Tag Archives: History & Traditions

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

When I was growing up, gym class was treated as a less important subject than math or English. It was grouped in with art and woodworking (which I wish I had taken). It was a class you would skip without being worried about falling behind and many girls I know routinely came up with reasons for being excused from it. However, in the real world, skills learned in gym class are incredibly useful: it forces people to get out of their physical comfort zones, and it teaches teamwork, discipline, and communication.

On a larger scale, sports unites or separates groups, depending on whether you are a glass half-full or half-empty kind of person. The swell of stadium calls and passionate allegiances to teams have led to violent riots but also to emotional triumphs that have lifted people up and improved their lives.

One such moment is happening as I write this. With the Taliban in Afghanistan returning to power, the world watches helplessly to see how this will play out. Women will most likely be prevented from working (except as teachers and nurses), they will be restricted to women-only spaces at university and I assume limited in the subjects they are allowed to learn. You can bet they won’t be allowed to play sports where any aggressiveness might be displayed, a challenge to the meek silent demeanor the Taliban wants to force upon women. In the face of this, members of the Afghanistan women’s junior football (soccer) team and their families have fled to neighbouring Pakistan.

The international organization Football for Peace worked out the arrangements; Fawad Chaudry, Pakistan’s information minister, tweeted that the team had entered Pakistan at the Torkham border crossing and were met by a representative of the Pakistan Football Federation. The news service Reuters later published a photo taken at the PFF headquarters in Lahore of the 81 people involved – the team, their families, and their coaches; another 34 people are expected shortly.

When it comes to communities where girls and women are restricted in public life, sports can have an effective social impact. Girls who play sports tend to have higher self-esteem, continue further in education, and I would also posit that they learn to value their bodies as action-based, rather than through the sexualized lens of the media and social media.

My philosophy has always been “If you want to help a community support the education of its women.” I think I can take that one step further and include supporting its sports teams.

See you next month,

Jane

A “Trashy” Olympic Scandal

By Kary Vannice

A pile of garbage bags sparked a very interesting (and very embarrassing) controversy for team Mexico at this year’s Olympics – a controversy that raised the question, are the Olympics really about patriotism and national pride or just another chance for athletes to compete and win worldwide fame?

How did something as mundane as a sack of trash lead to such a provocative question and spark a global debate? Well, to be fair, it was the contents of the bags that made headlines.

On July 29th, a female Mexican Olympic boxer posted a photo on her social media showing several sacks of trash thrown out by the Mexican softball team. The bags contained official Mexican Olympic team uniforms and training gear.

Along with the photo, she posted this quote:

“This uniform represents years of effort, sacrifice, and tears. All Mexican athletes yearn to wear it with dignity, and today the Mexican softball team sadly left it all in the garbage of the Olympic villages.”

This act of disrespect was made much worse because 14 of the 15 women competing for the Mexican Olympic softball team were born in the United States.

In fact, Mexico qualified for its first-ever Olympic softball appearance by recruiting American collegiate athletes of Mexican descent, a practice that is totally legal according to the International Olympic Committee, which requires that athletes be citizens or nationals of the country they compete for. Athletes with dual or multiple citizenship can choose which country they want to represent and declare a transfer of allegiance specifically and only for the Olympic games. When the games are over, they can go right back to competing professionally or collegiately in their home country.

Because each of the 200 countries that participated in the Tokyo Games has its own laws governing citizenship and residency, countries wanting a better chance at an Olympic medal can easily bend the rules by actively seeking athletes from other countries who have ancestral ties to the country.

The United States, which has more professional athletes than any other country, is a prime hunting ground for Olympic athletic talent. Only the best of the best qualify to compete on the US Olympic team, but many who don’t make the cut easily qualify to join the team of another country, where the talent pool isn’t so deep or over-crowded.

And that’s exactly what happened in the case of Mexico’s 2020 Olympic softball team, with all but one being born in the United States. This led one news outlet to publish an article titled “Mexico’s Olympic softball team is made in the USA.”

But what are the consequences of stacking a potentially winning team with players who are in it solely to compete and not to “bring home the gold”? How would the Mexican people have felt had the softball team won gold? Would they feel a sense of national pride knowing that 14 out of the 15 metals would go home to the United States and never touch down on Mexican soil? It’s very unlikely.

It also seems quite clear that the women themselves felt more allegiance to the Olympics than to Mexico, eventually admitting that they threw out the team jerseys given them by the Mexican Olympic Committee to make room for bed comforters and quilts from their rooms at Olympic Village. Essentially, they favored souvenirs with six colored rings on them over the uniforms that sported the Mexican flag.

In an official statement (after becoming an international sports scandal), a representative of the softball team said that it was simply a matter of “too much cargo.” Yet ESPN Mexico reported that sets of softball equipment, clothing from the opening ceremony, sneakers, and suitcases were also found in the garbage, begging the question, what’s it worth to represent a country that’s not your own in the greatest sports games on the planet? As it turns out, for some, not even the price of overweight luggage.

But to be fair, Mexico isn’t the only country taking advantage of the transfer of allegiance rule. In the last Olympics, nearly 200 athletes competed for countries they were not born in. Two athletes have even won medals for two different countries in the history of the games!

