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The Nevada Independent

Ancient Mesoamerican sport makes a comeback in Las Vegas

Organizers fear future generations will lose touch with their culture if traditions such as the ballgame aren’t passed along.
Jannelle Calderon
Jannelle Calderon
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As the leader of the Mesoamerican ballgame league in Las Vegas for the past five years, Marco Chavez aims to keep the sport faithful to its roots while keeping it alive in the modern day after it was almost eradicated during the Spanish conquest.

The ancient Mesoamerican ballgame, which has several indigenous names such as ulamaliztli or ulama in Aztec or pok-ta-pok in Mayan, is considered one of the first ever sports to use both a rubber ball and a hoop. The game, which was on display at a Las Vegas Día del Zacatecano festival earlier this month celebrating people and culture from the Mexican state of Zacatecas, can represent the day and night or life and death. 

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Bilingual Editorial Assistant Jose Ruiz attended a Día del Zacatecano event in Las Vegas last month, hosted by la Federación Zacatecanos Silver Plata to keep the roots and culture of Mexico’s state of Zacatecas alive.

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Chavez, 42, was born in California but his family moved back to Jalisco, Mexico, when he was a young child. In 1995, he and his family landed in Las Vegas. Though Chavez has spent most of his life in the U.S., his passion for history and Mayan and Aztec culture only grew stronger when he had kids of his own. 

“I started teaching the culture to my children, because if I don't show them, then who's going to teach them, especially as third generation?” Chavez told The Nevada Independent. “There are children who are U.S.-born and have not even had the opportunity to travel to Mexico. The little that they know is because of the little that is celebrated here.”

The nonprofit Mesoamerican Ballgame Association (Asociacion de Juego de Pelota Mesoamericano or AJUPEME USA) began in Las Vegas as part of an International Mesoamerican Hip Ball Game Association, which originated in Mexico. The league has grown to include teams in California, Utah and New Mexico. 

There are several variations of Ulama, but Chavez focuses on Ulama de Cadera, in which the player uses their hips to hit the ball past the other team so that opposing players are not able to hit the ball back. Matches take place on a field and start with the ball set aflame. Teams of three to five players try to keep the ball in motion and judges keep track of the score.

Chavez said starting the league was tough at first because players often felt uncomfortable with the uniform — a loincloth, also called a calzonera or taparrabos, that only covers the hip area. But the authentic uniform and accessories were important for Chavez. 

His main goal, he said, is to maintain the tradition as close to the roots as possible and pass it down to the next generation so the sport is not lost.

“To this day I have always respected what the custom entails … Right now there is a lot of distortion of the culture and it’s often mixed up with Spaniard details or misinformation,” Chavez said, adding that he started as an Aztec dancer and would be criticized for wearing simple costumes rather than embellished ones. “I wear the original thing. In other words, I am rescuing what really was.”

Chavez said anyone is welcome to participate in the league’s events regardless of cultural background.

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