The ancient Aztec ballgame saving Mexicans from life of crime and drugs

Isabella Ruffatti
A man plays a pre-Columbian ballgame called

In a downtrodden neighbourhood in Mexico City, where an old rubbish dump once lay, troubled one-time gangsters are turning their lives around with the help of an obscure sport.

Wearing traditional belts and loincloths, the players hit a nearly four-kilogram (nine-pound) rubber ball with their hips, trying to send it through a vertical stone ring six meters (20 feet) high.

The sport is the Aztec game of ulama - and it's experiencing a national revival on the 500th anniversary of the start of the Spanish conquests.

Banned by the Spanish conquistadors in a white-washing of local culture, locals are now reconnecting with their indigenous roots and finding a way out of a cycle of drugs and violence thanks to a new court built to mark the anniversary.

Dancers and players perform ahead of a pre-Columbian ballgame called "Ulama"  Credit: AFP

In the teenage years of his lost youth Gerardo Ordaz would get by selling guns and drugs across the city.

“The violence and the rhythm of life I led just brought me sadness and chaos. I dragged my family along with me," the 22 year-old now tells The Telegraph.

Mr Ordaz is one of a handful of dealers and criminals to who swear by the game's therapeutic benefits.

"There are some basic fundamentals in the indigenous worldview: the unity of our physical, intellectual, emotional and energetic beings. A lot of times, when people lose their way, it's because they don't have that unity. We help find it again," the new court's coordinator Lia Membrillo said, explaining appeal to drug dealers and addicts.

Mario Rubio was 13 when he started doing drugs with friends at a party. It was when he started dancing at the cultural centre five years later that he decided to combat his addiction.

He said: “I in particular wanted to leave that world. Dance and ulama gave me more tools to do so.”

Mexican Uriel Ordaz, player of a pre-Columbian ballgame called "Ulama"  Credit: AFP

Now 21, the game has become part of Rubio’s life and has a place in his heart, he added, and in his ulama team he has found a supportive family.

Pre-Columbian ball-games dating back thousands of years were once played across a broad swathe of the Americas by civilizations including the Mayas, Incas and Aztecs, and they have been revived elsewhere in Mexico and the region in modern times.

Originally played with a heavy ball, circular stone goals and human sacrifice, ulama a mixture of sport, ritual and ceremony.

The anniversary of the conquests begin auspiciously this year with president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s demand for an apology from Spain’s King Felipe for the events.

Dancers perform ahead of a pre-Columbian ballgame called "Ulama"  Credit: AFP

A blockbuster Mexican-produced TV series is set to air this autumn as the country looks back and reflects on its roots.

Meanwhile smaller cultural projects like the building of the new ulama court in Mexico City are fanning out across the country.

"There are some basic fundamentals in the indigenous worldview: the unity of our physical, intellectual, emotional and energetic beings. A lot of times, when people lose their way, it's because they don't have that unity. We help find it again," cultural centre coordinator Lia Membrillo said.

The cultural aspect of ulama is also important to player and local chef Dany Xoxouhtletzin. To play ulama is to "feel my roots alive, rediscover myself with a true face and heart,” he told The Telegraph.

Giovanni Navarro, 30, takes issue with the idea that he and his fellow players are "rescuing" ulama. "Actually,” he says, “the game is rescuing us."