Each individual must, for themselves, weigh the balance of national pride vs. the chance to compete at all costs. But it’s a powerful statement that in 2016 the Olympic Committee formed the Refugee Olympic Team so that athletes who have been forcibly displaced from their home countries could still compete.

In this year’s Olympics, 29 athletes from Afghanistan, Cameroon, Congo, Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Venezuela competed for the Refugee Olympic Team in 12 events. They entered the Tokyo Olympic stadium under a united flag that represents refugees around the world, all 29 of them proving it’s not the flag you stand under, but solidarity that matters most.

Day of the Dead

History
Day of the Dead originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. For these pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase in life’s long continuum. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth. Today’s Día de los Muertos celebration is a mash-up of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian feasts. It takes place on November 1 and 2—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar—around the time of the fall maize harvest.

Altars
The centerpiece of the celebration is an altar, or ofrenda, built in private homes and cemeteries. These aren’t altars for worshipping; rather, they’re meant to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living. As such, they’re loaded with offerings—water to quench thirst after the long journey, food, family photos, and a candle for each dead relative. If one of the spirits is a child, you might find small toys on the altar. Marigolds are the main flowers used to decorate the altar. Scattered from altar to gravesite, marigold petals guide wandering souls back to their place of rest. The smoke from copal incense, made from tree resin, transmits praise and prayers and purifies the area around the altar.

Food of the dead
You work up a mighty hunger and thirst traveling from the spirit world back to the realm of the living. At least that’s the traditional belief in Mexico. Some families place their dead loved one’s favorite meal on the altar. Other common offerings:

Common among offerings is pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, a typical sweet bread (pan dulce), , often featuring anise seeds and decorated with bones and skulls made from dough. The bones might be arranged in a circle, as in the circle of life. Tiny dough teardrops symbolize sorrow.

Sugar skulls are part of a sugar art tradition brought by 17th-century Italian missionaries. Pressed in molds and decorated with crystalline colors, they come in all sizes and levels of complexity.

Costumes
Day of the Dead is an extremely social holiday that spills into streets and public squares at all hours of the day and night. Dressing up as skeletons is part of the fun. People of all ages have their faces artfully painted to resemble skulls and don suits and fancy dresses to mimic the calavera (skull) called Catrina, who represents the decadence of the wealty just before the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Many revelers wear shells or other noisemakers to amp up the excitement—and also possibly to rouse the dead and keep them close during the fun.

Adapted from National Geographic

Fall Finds: Ten New Books By Old Friends

By Carole Reedy

“In stories we exist.”
Niall Williams, History of the Rain

In October we transition from summer to winter, lush green leaves turning bright bright orange, yellow, and red before falling, a portent of winter’s snow and dark days to come. The season itself anticipates the arrival of major Western holidays. But for me, October marks the publication of the most significant books of the year.

Why is the fall book so eagerly anticipated? Readers are tired of beach books, shoppers are making holiday purchases for bookworm friends, and serious book lovers are planning their winter reads to enjoy in front of the fireplace. In addition, like movie premieres, books published at year’s end remain fresh in the mind, augmenting the possibility of winning next year’s awards.

Whatever the reason, for avid readers this is a most marvelous time of the year, and Fall 2021 promises a brilliant selection from the most prominent and distinguished writers of our time. Here are ten books from ten of my favorite authors to savor over the next few months. Just reviewing them assuages feelings of anxiety that pandemic isolation has brought to our lives.

Crossroads, by Jonathan Franzen
For me, this is the most awaited book of the year. Franzen’s depiction of family life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been a theme in his novels, including Freedom (2010), Purity (2015), and, best of them all, The Corrections (2001).

Crossroads should be a blockbuster, and, fortunately for readers, it is the first in a promised trilogy “A Key to All Mythologies.” Once again, Franzen explores the motivations, habits, and impulses of a Midwest family, this time the Hildebrants, over a three-month period that includes those two major holidays, Christmas and Easter.

Franzen writes on other topics, but his family sagas of social realism contain his most compelling and insightful work.

Oh William! A Novel, by Elizabeth Strout
Olive Kitteridge fans, rejoice. Another masterpiece by Elizabeth Strout awaits you. No one will ever forget Olive Kitteridge, the personage or the book (2008) in which Strout magnificently yet simply sneaks a peak at the daily life of a curmudgeon with whom we all fall in love. The HBO miniseries (2015), starring the daring actor Frances McDormand, doesn’t quite capture the complexity of the character that the book so precisely portrays.

Oh William! stands on its own as a novel about a relationship, but if you’ve read My Name is Lucy Barton (2016) and Anything Is Possible (2017), your reading experience will be enhanced.

“Elizabeth Strout is one of my very favorite writers, so the fact that Oh William! may well be my favorite of her books is a mathematical equation for joy. The depth, complexity, and love contained in these pages is a miraculous achievement.”—Ann Patchett, author of The Dutch House: A Novel (Patchett’s latest book reviewed below).

The Magician: A Novel, by Colm Tóibiín
We know Colm Tóibín for the variety of novels he’s written over the past few years, the most popular being Brooklyn (2009), which was made into a heartwarming movie. With The Magician, Tóibín returns to his exploration of a famous writer, Thomas Mann. I fondly remember The Master (2004), his novel that takes us into four short years in the life of writer Henry James.

