Rubber ballgames from Middle America to the world
Today three rubber ballgames are played in the Maya Region: pok-ta-pok, chajchaay, and chaaj.
In the countries of Guatemala, Belize, and the Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatan, and Quintana Roo, pok-ta-pok and chajchaay players strike a solid rubber-ball with a diameter between 6 – 7.5 inches weighing approximately 4 – 8 pounds, squarely with their hip, whereas chaaj players use their forearm to hit a hollow inflatable rubber ball measuring approximately 6.26 inches in diameter.
Played in an “I” shaped court, the games feature portable rings set across the short axis. To score in pok-ta-pok and chajchaay, the ball must pass through the double ring suspended 13 feet above the ground, and in chaaj the hollow ball is sent through a vertical ring fixed to a backboard standing at eight feet.
These ballgames are currently gaining importance throughout the Maya region and share traits that can be traced to pre-Hispanic models. They find their direct antecedent in ulama de antebrazo (forearm-ulama) and ulama de cadera (hip-ulama), terminology derived from ullamaliztli, the game’s appellation in Nahuatl, the lingua franca of Middle America at the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century.
The authors' interest in the Middle American rubber ballgames and their genesis in the contemporary world of sports led to the conformation of an approach that merges archaeological and historical data with ancestral knowledge and the traditional meanings the games hold.
As interdisciplinary research, joining the social sciences and historical anthropology, our approach privileges the players’ voices in search of fields where indigenous identity can be ascertained. The theoretical framework strengthening our study (Clevenger, 2017; Vigarello, 2002) contests research that fits indigenous games and sports to concepts and values belonging to Western axiologies (Carreón, 2013), and is methodologically determined by the lead author’s experience and active participation as a player.
Focusing on the principles behind the rubber ballgames’ practice, it is interested in describing their play between different ethnicities and identities: their diffusion within contemporary Maya collectivities, sharing a spiritual relationship, and promotion among young players who foster Mayan cultural awareness.
To counter the lack of academic interest in most aspects linked to the contemporary play of rubber ballgames in the Maya Region, this paper presents an overview aimed at recovering their history.
It recognizes evolving long-term historical structures linked to them, discusses their common antecedents, and focuses on the nature of their development. It then turns to practical approaches. It reports on the play of the three contemporary rubber ballgames to center on their transmission.
In terms of the player’s concepts and sensibilities, it describes the processes linked to the games learned and experienced by the lead author on the playing field.
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