a sport, a recreational activity.”

It was spiritual enough that Spanish Roman Catholic priests encountering the Aztec Empire banned it during the conquest. But the Aztecs were also rampant ulama gamblers.

“It was such an addiction to play the game that some people even bet their own lives, becoming slaves if they lost,” Aguilar says.

In its most consequential form, ulama decided the fate of civilizations.

“We have documentation of one against one, king versus king,” says Aguilar. “The game decides the winner of the war.”

One of the most famous king duels happened in the early 16th century, when Moctezuma, king of the Aztecs, squared off against Nezahualpilli, king of nearby Texcoco. Nezahualpilli won the match and declared it was a sign of the coming fall of the Aztec Empire. (The Aztecs indeed fell just a few years later after the arrival of Hernán Cortés and the Spanish conquistadors.)

Some forms of ulama use the elbow or forearms to hit the ball, a sort of predecessor to volleyball without the net. This version is still played in the state of Sinaloa. There is ulama de mazo, a game played with clubs (mazos), kind of like field hockey. (Mexican immigrants from the state of Oaxaca have even brought a variation of that one, pelota mixteca, to California).

But the hip version is the one played in Mexico City. The basic point is to hit the ball past the other team or force them into an error of not being able to volley the ball back. If you hit the ball past the other team’s backline (called chichis by experts; a word that’s also used as slang for various parts of a woman’s body, depending on the country), you get a point. If the other team fails to hit the ball past the midline — known as the analco — you also get a point. The first team to score 8 points wins. Easy, right?

A man in pre-Hispanic dress plays a traditional indigenous ballgame at Mexico’s Xcaret theme park.

But as Aguilar explains, scoring is where ulama feels like it’s from another world. It doesn’t follow linear scoring, like almost every popular sport. Aguilar says it’s almost like Chutes and Ladders.

“The scoring is what makes the game so brutal, because if you lose a point when you are at a certain score, you start back again at zero,” he says.

There are no ties in ulama, so if team A is winning 1-0 and then team B scores a point, the scores flips, with team A losing its point and team B taking a 1-0 lead. Between certain numbers like 2 and 3, you reach a transitional state called urria, where your team is liable to lose all your points if you concede a score. Ulama is won only with impressive rallies and scoring streaks.

(This explanation is admittedly lacking, but, in fairness, Aguilar says it took him and his team months to fully understand scoring.)

Needless to say, this complex scoring means it’s very hard to reach 8 points, turning ulama into a brutal game of endurance. Some ancient matches are said to have lasted more than a week, and strategy was often based on simply wearing down or injuring opponents.

Aguilar says that small towns and families have preserved various ulama traditions, for many years after indigenous communities were ravaged across the region. But in the 20th century, experts worried the game would go extinct, even as tourist attractions like the Xcaret theme park near Cancún tried to promote it.

That’s why coach Kalakot sees this new court as an opportunity for more than just recreation.

“We won’t just be teaching the rules and how to play,” he says. “We also want players to discover the culture and history and values passed down by the game.”

But the presence of players like Karen Flores suggests ulama is coming into the 21st century.

“When I was younger, I saw it being played and I wanted to do it too but the people around me said it wasn’t for women, that it could make me infertile,” she says.

But Flores insisted, practicing hitting a soccer ball off her hip against a wall in secret. On the court today, she doesn’t miss a step among the men.

Especially with a woman like Flores leading the way, this 21st-century version of ulama probably doesn’t look like it did in Aztec times. But if there’s one consistency to the history of the game, it’s that it has always been evolving.

Source: NPR, El Sol de Mazatlan

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