The Magician, on the surface, appears to be of the same style, but instead of four years, Tóibín analyzes 80 years of Thomas Mann, the famous novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist, and 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate. As Mann does, so goes Tóibín, with astute insight into the psychology of the intellectual.

It is quite a tome, covering seven decades and two World Wars. The entire family participates in the tale, including Mann’s parents, siblings, wife, and six children.

The Every, by Dave Eggers
It wasn’t an easy task, but Dave Eggers figured out how to circumvent the Amazon monopoly. “I don’t like bullies,” Eggers has written. “Amazon has been kicking sand in the face of independent bookstores for decades now.”

The hardback edition of The Every, his newest novel and a follow-up to the successful The Circle (2013), will arrive only in independent bookstores in October. Six weeks later, the paperback and e-book versions will be available in other stores and venues. The hardcover version will always be available only in independent bookstores and from McSweeney publishers, founded by Eggers.

“One of the themes of the book is the power of monopolies to dictate our choices, so it seemed a good opportunity to push back a bit against the monopoly, Amazon, that currently rules the book world,” he said. “So we started looking into how feasible it would be to make the hardcover available only through independent bookstores. Turns out it is very, very hard.”

Eggers is truly a Renaissance man. Not only the author of novels, Eggers was trained as a painter and his artwork has been exhibited in many galleries. He has won the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award for Education and the TED Prize, and has been a finalist for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2018, Eggers co-founded The International Congress of Youth Voices, an annual gathering of 100 extraordinary young writers.
Eggers is an admirable example for young people as well as being an insightful and entertaining writer. While the subject matter varies among his books, each is given the attention and feeling we’ve come to expect from this man of diverse talents.

Trust: A Novel, by Domenico Starnone
Starnone’s name may not be familiar in many countries, but in Italy he is currently the country’s most popular writer, possibly excepting Elena Ferrante. In fact, in the frenzied search to identify the real Ferrante (a penname), gossip mongers have speculated Starnone is the real Ferrante, or perhaps her husband.

Gossip aside, Starnone enjoys international fame with his short psychological novels such as Ties (2017) and Trick (2018). Distinguished for his tight, compact writing, not wasting a word with anything inessential to convey the meaning and emotion of the moment, Starnone dazzles us in subtle ways.

Trust, his fourth novel to be translated into English, by none other than Jhumpa Lahiri, explores the age-old tradition of secret keeping. A loving couple reveals their darkest secrets to each other, but the novel is about more than the trust between two people. It’s also an exploration into what we look for and thus create for ourselves in the other person.

“Richly nuanced while also understated, Starnone’s latest appearance in English is a novel to be savored,” Kirkus Reviews.

Fight Night: A Novel, by Miriam Toews
The women in Toews’s novels demonstrate a combination of strength, competence, and compassion. And while the subject matter is often controversial and difficult, the ease with which she opens up the world of the protagonists and weaves a tale has established her as a formidable writer of the 21st century.
A notable example is All My Puny Sorrows (2019), which depicts the struggle of a family and its concert pianist member who can’t control her urge to commit suicide.
Women Talking: A Novel (2020) is the tale of Mennonite women who suffer abuse from men in the community and the resulting decisions they must make (based on true incidents).
This latest is the story of three generations of women, with a grandmother and nine-year-old girl named Swiv at the center of the story; Publishers Weekly called this newest novel “a knockout!”

These Precious Days: Essays, by Anne Patchett
Respected author Patchett takes a sharp turn from her usual path in her newest book. Many of us have been enchanted by her novels, which sparkle with excellent plots and engaging characterizations.
In Patchett’s latest, we’re confronted with a compilation of very personal essays that reveal the author’s feelings on home, family, and friendships.

Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead
Harlem Shuffle, a combination of historical fiction, crime, and family saga, takes a different turn from Whitehead’s previous successes. Whitehead calls it his “love letter to Harlem.”
Whitehead has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize twice for his novels The Underground Railroad (2016) and Nickel Boys (2019). He has also received the MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships. With ten published books, Whitehead has established himself as a dynamic force in American prose.

State of Terror, by Louise Penny and Hillary Clinton
Who could resist a new novel by Louise Penny, guided by the insight of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? Obviously, it’s a tale of political intrigue and mystery that should appeal to Penny’s worldwide fan base for her Three Pines mysteries.
Penny says this about working with Clinton: “When it was suggested my friend Hillary and I write a political thriller together, I could not say yes fast enough. What an incredible experience, to get inside the State Department. Inside the White House. Inside the mind of the Secretary of State as high stake crises explode. Before we started, we talked about her time as Secretary of State. What was her worst nightmare? State of Terror is the answer.” Thus, the book was created.

Bewilderment: A Novel, by Richard Powers
Readers and nature lovers are eagerly anticipating Powers’ latest, which arrives on the coattails of his Pulitzer-Prize winning The Overstory: A Novel (2018). Bewilderment already is long-listed for the Booker Prize and is one of the most anticipated books of the year.

The protagonist, a professor of astrobiology, deals with explaining our endangered planet to his nine-year-old son, whom he’s raising alone after the death of his wife. Dig into this marvelous story of experimental neurotherapy and speculation on alien life.

