The men gather at an open field in a recreation area of the San Fernando Valley every Sunday, putting chalk to the dusty ground to draw the boundaries of a game that has been a weekly ritual as long as many can remember. After they are done, these men and others who filter in cluster into distinct teams, tossing a six-pound rubber ball to warm up.
On a recent Sunday, one of them, Jorge Cruz, 39, lifted a 15-pound glove studded with nails and other ornamentation in the air. He glanced back at his teammates and asked, “You guys ready?” in Zapotec, an indigenous Oaxacan language, before bouncing the ball on a cement slab known as el saque and hitting it toward the opposing team.
This is how you start a game of pelota mixteca, a ballgame said by its players in California to have originated hundreds of years ago in Oaxaca, Mexico, though theories abound about whether it is an offshoot of an ancient Mesoamerican game or a European sport brought to the New World. Wherever it arrived, it serves not only as a pastime: It is also a way of keeping its players’ culture alive, and serves as a network for an immigrant community throughout the West Coast. It has even spawned an under-the-radar international tournament.
“My dad first brought me out here when I was 17, but now I come on my own and I bring my children,” Jorge Cruz said, pausing during one of the games. “He would always tell me that this was one of the ways that we could preserve our culture.”
He is not alone. More than two dozen other Oaxacan players who speak indigenous languages like Zapotec and Mixtec travel to the pasajuegos (games) every week from Southern and Northern California cities, and each makes the journey to the San Fernando Valley for many of the same reasons.
Mr. Cruz’s father, Reynaldo Cruz, 71, introduced the game to his son to preserve Oaxacan culture and his family’s native language. The elder Cruz speaks an Oaxacan language known as Valle (valley), as well as, Zapotec an indigenous language spoken by 400,000 people, and is recognized more frequently, according to Pamela Munro, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Because a majority of the pelota mixteca players live in communities where Spanish or English are spoken rather than Zapotec, second-generation Oaxacan children are less likely to preserve that language or any of the other indigenous languages spoken during play.
“They often shy away from speaking their indigenous language because of the legacy of racism, which forces them to sometimes hide and cloak their identities,” said Rafael Vásquez, 37, a scholar who is working on a book about Mexican ethnicity and multilingualism. “When there’s a safe space they often feel more free to speak in their native languages.”
Most of the men who play pelota mixteca are first-generation immigrants who were part of successive waves of Oaxacans who settled in and around Los Angeles beginning in the 1980s. Like Reynaldo Cruz, many of these people chose to live in Oaxacan communities.
For second-generation Oaxacan youths in the United States, speaking indigenous languages in school or public spaces is often met with sharp ridicule because of negative stereotypes from Mexican-Americans, the scholars said.
“Many Spanish speakers in Mexico are quite prejudiced against people who speak indigenous languages,” Ms. Munro said. “The Spanish term indio (Indian) in Mexico is a highly prejudicial term, and a lot of that carries over to indigenous people in the U.S.”
At the same time, some families believe that learning Spanish instead of their indigenous language provides more economic opportunities both in the U.S. and in Mexico, according to Mr. Vasquez.
A number of Oaxacan youths are making efforts to “revitalize” these indigenous languages by playing sports like pelota mixteca and making frequent trips to Oaxaca. It provides an environment free from the stigma or the expectation to adopt Spanish.
Still, pelota mixteca is far from a perfect game. And while most of the men are married and are doting husbands and fathers, the game reveals strong questions about the role of gender in the sport. Women are not on the field and if the men’s wives attend the games, they often look after the children while their husbands play.
Some of the players believe that women cannot handle the physical strain of the game, said Paula Mota, 25, a graduate student at California State University, Northridge, who has spent three years observing and researching this group of pelota mixteca players. But she added that there were some women’s teams in Mexico.
What began as a game between local Los Angeles residents almost 20 years ago has in recent years emerged as an under-the-radar international tournament, with players coming from as far as Texas and Oaxaca twice a year to play in local tournaments.
Other players — particularly those who are undocumented — use the pelota mixteca social media network as a way to share helpful information for community members facing the threat of deportation, particularly when traveling to and from tournaments.
News about laws like SB-1070, a bill that passed in Arizona in 2010 that requires the police to determine the immigration status of people detained or arrested when there is “reasonable suspicion” of their immigration status, spread throughout the pelota mixteca community and caused concern among players who hoped to travel to different states to play. At the same time, the widespread accessibility of social media has meant that it is a place where players can strategize about safe travel routes.
Pelota mixteca continues to be played in relative obscurity every Sunday, but a younger generation of players has appeared on the field. Mr. Cruz now brings his son Jorge, 15, and his nephew, Miguel Angel, 9, to the games with him every weekend, as his father once did more than 20 years ago.
The rally ended and the younger Jorge Cruz, walked off the field to take a break from the blazing San Fernando Valley heat. “I feel empowered and excited that I’m playing the same game that my ancestors did,” he said while catching his breath. “If I have children one day, I’m going to teach them this game, too, so that they don’t lose our heritage.”