‘The game of life and death’: An ancient sport revives in Mexico (video)

Why We Wrote This

As Mexicans rediscover ulama, a ballgame that dates back thousands of years, they’re connecting with more than their teammates. Fans say it’s about tapping into centuries of history, spirituality, and identity. 

One evening in Mexico City, young people suit up on a stone-walled court and start passing a ball back and forth. But this is no soccer game.

The 20- and 30-somethings are about to play ulama, a ballgame that dates back thousands of years and was once a high-stakes ritual in Mesoamerica. The modern iteration no longer entails human sacrifice, but it is still fierce: Players can only hit the 6-pound ball with their hips.

Today, 500 years after the first conquistadors set foot in present-day Mexico, a renewed sense of nationalism is surfacing, including a revival of precolonial art and sport. For many players, learning ulama is about more than entertainment; it’s about understanding themselves.

The sport is “the game of life and death,” says coach Emmanuel Kakalotl, echoing back to its ancient roots. It’s especially important for young people to get involved, he adds, so they connect with that legacy.

“We want them to know that they are part of the universe,” he says. “That the great spirit in the universe resides in their hearts.”

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