Here’s to a fall and winter of reading, contemplation, and joy.

Mexico City Olympics – 1968

By Randy Jackson

There are two iconic, yet paradoxical, images from the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. One is of the torch runner, Enriqueta Basilio Sotelo, running up the stairs of the Olympic Stadium, amid the crowd and photographers, to light the Olympic Cauldron. Enriqueta was the first woman in Olympic history to light the Olympic Cauldron. It is an image of modernity, of hope, and of progress for Mexico and for the world. In the other iconic photo, two African American athletes stand on the medal podium, each holding up a black-gloved fist, shoeless but wearing black socks, with their heads bowed. This image of defiance and protest is emblematic of events in that tumultuous year, 1968.

Mexico won the bid to host the 1968 Olympics over three competing countries: the United States, France, and Argentina. For decades after the Second World War, Mexico had enjoyed what historians now call “The Mexican Miracle.” This was a golden age of capitalism in Mexico. It was a period of strong economic growth, with increases in industrial production, worker wages, and growth in the middle class. It was also a sustained period of internal stability under the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party). In the 1960s the PRI saw the next step in the economic progress for Mexico was to increase its international profile for investment and tourism. Hosting the Olympics in 1968 was seen as an important way to do this.

The PRI and its president, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964 – 70), had grown confident in its own power and the social stability it afforded Mexico. The anti-establishment protests rife in the world leading up to 1968 had not been seen in Mexico. However, that social stability was the result of iron-fisted control over almost all aspects of society, including the state-owned media. It wasn’t that discontent didn’t exist, rather it was repressed.

By 1968, particularly in Mexico City, there was a large and growing middle class who were unhappy with the substantial expenditures on Olympic facilities. This discontent piled onto the resentment directed towards President Ordaz after his heavy handed repression of a doctor’s strike. As the Olympics approached, some student protests began over school-specific issues. These protests were miniscule compared to the student uprisings in France, Germany, and the United States at the time. But President Ordaz repressed the protests with a heavy hand, not wanting any unrest that might disrupt the Olympics.

This resulted in larger and more frequent student protests. As the opening date of the Olympics approached, a student protest was organized to take place on October 2, ten days before the Olympics were to begin. The location was the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, in the Mexico City neighbourhood of Tlatelolco (a former Aztec city state). By 5:00 PM that day a crowd of about 10,000 people had gathered in the square to listen to speeches by student leaders. Around 6:00 PM military helicopters dropped flares over the crowd. There followed some initial shots fired from uncertain origins. This gunfire resulted in some army and police officers firing into the crowd.

Eye witnesses later reported piles of bodies in the square, of hundreds injured, and thousands of people detained. However, the official account, carried by the state-controlled media, said only four people were killed. This event came to be known as the Tlatelolco Massacre. There were no further student protests after that, and the Games of the XIX Olympiad opened as planned on October 12, 1968.

A full account of the October 2nd massacre at Tlatelolco only began to emerge after 2000, when the PRI party was defeated by the PAN (National Action Party), under the presidency of Vicente Fox. President Fox ordered the declassification of military documents related to the October 1968 events. What emerged was the information that personnel from a special military branch had opened fire from nearby apartments on both the police and the crowd. They did this to provoke a response from the army. The crowd panicked and fled while the army responded with force. Killings, beatings, and arrests continued through the night. Power and phone lines were cut to the neighbourhood; 3,000 people were detained and all the student leaders were arrested.

But in October 1968, all that was unknown to most of the world and to the vast majority of people in Mexico. Ten days after the Tlatelolco massacre, Enriqueta Basilio, dressed in white athletic gear, ran up the steep white steps of the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City. Smoke trailed the torch in her raised right arm as Enriqueta sprinted the stairs on that calm clear autumn day. Enriqueta, a national champion in athletics, lit the Olympic cauldron, hundreds of white doves were released, the stadium crowd cheered, and the games began.

The 1968 Olympics had more Mexican athletes entered (275) and Mexico won more total medals (9) than in any previous or subsequent Olympics Games. Mexico won three gold medals (two in men’s boxing, one in men’s swimming): three silver medals (men’s speed walking, women’s fencing, and women’s diving); and three bronze medals (two in men’s boxing, one in women’s freestyle swimming).

At these Olympics, a number of world records were set. American Richard Fosbury introduced a new method for the high jump, a backwards flop that won him the world record and a gold medal. His technique, now known as the Fosbury Flop, has been used by all high jumpers since. In the men’s 100-meter dash, American James Hines was the first person in history to break the 10-second barrier. Another world record was set in the men’s 200-meter race by American Tommie Smith, at 19.83 seconds. But it wasn’t that world record, or his gold medal, that made Tommie Smith instantly famous, it was what happened at the awards ceremony on the morning of October 16, 1968.

In a dramatic race, Tommie Smith held a commanding lead early on. That lead narrowed as they approached the finish. John Carlos, Smith’s American team-mate, had moved clearly into second place. Then suddenly, from the athletes further back, the Australian Peter Norman surged forward with phenomenal speed and passed John Carlos 4/100 of a second faster at the finish line. Tommie Smith had earned gold, Peter Norman silver, and John Carlos Bronze.

