By John Harris and Josue Rojas, New America Media
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — In Mexico, the Mayas are a people apart. Half a millennium since Spanish conquistadors set foot in Mesoamerica, their numbers stand in the millions and they remain racially, linguistically and culturally distinct from their non-indigenous countrymen. While most Mexicans are bursting with national pride, Mayas are Yucatecos first (the greatest concentration of Maya are in the Mexican state of YucatÃ¡n) and Mexicans second. Most Mexicans speak only Spanish, while most Mayas can speak both Spanish and Maya. And while soccer is practically akin to religion across much of Mexico, for Yucatec Mayas, baseball is life.
Baseball is so popular among Yucatec Mayas (almost all Mayas in YucatÃ¡n are either players or fans) and their love of the sport so unique in their country, that it has become a self-identifier, a point of pride and an integral part of what it means to be Maya — right up there with poc-chuc(traditional grilled pork), jarana yucateca (traditional dance) and colorful huipiles (traditional clothing).
“Baseball is an important element of Mayan culture,” says Alberto Perez, director of AsociaciÃ³n MAYAB, a Bay Area Yucatec Maya organization. It’s a culture that is becoming increasingly visible in the United States, where hundreds of thousands of Mayas now live. Baseball, says Perez, provides a way for Maya immigrants in the U.S. to stay connected with community, display cultural pride and establish their unique place within the Latino Diaspora. “It is almost like an underground movement.” Today, a growing but untold number of Yucateco baseball teams are scattered across the state of California – there are even whole leagues here whose rosters are mostly made up of Yucatecos.
San Francisco-based Club YucatÃ¡n’s bench. At the game, players on the same team wear the various uniforms of their other teams in both Mexico and the United States. / Photo: Jonah Harris
Back home, GÃ³mez could earn up to $100 per game. But for most Yucatecos, the motivation to play is driven purely by a love of the game. Ball fields in YucatÃ¡n are like town squares – community social gatherings often revolve around the game. “Many people in YucatÃ¡n go every Sunday to the field to be with friends and share the experience,” says GÃ³mez. Grabbing the entire family, getting some grilled meat and beer, and heading off to the local ball field is a typical weekend day. “It’s just like an American picnic,” he says.
Miguel Nic knocks in the winning run for the baseball team of the small town of ManÃ, YucatÃ¡n / Photo: Oxkutzcab.com
Yet while other baseball playing countries in the region – most notably the Dominican Republic, current champions of the World Baseball Classic — churn out Major League Baseball stars like cars from an assembly line, and young boys dream of becoming rich playing in the U.S., Yucatecos are less inclined to view the sport as a way to escape poverty.
Although some players earn as much as $3,000 per week playing in Mexican professional leagues, most who first play ball as children in Oxkutzcab’s palm-lined sandlots do so solely because they love the sport. It’s a love that is passed down; every generation endows the next with their skills and techniques.
“It is very beautiful to me,” says Rafael ‘Carmito’ Tep, who has served as the official scorer for a local San Francisco-based team for 15 years. “Even if you are down by five runs late, you can still come back and go ahead.” For many Maya immigrants in the U.S., baseball also offers relief from the stress of a long workday. Freddy CetinÃ¡, a Bay Aea Yucatec baseball player, says he plays ball to “relax and have fun, to be together with my teammates, my people.”
Nevertheless, Yucatec baseball is notoriously rough and physical. Barreling into the second baseman to break up a double play? Knocking down a runner trying to touch home? It is just another Sunday on a Yucatec baseball diamond. “Yucatec baseball is very aggressive. Both verbally and physically,” says Chi. “They need to be disciplined. They need to be able to attack the ball.”
One San Francisco-based league fields six Maya teams and describes itself as being “led by members of the community that feel a strong affinity and commitment for the favorite sport of the contemporary Mayas of YucatÃ¡n: baseball.”
Chi has for 12 years been the Manager of Club YucatÃ¡n, which plays in another, primarily non-Maya, competitive league where wooden bats are used and pitches reach 70 miles per hour. The team is an ensemble cast, some as young as 20, others much older, but they are all joined by a profound love of bax’abola (bash-ah-bohl-ah), as baseball is called in Maya.
They can use their shared culture to their advantage on the field: calling pitches and other moves in MÃ aya t’Ã an, their native-tongue. “Sometimes we will say, ‘run’ or ‘steal the base!’ in Maya, instead of using signals so the other team doesn’t hear.” says GÃ³mez. “White people who play us, they have no idea what is going on.”
Chi is proud of being a mentor, and sees baseball as a way to unite the local Yucatec community and pass on valuable skills to its members. He makes an effort to speak to his young players in Maya, for example, “to teach them to value themselves as Mayas.”
Chi plays the role of any baseball manager, preaching unity and praising his team with familiar sports clichÃ©s. At a recent Sunday-morning game in San Francisco against another Yucateco team, Club YucatÃ¡n scored 11 runs but still finished in a tie after their pitcher faltered. The bench and their supporters cheered anyway, thrilled with the result because the club’s hitting had previously been of concern.
As a player’s wife brought in a steaming tub of tamales for the team, she balanced the heavy container atop her head, as Mayan woman have done since time immemorial — a touch of Maya identity hidden among the American surroundings.
Similarly, Yucatec baseball teams are beacons of the uniqueness and worth that Maya immigrants bring to the nation, for those that care to look. “Sometimes people value us less because we are Yucatecos.” Says Alberto GÃ³mez, “What we are trying to do when we play baseball is to show them that it doesn’t matter where your are from, as long as you have fight in you, if you know how to give 100 percent, like Yucatecos do.”
Listen to Spanish-language audio interviews with Yucatec Maya ball players in the San Francisco Bay Area, below. To read the transcripts in english, click on the accompanying text link.
This article was first published in New America Media.