Identity At Play: Basketball Culture In the Sierra Norte Villages of Mexico

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I grew up in Guelatao de Juárez, a Mexican village of approximately 500 people in Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte. Guelatao is famous not only as the birthplace of Mexican president Benito Juárez, but also as the site of the annual Copa Benito Juárez, in which more than 200 teams of indigenous Zapotec, Mixe, and Chinantec players compete at basketball over a period of three days.

Unlike in most of Mexico, where soccer reigns supreme, basketball is king in the Sierra. The sport was introduced in the 1930s by president Lazaro Cardenas as a way to bring Oaxaca’s disparate and historically rebellious indigenous groups into the national fold.

Cardenas’ dream of a unified national identity didn’t take root in the Sierra, which has historically been isolated and impoverished, but basketball soon became one of the region’s most significant traditions… and part of the indigenous identity itself.

Like many of my fellow villagers, I grew up idolizing the star players from my village and others, saving up money for basketball shoes, and spending most of my spare time on the basketball court which, as one of the few flat spaces in hilly and terraced Serrano villages, served not only as a site of play but also as a public gathering space.

My documentary photography project “Identity At Play” explores the way in which basketball reinforces indigenous identity. Basketball tournaments are the central fixture of the annual village fiesta, the single most important event in a Serrano village.

In the past, migrants would return from the United States for tournaments in their villages; now, with changes in U.S. border policy, they simply send money for trophies, slaughtered bulls, fireworks, uniforms, shoes, and prizes.

During the fiesta, the basketball court is the fulcrum of activity: bulls are slaughtered there, bands play in massive group concerts, dances are held, and the names of the migrants sponsoring the fiesta are read aloud.

Villagers paint the basketball stadium in Guelatao de Juarez.

Villagers paint the basketball stadium in Guelatao de Juarez.

Villagers bless the first place basketball trophy in an early morning ceremony in San Cristobal Lachiroag. The trophy was valued at around $3,000.

Villagers bless the first place basketball trophy in an early morning ceremony in San Cristobal Lachiroag. The trophy was valued at around $3,000.

A bull is readied to enter the rodeo ring in Amatepec. Abandoned makeshift basketball courts are a common sight throughout the Sierra Juarez.

A bull is readied to enter the rodeo ring in Amatepec. Abandoned makeshift basketball courts are a common sight throughout the Sierra Juarez.

Tlahuitotepec's first female mayor Sofia Robles, takes the opening shot at the basketball tournament.

Tlahuitotepec’s first female mayor Sofia Robles, takes the opening shot at the basketball tournament.

Men await the inauguratory parade of the basketball tournament in San Cristobal Lachiroag.

Men await the inauguratory parade of the basketball tournament in San Cristobal Lachiroag.

Villagers paint the basketball stadium in Guelatao de Juarez.

Villagers paint the basketball stadium in Guelatao de Juarez.

The opening ceremony for the tournament in San Cristobal Lachirioag in 2012. The bull is the Second Place prize for the tournament.

The opening ceremony for the tournament in San Cristobal Lachirioag in 2012. The bull is the Second Place prize for the tournament.

In a photograph taken on February 10th, 2012, a bull donated by a migrant living in L.A. is seen tied behind the church of San Pedro Cajonos. The bull is taken to the church to be blessed before being sacrified to feed the players and visitors at the annual tournament.

In a photograph taken on February 10th, 2012, a bull donated by a migrant living in L.A. is seen tied behind the church of San Pedro Cajonos. The bull is taken to the church to be blessed before being sacrified to feed the players and visitors at the annual tournament.

In a photograph taken on December 20th, 2012 men are seen building a new stadium in Guelatao de Juárez, Oaxaca. The stadium cost around 19 million pesos and opened its doors on March 21st, 2013.

In a photograph taken on December 20th, 2012 men are seen building a new stadium in Guelatao de Juárez, Oaxaca. The stadium cost around 19 million pesos and opened its doors on March 21st, 2013.

A boy and a girl in traditional Zapotec dress await a ribbon-cutting ceremony in San Pedro Cajonos to celebrate the construction of a new roof over the primary school’s basketball court. The roof was built through Oaxaca’s 3 for 1 program, in which the state goverment matches every migrant dollar sent back for infrastructure projects with three dollars of state funding. Migrants from San Pedro Cajonos had formed a hometown organization in Los Angeles and organized fundraising to build the school’s roof.

A boy and a girl in traditional Zapotec dress await a ribbon-cutting ceremony in San Pedro Cajonos to celebrate the construction of a new roof over the primary school’s basketball court. The roof was built through Oaxaca’s 3 for 1 program, in which the state goverment matches every migrant dollar sent back for infrastructure projects with three dollars of state funding. Migrants from San Pedro Cajonos had formed a hometown organization in Los Angeles and organized fundraising to build the school’s roof.

Villagers sweep the basketball court the morning before the tournament as part of a tequio, or obligatory task for all villagers, in Tlahuitotepec.

Villagers sweep the basketball court the morning before the tournament as part of a tequio, or obligatory task for all villagers, in Tlahuitotepec.

Two members of San Juan Metaltepec's female team "Las Abejitas" on their way to the tournament.

Two members of San Juan Metaltepec’s female team “Las Abejitas” on their way to the tournament.

Left, Saul Estrada Pablo, age 4; right, Martin Estrada Pablo, age 6. Both boys are sons of Napoleon Estrada, a migrant living in Escondido, California. The boys are American citizens, but their father is in the U.S. illegally. Afraid of not being able to recross the border if he returned to Mexico, Napoleon Estrada sent his sons- who had never been to Mexico- to award the $30,000 peso prize he was donating for first plaze in the basquetbol tournament. Photo taken in San Cristobal Lachirioag on November 21st, 2011.

Left, Saul Estrada Pablo, age 4; right, Martin Estrada Pablo, age 6. Both boys are sons of Napoleon Estrada, a migrant living in Escondido, California. The boys are American citizens, but their father is in the U.S. illegally. Afraid of not being able to recross the border if he returned to Mexico, Napoleon Estrada sent his sons- who had never been to Mexico- to award the $30,000 peso prize he was donating for first plaze in the basquetbol tournament. Photo taken in San Cristobal Lachirioag on November 21st, 2011.

A bull minutes after been slaughtered as an offering of gratitude to the earth for having allowed villagers to construct a basketball court.

A bull minutes after been slaughtered as an offering of gratitude to the earth for having allowed villagers to construct a basketball court.

Victoria Ocampo, from the village of Yavesia, weeps with joy after winning the final game in her category.

Victoria Ocampo, from the village of Yavesia, weeps with joy after winning the final game in her category.

Villagers observe a game in San Juan Atepec, Oaxaca.

Villagers observe a game in San Juan Atepec, Oaxaca.

Indigenous Zapotec girls in traditional costume watch a basketball game in San Cristobal Lachiroag.

Indigenous Zapotec girls in traditional costume watch a basketball game in San Cristobal Lachiroag.

A player from Guelatao poses for a photograph in front of the town's statue of Benito Juárez.

A player from Guelatao poses for a photograph in front of the town’s statue of Benito Juárez.

The firework castle explodes on the basketball court.

The firework castle explodes on the basketball court.


About the author: Jorge Santiago is a documentary photographer currently based in southeastern Ohio. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times Lens Blog. He has traveled and shot extensively in the United States, Mexico, and China. Visit his website here.

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