These three athletes approached the podium displaying numerous symbols. Smith and Carlos were shoeless to bring attention to black poverty in the US; Carlos had his shirt undone as a symbol supporting the working class; and all three athletes wore badges for the Olympic Project for Human Rights (a US organization to protest racial segregation in sports). But none of these symbols had the visual impact of Smith and Carlos who, during the US national anthem, bowed their heads and raised a black gloved fist in the air.

To their credit, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) refused the demand by the American IOC president to strip Smith and Carlos of their medals. But they were kicked off the American Olympic team and expelled from the Olympic Village. They returned home to condemnation by the American press and even death threats. Peter Norman returned to derision and ridicule in Australia for supporting his fellow champions. He was denied all future Olympic entry, despite qualifying.

This iconic image became bigger than any of the athletes on the podium could ever have imagined. Beyond their own life-long consequences from this action, the image came to represent, for the whole world, that tumultuous year – 1968.

As for the torch bearer Enriqueta Basilio, she later became a deputy in the Mexican Congress and a permanent member of the Mexican Olympic Committee. In October 2020, a year after her death, Enriqueta became the first Olympic athlete ever to have a celestial body named after her – Queta is a moon of the Trojan asteroid. Perhaps, of these two Iconic images, it will be Enriqueta’s that stands in the long run to represent the image of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

Play Ball! Play Mesoamerican Ball! Play Ulama!

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

It’s Mexico’s oldest sport, played formally with rules, courts, and rituals for at least 3,000 years, and informally for a millennium or more before that – it’s also the world’s oldest team sport. While the folks of the “Initial” and “Early Formative” periods in Mesoamerican culture (1900-1000 BCE) played all kinds of ballgames, with all kinds of balls, when we say “Mesoamerican Ball,” we’re talking about a sport that is thought to have originated in the lowlands of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador, probably because that’s where the rubber for the rubber ball was most common.

Mesoamerican ball (ōllamalīztli, ōllama in Nahuatl, pitz in Classic period Maya) is a fundamental feature of pre-Columbian culture in the region – archaeologists have identified nearly 2,500 ball courts (tlachti in Nahuatl), with the oldest known court (originally thought to be from about 1400 BCE, but recently redated to 1650 BCE) in Paso de la Amada in the coastal lowlands of Chiapas.

The oldest court in the Mesoamerican highlands dates from 1374 BCE, and was just found in 2020, under another ballcourt in San Mateo Etlatongo by Jeffrey P. Blomster and Victor E. Salazar Chávez, archaeologists from George Washington University. (Etlatongo is 90 km (54 miles) northwest of Oaxaca City, off Routes 190 and 135D.)

Of course, discovering the second oldest Mexican ball court in the Oaxacan highlands has upended the idea that the game came from the lowlands, so the academics are in a bit of a tizzy right now. We, however, are happy that the discovery tells us more about the sport itself.

How to Play (Really Ancient) Ball!

That ballgame was there at the creation, so to speak, as part of the origin myths of the Mayan people recorded in the Popol Vuh, an ancient sacred text of the Maya. The version we have was prepared from oral recitations of the story, first (most probably) as a phonetic rendition by a Spanish scribe in Santa Cruz del Quiché, Guatemala, sometime after 1524, when the area was conquered Pedro de Alvarado. No one’s ever found any such manuscript, but we do know that the priest Francisco Ximénez, who served in Santo Tomás Chichicastenango (or Chullá or Chilá), prepared a manuscript of “the histories of the origin of the Indians of this province of Guatemala.” It was “translated from the Quiché language into Castilian for the convenience of the ministers of the holy gospel.” The Ximénez document, produced between 1701 and 1703, put the phonetic version on the left and Spanish on the right. Given the Spanish penchant for destroying indigenous documents and artifacts, it is a remarkable contribution to what we know of ancient Mayan thought.

And what does the Popol Vuh have to say about the ballgame? Not all that much about the rules, although it implies sacred, political, and ritual components of the game.

Hun Hunahpu and his brother Vucub Hunahpu are playing ball on a court set up by the lords of the underworld, Xibalba. The noise of the brothers’ game annoys the lords; when the brothers fall asleep, the Xibalba lords capture them, kill them, and bury them in the ball court. All except Hun Hunahpu’s head, which they hang in a fruit tree. Along comes a goddess, and Hun’s head spits into her hands; she becomes pregnant and bears his sons, the Hero Twins, who through a series of adventures, end up in a ballgame with the lords of Xibalba; the Twins win.

The myth links the ballgame with overcoming death, with heroic mortals overcoming underworld deities on a field that links death with life, thus creating the universe in which we mortals live in.

As for how the game was, is, and would be played in our time, the Popol Vuh doesn’t really tell us. What we do know is that it was played in different ways in different places; our information comes from the balls themselves, of various sizes; excavated ball courts, with bouncing walls (rather like handball) or rings mounted high on the wall (rather like basketball); paintings of ball games, even in places where no ball courts have been found; remnants of pottery figurines of ballplayers showing the player wearing a protective yoke, with a loincloth below (confirmation that the hip-ball version, rather than hand- or foot- or stick-ball, was predominant); human vertebrae (confirmation of the notion that losing a ball game could be fatal).

