The Ball Game in Latin America: a history of passion and symbolism

Archaeologists have discovered the outlines of several ancient Pelota courts at Tajin, the world heritage site in the eastern Mexican state of Veracruz. Dating back some 1,000 years, they are testament to the historic ties between Latin America and the ball game.

Pelota involved the striking of a rubber ball with the hip in an attempt to score through a circular hole made of stone. Played by two opposing teams, the games were keenly contested.

A pelota goal
A pelota goal

Pelota courts have been found throughout Mexico and Central America, including as far south as Nicaragua. Whilst the significance of the game is disputed by historians, it is likely that it was both of symbolic and recreational importance. Spanish chroniclers arriving in Mexico shortly after Hernan Cortes’ conquest in 1521 identified an association between Pelota and human sacrifice, a common feature of Aztec life. In this case the game served as a ritual, an important part of a symbolic event designed to preserve the strength of Aztec rule through the appeasement of the Gods.

Pelota may have been a celebratory facet of Aztec sacrificial rituals. It may also have offered a massive incentive for avoiding defeat
Pelota may have been a celebratory facet of Aztec sacrificial rituals. It may also have offered a massive incentive for avoiding defeat

Another use for Pelota, stretching back far before the great Aztec and Mayan civilisations, may have been to settle disputes between different tribes. Whether these disputes were territorial or economic, the use of Pelota as a determinant of the victor precluded the need for conflict.

In addition, there are pictorial representations of children playing Pelota, suggesting it also served as a recreational pastime. Much like today’s ball games in Latin America, it was an easily accessible game capable of both pleasuring and developing the fitness and well-being of its participants.

Another documented pre-Columbian ball game in Latin America was Batey, played by the Taino Amerindians first encountered by the Spanish colonisers in 1492. As with Pelota, Batey was played in a central plaza, marking its significance in everyday life. Again, the game may have been used to settle disputes between rival entities without the need to make war. It differed to Pelota in that any part of the body (except the hands) could be used to strike the ball and that rather than aiming to score through a goal, opposing teams were required to return the ball to their opponents without it hitting the ground. Whilst Pelota is reminiscent of basketball, Batey is more closely associated with modern volleyball.

Batey was played in a central square used for other important community rituals
Batey was played in a central square used for other important community rituals

Something interesting that the Spanish chroniclers noted about Batey was its association with gambling. Chiefs would place wagers on the outcomes of games and this, in turn, may have been tied to the resolution of disputes. Just with modern sport, these ancient ball games offered a convenient opportunity for material gain.

Even the other facets of pre-Columbian ball games in the Americas resonate with modern society. The potential to enhance prestige amongst your peers, or within your community, by defeating rivals remains a prominent feature of the Latin American street. On a larger scale, it has the potential to unify a group of people, whether it be a suburb or a nation, and achieves a symbolic expression of community or national desire.

Whilst it is difficult to prove, it is also likely that Pelota and Batey inspired a spontaneity of action that football, baseball and basketball do in Latin America today. All that was required was a small rubber ball and an agreed space in which rules could be adapted for the convenience of the participants. Additionally, it provided an arena in which physical and mental capacities could be tested and honed as sporting participation provides today.

Whilst the principles of sport may have been corrupted at the elite level by its adoption as a form of mass entertainment, it is refreshing to know that its redeeming qualities and passionate following have been present for centuries past, as this Latin American example shows. The simplest activities remain imbued with meaning that has changed precious little since before the Europeans crossed the Atlantic. 

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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