By Julie Etra
Mexico is not known for competitive basketball. It was introduced into Mexico in 1902 thanks to Guillermo Spencer, who directed the Methodist Institute in Puebla, the organization that sponsored the first unofficial event in that same year. Three years later, the first professional match took place. It makes sense that Mexico, with its close proximity to the United States, would take up the very popular US sport. To date, it is fourth in popularity, behind football, (known as soccer outside of Mexico) baseball, and boxing.
Closer to Huatulco, have you ever noticed, en route to the waterfalls, coffee fincas, or Bahia San Augustine, for example, the ever-present basketball court?
I have never seen a net on the hoops, never mind anyone actually playing basketball. My good friend Lupe Becerra, who leads tours of the surrounding pueblos, explained to me that the courts are not used primarily for sports, but rather for all sorts of community events such as school functions, baptisms, weddings, quinceañeras, community meetings, religious celebrations, and even vaccinations. Lupe further explained to me that a Dr. Heriberto Jarquín, some decades back, had a particular interest in basketball and hence initiated the tradition of the courts in coastal communities. He and his wife made their home in the Bajos de Coyula and Arenal, and, as a physician, focused on improving nutrition, sanitation, and sports, perhaps including basketball.
Lupe also informed me of active boys, girls, men, and women teams in Huatulco. Then my good friend Doreen Woelfel told me about the Triquis, an unusual but highly competitive youth team with an extraordinary story. The following information comes from three news publications, the Chicago Tribune, the LA Times, and Mexico News Daily.
In 2013, a team of children from Oaxaca gained instant fame after winning an international basketball tournament in Argentina, with many of its players competing barefoot. The “Niños Triquis,” a team of indigenous Triqui-speaking children, from remote mountainous regions where basketball has been played for generations, have racked up championships around the world. Although a few players prefer playing barefoot because they feel lighter, the primary reason was lack of financial resources when the team was founded, according to their coach, Sergio Zúñiga.
In 2010, Zuñiga launched the team with little fanfare. Zuñiga, a native of Mexico City wanted to inspire indigenous kids from isolated villages to stay in school. Too many dropped out at as young as six or seven to work in the fields. Then they came north with relatives to find work in the United States (prior to the reign of Donald Trump). “When you hardly have food and all you know is hard labor,” Zuñiga had told the LA Times, “it’s hard to stay motivated.”
The Academy of Indigenous Basketball is now located in five regions across the state of Oaxaca and provides about 2,000 children with the opportunity for an education and to play sports. In order to participate, players are expected to maintain a B+ average in school and help with household chores.
Members of the team have also been invited to play and study in other countries, including Germany and the U.S., and even played a short 5-on-5 match with members of the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA, when the team visited Mexico City.
The Triqui students were promised an indoor basketball court by the federal government, it was to be built in their native community of Santiago Juxtlahuaca in the Mixtec region of the state. But the 15-million-peso (US $1.15 million) project had reportedly been abandoned.
Since then, however, the Triqui have a new school. The Instituto México de Huatulco (IMH), a private school for students from preschool to secondary levels, stepped in to offer a full scholarship to 32 Triqui children.
The IMH offers a bilingual education (English and Spanish) and has traditionally been the preferred school for children of local business people. The Triqui children often have to travel abroad, but the school offers online courses so they can continue their studies. After the school day is over, the Triqui children spend two hours training. They have to work hard to overcome cultural differences and for many, Spanish is their second language. Third-grade student Isabella Martínez says in broken Spanish that she wants to be famous, like her basketball-playing older brother Bernabé, a member of the Triqui team, but her dream is to be a lawyer.
The school’s principal, Tere Zimbrón, acknowledged that everyone, students and teachers, “are going through a process. These are two cultures, two different ways of life, and we must all be sensitive if we’re to overcome our differences, all with the hope of giving [the Triqui children] a better future.”
In 2016, the team won the Barcelona Cup, an international youth basketball tournament, defeating teams from France, Spain and Belgium, but this time wearing shoes provided by federal authorities.