The games were played sometimes one on one, or in teams of up to four players. In places with no upper goal rings, the point is to keep the ball in play. Scoring is very complicated – when one team allowed the ball to go out of bounds, the other team scored. If a player let the ball bounce twice before returning it to the other team, a penalty. With goal rings, some think a failed attempt penalized the team that tried, when the ball actually went through the ring, the game was over. Others think the goal ring, which was a difficult target for a hip-shot ball, was just for bonus points.

As for the human sacrifices, certainly foreshadowed in the Popol Vuh, sometimes yes, mostly no. There’s evidence that the upper classes played the game, so sacrifice was out. As the ballgame moved from the Maya to the Aztecs, however, issues of war and prisoners of war became more prominent, and sacrifice was in. There is evidence of human sacrifice at the huge Zapotec ballcourt at Monte Albán, but doubt as to whether it was the winners or losers who were sacrificed. At Chichen Itza, home to skull racks and unconfirmed rumors that the game was played with severed heads, it’s definitely the winning team that gets done in.

About That Ball …

We don’t know much about the size or weight of the balls used in play, although the ball is responsible for the “lowland paradigm” among archeologists, i.e., that because the Panama rubber tree (Castilla elastica) grows along the coast, the game developed there. And wrapping around the rubber tree was the white moonflower (Ipomea alba), a night-blooming morning glory. Combining the sap of these two plants created a particularly bouncy rubber, which fascinated the Spanish conquistadors – rubber was virtually unknown in Europe at the time.

It may have been the ball more than the game that led Hernan Cortés to take a team of indigenous players back to Spain in 1528, seven years after the Conquest, when he went to plead his case for continuing to rule Mexico (even some of the Spanish found the destruction of the Aztec Empire unnecessarily brutal). While Cortés brought many “wonders” back to the Spanish court, the ballgame – especially the bouncing rubber ball – was apparently a big hit. Columbus might also have brought rubber balls back to the Spanish court, but not accompanied by teams of barely clad but completely literate, extremely athletic players – we even have a 1528 drawing of them at play!

Although the clergy present supposedly muttered about human skulls in the core of the ball, two representatives from the Nahua teams (we know one was Benyto Maçatlaquemi – the scanty records do not name the second) went off to visit Pope Clement VII. They had learned both Spanish and Latin, as well as Court and Vatican etiquette – Cortés presented them as gentlemen scholar athletes, in their finest indigenous clothing, dyed scarlet with cochineal, iridescent with quetzal feathers. Clement bounced the ball, and cardinals laughed. Clement bestowed on the Nahuas the usual Vatican gifts, e.g., Italian clothing, but he also gave each of them a gold chain, a mark of rank and status, made by the most noted goldsmith in 16th-century Rome, Pompeo de’ Capitaneis. Clement prepared four papal bulls in the wake of the ballplayers’ visit: he established churches for indigenous peoples in Mexico City, in Culhuacán and Tlatelolco, now parts of Mexico City, and in the neighboring state of Tlaxcala.

The Vatican’s goals were to teach indigenous peoples how to read and write Spanish, to preserve indigenous languages in the Roman alphabet, and to encourage indigenous peoples to write their own histories. These goals were undertaken by the Jesuit priests of New Spain; their efforts are generally credited with the creation of Latin American humanities. It should be noted that the influence went both ways – crimson-dyed clothing and featherwork became very popular across Europe.

Play Ulama!

Mesoamerican ball is still played in a number of Latin American countries, both at home and against each other. An exhibition game was played at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (see article elsewhere in this issue).

Now called “pok ta pok,” after a 1932 adaptation by a Danish archaeologist from a Yucatecan word, as often as “ulama,” the sport’s last World Cup (the third) was won by the Black Jaguars of Belize, beating out El Salvador, Mexico, Panama, Guatemala, and Honduras. The Mayan Ball Game World Cup is held every two years – if COVID allows, the fourth World Cup is coming right up in Mérida, in the Yucatán, December 2-6, 2021.

At the Xcaret eco-archaeological park, there’s an ulama court where exhibition games are played. Mexico City has an ulama court where amateurs form up teams to play matches. And Mexico’s Secretariat of Culture has been urged by other government agencies to “formulate, establish, or evaluate the candidacy of the ulama tradition that comes down from the pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican ball game, practiced in some Sinaloa communities,” to be considered for UNESCO’s designation as an intangible cultural heritage.

Alcoholism Impacts a Quasi-Developing Nation

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

While by some standards, Mexico is considered a developing nation, sometimes I think of Oaxaca as third world, although those of you who vacation on the coast, especially Huatulco, might think of the entire country as first world, with all the local modern accoutrements, installations, goods and services, and more. It’s often suggested that in order to raise itself to first-world status, a developing nation must have a social order characterized by (1) the rule of law, which is (2) enforced honestly and fairly across the board, (3) with respect to property rights, for both organizations and the individual. While Mexico has a rule of law for property rights, and “justice for all” is clearly lacking. But even if the final prerequisite arrives, a case can be made that as a consequence of alcoholism the state of Oaxaca will languish behind others.

