Oaxacans take 'pelota mixteca' game to Healdsburg

It was played by indigenous civilizations before borders were even imagined on the world map. From today’s Arizona to Nicaragua, traces of an ancient ball game suggest a long history of playful inhabitants. Today, "pelota mixteca" is brought to life by Oaxacan immigrant players in Sonoma County.

Most actively practiced by communities living in the coastal and central areas of Mexico's southern state of Oaxaca, pelota mixteca (Mixtec-style ball) is played some Sundays at the Foss Creek Elementary School parking lot in Healdsburg. In May, players from different towns and cities of California gathered to play a tournament.

Healdsburg has become a hub for Sonoma County residents who enjoy the sport, which involves using a sturdy glove with a flat surface to hit a small, solid ball. Local players use measurements from the original courts, follow traditional rules and show off artifacts that evoke the legacy of their Mixtec ancestors.

Some elements are shared on both sides of the border, in Oaxaca and California (what some call Oaxacalifornia): the ball, the glove, a smoothed stone, and of course, the rules and measures of the court.

Ramiro Vázquez, a Santa Rosa resident born near the Oaxaca Coast, has practiced the sport in Sonoma County since the late '80s. He learned to play in his hometown, near Pinotepa Nacional.

"We met people from Oaxaca and started practicing here," said Vázquez under the shade of a tree between the improvised paved court and a green baseball field. "Many of us already played the game before, and started playing it in Healdsburg in 1988. In the '90s, people from Napa began to come here, and that's how we started these tournaments."

The ancient Mesoamerican ball game, practiced by Maya and Aztec societies, differs from pelota mixteca.

"We can almost say that it is the same game as the one played by the Mayas and the Aztecs," said Vázquez. "But in those times they used to hit the ball with their hip. As time passed, the game has evolved, and is now played with the use of a glove, beeswax and bandages. Before, players used nothing but their bare hands."

Other differences include the scoring system, which has a slight similarity to tennis, though more complex. Perhaps the most notable aspect is that in Pre-Columbian times "the winner went to the altar of sacrifice." That's according to Efraín Guzmán, a 63-year-old San Francisco resident.

While the winners at this Sunday afternoon tournament in Healdsburg did not draw any blood, they did leave their sweat on the field. First- and second-place winners took home some cash, thanks to the $60 contribution of each player.

The old ball game “was once a system of sacrifice, but it has since been modified for it to be enjoyable. Before the winner went to the altar of sacrifice, as the one who triumphed was chosen for the gods,” said Guzmán, originally from Constancia del Rosario, Oaxaca.

Under a bright May sun, four teams of five players each tossed the ball — a rubber pellet surrounded with worsted and bound with leather to be slightly larger than a baseball — while trying to hit it back to the opponents' side using a glove with a beeswax pad and held together with elastic wrap.

Pelota mixteca has taken root in many places throughout California, such as Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Fresno, Bakersfield, Fortuna, Watsonville, Napa and Santa Rosa. Among the people playing in Healdsburg recently, five hailed from these last five cities.

The battle on the court can be a dramatic display of force, with the ball shot at high speed from one side to the other. But rivalries stay on the court. At the end of each match, players meet under a shaded tent to share a laugh, carnitas tacos with spicy salsa, and a cold beer or water.

"The best thing about this sport is that it bands us together," said Guzmán, who served the ball all day for his team. “We come here to get to know each other since we’re from the same state of Oaxaca."

Jesús Navarrete, an immigrant from Tonalá, Oaxaca, and a Napa resident, said he's proud to play the "abuelos" game and continue its legacy.

"It's a sport that we as Mixtec people practice and do not want it to die," said Navarrete. "We’re already old and we want young people to start practicing it for it to live on and spread the name of the Oaxacan sport."

Much like the sun, from ancient times until now, the ball will keep spinning when there’s someone around to hit it.

[Versión en español]


Reach La Prensa Sonoma’s Editor Ricardo Ibarra at 707-526-8501 or email ricardo.ibarra@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ricardibarra.

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