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Ullamaliztli… without the human sacrifices, it just ain’t the same

6 January 2005


I don’t know why but I’d saved this article, then “sparks” at Thorn Tree published a photo of an ulama game wondering what these guys were doing… and somebody else found a whole website dedicated to the sport. OK, if I can publish translations of articles on gay luchadores, I can publish something about one of our other weird sports.

Nov. 14, 2004,
Mexico’s ‘original’ sport faces threat of extinction
Outside forces, lack of supplies speed its demise
By JO TUCKMAN Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle Foreign Service

LOS LLANITOS, MEXICO – Luis Lizarraga ran toward a large, rubber ball hurtling toward him from the other end of the field.Dressed in a leather loincloth, his face contorted in concentration, the young sportsman let the ball bounce once and then leaped into the air. With a powerful flick of his hip, he sent the dense, black sphere spinning back toward the opposing team.

The subsequent volleys of shots, always with the hip, sparked a loud cheer from spectators watching a recent match of ulama de cadera, or hip ulama, in this tiny village in northwestern Mexico.Among the most attentive fans was Manuel Aguilar, an art history professor from California State University, and a handful of graduate students who had come to study the game.

An ancient tradition

“Ballgames like ulama were played all over Mesoamerica before the Spanish conquistadors came,” explained Aguilar, who is overseeing a book about the sport that will include articles by his students. “Now they only play them here.”

“Here” is Los Llanitos and a handful of other villages scattered around the Pacific port city of Mazatlan, where a few dozen players, almost all of them men, keep the ancient game from dying out.


Ulama… then… notice the goalposts


The human sacrifices that often accompanied ulama (a word derived from the Nahuatl, or Aztec, word for ballgame) before the Spanish arrived were dropped long ago.

“They say it is the original Mexican sport, and I’m very proud of that,” said Fito Lizarraga, 57, Luis Lizarraga’s uncle and a mentor of most of the players in Los Llanitos, a village of 151 people.

Still, he is pessimistic about the future of the sport played long ago by the Aztecs, Toltecs, Maya and other pre-conquest civilizations.

Until recently, teams from villages around Mazatlan played one another from fall through spring in weekend matches. Now, there are not enough players to keep such a schedule. During the ulama season, there is usually an informal game on Sundays.”People prefer baseball, volleyball or soccer,” said Gerardo Rodriguez, 47, whose father was a well-known ulama player half a century ago. “Nobody plays ulama anymore here.”

A major problem facing the game is the cost of replacing the natural rubber balls, which weigh about 9 pounds. Drug traffickers now control the region where people traditionally bled rubber trees for sap, and expert ball-makers are getting scarce. Aguilar said the price of a single ball has soared to about $1,000 — far more than the ulama teams can afford.

‘Double threat’

Attempts by the Mazatlan historical society to make balls from cheaper, synthetic rubber have had little success. Players complain they are too hard and lack the proper bounce.

Today, many of the game’s enthusiasts are concerned about its purity.

A Maya theme park about 1,400 miles away in the Caribbean resort city of Cancun hires ulama players from the Mazatlan area.

Park managers deck them out in feather headdresses and body paint for exhibition games that shamelessly flout traditional rules. Some of the players are bringing the new way of playing back home.”Ulama is facing a double threat,” local historian Jorge Macias said. “If it doesn’t die out because there are no players left, the trips to Cancun will corrupt it forever.”

Still, ulama is a survivor. The original point of the games was to attain equilibrium, said Aguilar, the art historian. Because death was believed necessary for life to continue, losers frequently were decapitated, ensuring the sun would rise the next day and the corn would grow tall.



Ulama now: These games can go on for days. The loser
buys dinner. In the good old days, the losers WERE dinner.
(photo: ¡Gracias a “sparks”!)


Echo of history

The Spanish conquerors stamped out the game in most of Mexico after defeating the Aztecs in 1521. But ulama survived in the country’s Pacific northwest — minus the bloodletting and overt religious references that once characterized the sport.

Today, many of the players around Mazatlan have little knowledge of the game’s roots.

Aguilar insists, however, that the echo of the ancients is audible.

He noted that a 2,000-year-old clay model of an ulama court shows men dressed in knotted loincloths similar to those worn by players today. Animal bones buried under parts of the field in Los Llanitos hark back to the time of the Aztecs, who used skulls to mark the court’s central line.

But Aguilar pointed to the game’s scoring system as the clearest evidence of its “life-and-death” quality.

The purpose of the game is to win points by getting the ball to the opponents’ end of the field, with the first team to score eight points winning. Under a complex set of rules, however, a team can lose all of its points if the game becomes tied.”Let’s say my team is winning 4-3 and the other team reaches us in the score. We automatically lose all our points and drop to zero, and the score would then be 0-4,” Aguilar said.The result is a match that can last for days with the specter of sacrificial victims and an oscillating score that mimics the constantly changing forces of the cosmos.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 September 2011 10:14 am

    This sport is very cool. I though it was soccer DAHHH

  2. Jose JR permalink
    21 May 2014 1:22 am

    i dont belive they killed each other i think spanierd made that up just to have a reason to kill them.

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  1. It’s a sport… lose an eye — or a heart « The Mex Files

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