So why did I suggest Oaxaca might be considered third world? Firstly, the state is typically ranked as either the poorest or second poorest state in the republic depending on the year and the factors used in making that determination. Secondly, the level of corruption is remarkable. Thirdly, the state remains geographically isolated despite toll roads and air travel (and previously rail), with only tourism and agriculture bringing in the dollars. There is virtually no industry as a consequence of being farther away from the US border compared to the states from Puebla northward. Oaxaca’s large percentage of indigenous residents and the relatively poor quality of public education are also factors that cannot be ignored.

Alcohol in the state of Oaxaca is cheap and strong. The state represents over 80% of the nation’s mezcal production. While beer is typically imbibed at social gatherings, and it’s inexpensive at as low as 9 pesos ($0.45 USD) for 355 ml at about 4.5% alcohol by volume (ABV), mezcal is virtually always consumed at fiestas and can still be purchased at 150 pesos ($7.50 USD) per full liter, at 45% ABV and stronger.

But it’s not simply the typical rite of passage celebrations that contribute to the state’s severe problem with alcoholism, but rather the excessive drinking by many both urban and rural residents on a daily basis. So how does this hold back the state of Oaxaca from advancing, leaving aside the fact that the rule of law respecting property is not evenly enforced?

The problem of alcoholism adversely impacts the economic fortunes of people and families in most classes, as a consequence of impeding the inability of many to perform job functions. Let’s examine four cases of which I am personally aware, names having been changed:

  1. Juan is a producer of high end pottery in the town of Santa María Atzompa, less than a half hour’s drive from Oaxaca. A customer ordered 55 pieces. Juan promised the order would be ready in two weeks, and he would call. He didn’t call the purchaser. She attended at the workshop two months later. Some of the ceramics had been completed, others partially, and yet others had not been started. Juan had been on a bender.
  1. José is a master bricklayer. On Saturday he committed to completing a job for one of his regular homeowner customers on Monday or Tuesday. He didn’t attend so the homeowner called and José’s wife said that there was a party on the Sunday and her husband “slept in.”
  2. Alfredo had a well-paying job at a downtown Oaxaca boutique bed & breakfast. He went drinking on his lunch hour, and upon his return was loud and belligerent towards the establishment’s patrons. Alfredo’s family had previously pleaded with management to give him another chance. Alfredo was fired because of the adverse impact his conduct had been having on business.
  3. Fernando hails from San Martín Tilcajete. He is a skilled carver of brilliantly painted wooden figures known as alebrijes. Since about the 1980s they have represented a popular purchase item for visitors to Oaxaca. With tourism down, Fernando returned to his earlier skills as a carpenter and painter. An American acquaintance of Fernando was lamenting to him about not being able to find a talented handyman to do some sanding and painting. Fernando failed to attend as arranged at the American’s home. Fernando had fallen off the wagon.

These stories represent how alcoholism in Oaxaca contributes to the inability of members of otherwise hardworking families to raise their economic lot. Every resident born and raised in the city can recount such stories, indeed relating to one or more of their accountants, architects, doctors or attorneys. And not just one or two examples! Alcoholism cross-cuts socio-economic classes.

Furthermore, one cannot discount the adverse impact of excessive alcohol consumption on health (e.g., the liver), particularly relevant in families wherein the major wage earner becomes afflicted.

However, reducing alcoholism in Oaxaca is unlikely to have a significant impact in ameliorating the state’s development status. It’s the third component – lack of equal property rights – that creates the major impediment, which leads to the issue of education, better reserved for another article. Nevertheless, we cannot discount alcohol, mezcal in particular, if not for holding back the upward economic mobility of many, then certainly for the destruction of family harmony in Oaxaca.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

On the Beaten Path in CDMX: Small Eateries with Big Flavors

By Carole Reedy

In a city of 20 million, not all restaurants receive the recognition they deserve, especially smaller venues without the funds for publicity. Reviewers try their best to visit the countless eating establishments in Mexico City, but they do have their limits.

Here I present small (sometimes tiny) eateries, a few of which may be short on ambience but big on flavor. I discovered them while flaneuring through the city or from friends who introduced me to them by enthusiastically declaring “You MUST try … ”

El Auténtico Pato Manila

This might be the best-kept secret in Mexico City. My downstairs, restaurant-going neighbor recommended this tiny venue on the spur of the moment one day as I climbed to my third-floor apartment in Roma Sur. Upon hearing my footsteps he opened his door and said, “Shall we pop out for a bite to eat? Feel like duck tacos?”

That was the start of many visits to Manila Tacos. What a find! The owner has created a small, eclectic menu, with just five items offered:
· Tacos Manila: four duck tacos on corn tortillas
· Tacos Kim: two duck tacos on flour tortillas
· A torta filled with duck (carnitas style) and avocado
· Won ton
· Spring rolls, filled with duck or without

Enjoy these delicacies while sitting at the counter in the wee locale. Take-out and delivery are available too. Each item is made to order and served piping hot with several sauces. A variety of beers is also available, as well as soft drinks. And that’s it! Perhaps you, as I have, will make this a staple in your diet.

Location: I frequent the Manila in Condesa at Culiacán 91. There is also a Manila in Roma Norte on Álvaro Obregón, close to Casa Lamm.

La Selva (move over Starbucks)

Hooked on Starbucks? Mexico offers many high-quality alternatives at much cheaper prices. One of these is La Selva in Condesa, located conveniently a short block from Parque México. Here you will find organic coffee from the Lacandona jungle in Chiapas.

I buy a half-kilo of organic dark roast coffee for about $7 US. There are small eating areas both inside and outside. on the tree-lined street at Iztaccihuatl 36. Unlike Starbucks, La Selva serves full breakfasts and lunches instead of sweetened pastries and expensive sandwiches.

People watching is a satisfying pastime at this location any day, but especially on Sundays when the park is most active.

Location: Iztaccihuatl 36, a short tree-lined street that runs between Parque México and Av. Insurgentes Sur.

Pastelería Alcazar

Good bakeries are a satisfying alternative to restaurants for breakfast or a snack. Alcazar is one of my favorites as they serve marvelous croissants and an English biscuit, a type of scone that my guests request during every visit.

There’s also a selection of small cookies and rich, flavorful cakes, unlike the cardboard, elaborately decorated sugary cakes that adorn many party tables in Mexico. The chocolate truffle cake from Alcazar is especially decadent, with several types of chocolate precisely layered. There are pies too, from lemon-lime to the sweeter fruit pies with whipped cream. Candles and other adornments needed for your celebration are also available.

For lunch, Alcazar offers sandwiches, both vegetarian and meaty, as well as a few salads. In my neighborhood of Roma Sur, all the medical personnel from the hospitals stop at Alcazar for a coffee or lunch, which in my book is a great recommendation.

Need a quick gift? Pop in and buy a packet of chocolate-covered almonds or coffee beans. Coffee sold by the kilo and a variety of teas also make for thoughtful gifts. There’s even a fun selection of coffee cups for sale.

Location: Pastelería Alcazar has many locations around the city … fortunately for us!

Cafebrería El Péndulo

You may think yours truly is confusing her regular book column with this month’s food article. Actually, not only is El Péndulo the most attractive and original bookstore in the city, its cafés offer surprisingly good food. There are seven locations throughout the city, and all have the same cozy ambience of rooms lined with books in Spanish, English, and other languages.

The coffee shops serve not just java but also light meals. The breakfasts are especially tasty. I was happily impressed that a simple goat cheese and spinach omelet could radiate such distinct flavors.

Location: The Polanco location is at Alejandro Dumas 81; in Condesa, it’s at Nuevo León 115; in the Zona Rosa, it’s at Hamburgo 126; and in Roma, Álvaro Obregón 86.

Mallorca

Believe it or not, this little-known restaurant, named for the large island off the coast of Spain in the Mediterranean Sea, is smack dab in the middle of Avenida Reforma, near the Ángel de la Independencia. It is indoor/outdoor, no better ambience for people watching.

Spanish and Mexican cuisine easily blend to give diners a variety of excellent choices and flavors. You’ll find the traditional Spanish serrano ham, as well as our beloved Mexican chilaquiles. Entrees such as salmon a la plancha, risotto, and the traditional cream soup from Córdoba, Salmorejo, star on this appetizing menu.

There’s also a magnificent pastry shop attached to the restaurant that’s filled with scrumptious treats such as brownies, chocolates, scones, chocolatíns, croissants, marmalades, and fine breads.

The hours shift daily, but most days the restaurant is open from 7-8 am until 9-11 pm.

Location: Avenida Paseo de la Reforma 365; there’s another one in Lomas de Chapultepec, at Avenida Explanada 710.

Little Tokyo

Foreign influences abound in Mexico City. Most tourists understand the French and Spanish architectural and culinary fingerprints left all over the city, but there is a considerable Asian influence here as well, including that of the Japanese.

Many of you are aware that Mexico’s landmark tree, the jacaranda, native to South America, was installed in Mexico City by Japanese imperial gardener Tatsugoro Matsumoto in the late 1800s. Ever since, these stately trees with purple blooms have adorned the avenues of the city, most notably in Coyoacán, Avenida Reforma in Cuauhtémoc, and colonia Roma, among many locales. If you visit from February through April you’ll relish the blooms followed by the carpets of purple they drop on the streets. (For the tale of Matsumoto and the jacaranda, see “How the Jacaranda and Blue Hanami Came to Mexico – and the Japanese Paisajista Who Made It Happen,” The Eye, July 2020.)

After World War II, with the many Japanese immigrants arriving on Mexican shores, the area around the Japanese embassy in the neighborhood known as Cuauhtémoc became a popular spot to gather. Here you’ll see the beginning – and subsequent growth and success – of Little Tokyo, in the area north of Reforma around the Ángel of Independencia.

Of course, it began with small informal restaurants but has grown into a formidable Japanese cultural area. This includes the finest of Japanese cuisine and even a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, if you choose to spend a night or two in the area. The inn Ryo Kan boasts a blend of Japanese and Mexican culture, with four tubs on the roof of the inn for your viewing and relaxing pleasure.

Most of the restaurants, the Toki Doki Market with Japanese gourmet goods, and shops line the street of Rio Pánuco. There is a Japanese contemporary art bookstore called EXIT La Librería at number 138. And at number 170 the popular Daikoku Restaurant serves all your favorite Japanese specialties.

A day exploring Avenida Reforma with a stop at Little Tokyo is a perfect way to ease yourself out of the isolation of the pandemic.

Wherever you roam, Buen Provecho!