P.S. THAT CHEERS. At the time of the big event there will also be a hard-fought game of basketball. In it, the best team will win (note: any foreign team that defeats the home team—that is, the Zapatistas—will be taken prisoner and forced to listen to the program ‘Fox With You’ in its entirety and will be declared ‘illegal’ thereby annulling their victory). Participate! Support your team! (note: any show of support or sympathy by our respected spectators toward any team other than the home team—that is, the Zapatistas—will be unanimously repudiated and the responsible person will be detained and remitted to the nearest assembly to be criticized and ‘looked at’). There will be teams from across the globe (the United States, Euskal Herria, the Spanish State, France, Italy, UNAM, UAM, Poli, ENAH,1 ‘Civil Societies,’ ‘Desmadre S.A. de (i)R. (i)L. de C.V.’2 and others), including the ‘Dream Team’ from the ‘First of January, Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Four Autonomous Rebel Zapatista Middle School’ (by the time they’ve finished announcing their name, their opponents will have fallen asleep)! It’s almost certain that the final will be between the EZLN and the EZLN3 (to guarantee that outcome, generous rations of sour pozol4 will be distributed to the other teams). Rumor has it, the major international networks will be competing mightily for the broadcast rights, but it would seem that the Zapatista Network of Intergalactic Television will have exclusivity. They also say that bets in Las Vegas are at 7x7 to 0.0001 (in favor of the Zapatistas, por supuesto.)
– Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, “Invitación formal de Marcos al festejo por el nacimiento de los Caracoles” [Marco’s formal invitation to the celebrations for the birth of the Caracoles], July 2003. 5
The Mexico Pavilion at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia 2023 is an immersive space based on a 1:1 scale fragment of the expanded model of the campesino basketball court, an infrastructure that has become repurposed as a privileged space for poly- and pluri-valent processes of decolonization in Mexico’s indigenous communities. From the time of their creation as part of the development programs for agrarian communities executed during the land distributions of Mexico’s 1930s Agrarian Reforms, the campesino basketball court has been an exceptional example of radical transformation and deviation from the prescribed guidelines of centralized developmentalism toward a model of constructivist infrastructure, where a concrete platform, appropriated and converted, becomes the foundation for a contemporary indigenous communalism. Our case study on these basketball courts functions as a laboratory for investigation of the adaptations and transformations that have allowed these spaces to transcend their original purpose, dedicated entirely to recreation and the promotion of sport, and to become instead focal points for the construction of political, social and cultural processes.
Basketball first became popular in Mexico in the 1920s during the country’s post-revolutionary reconstruction and not long after the game’s invention in 1891 by the Canadian educator and physician James Naismith. Since then, basketball courts have served as a base unit for development in the Mexican countryside. The first examples were built as part of a literacy drive under the Cultural Missions of the Ministry of Public Education, which were staffed by physical education teachers.6 José Vasconcelos, the Minister of Education from 1921 to 1924, argued that exercise and sport were effective tools for teaching teamwork, sacrifice, loyalty and beauty.7 Fiscal initiatives through the 1920s incentivized the construction of sports centers.8 Later, President Lázaro Cárdenas, who served as president from December 1934 to November 1940, further promoted the construction of such infrastructure by incorporating it into the Agrarian Reforms that formed the center of his strategy for political transformation.9 At the time, the Mexican government also received support from the Instituto Lingüístico de Verano—or, Summer Linguistic Institute—founded by North American evangelicals who already utilized basketball to prevent addiction in the United States, to study indigenous languages and to support literacy among communities in Mexico. Efforts to promote the sport can also be seen in the publications that were used to incentivize development in the countryside such as the magazine El Maestro Rural (The Rural Teacher) and the Manual del campesino (The Campesino’s Guidebook).10 These basketball courts connected the restitution of collective land rights with an infrastructure program that fell outside dominant development models. Our hypothesis is that the framework established by Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution made space for a different model and that we are facing a historical process in which the Agrarian Reform constitutes a statute of communal assets and of social property that frames the possibility of a space that will be transformed by processes of collectivization that point to a heterogeneous logic of the relation between space, property, and community. The campesino basketball court, conceived as public infrastructure, has thus transformed into a strategic tool for the formation of an alternative system of social organization exemplified by the communalisms of Mexico’s indigenous peoples.
In its most basic form, a basketball court consists of a sheet of polished concrete measuring 28x15 meters painted with the regulatory lines and framed by a pair of nets, one at each end of the court. In some cases, these basic elements are complemented by bleachers, a lightweight roof structure, or both. Substantially smaller than a football field or a baseball diamond, a basketball court is easier to place in communities in the mountains, where it is often difficult to find a large, flat piece of land. As a constructive material, polished concrete is homogenous, durable and far easier to manufacture and maintain than the earth and grass necessary for other types of athletic fields. In a sense, the typology of the campesino basketball court is an ideal extension of the logic of 20th-century modernism: a concrete slab and two nets suffices to provide a community a multifunctional tool of social organization.
Beyond its prescribed use, the campesino basketball court constitutes a flexible form of public infrastructure, ideal for appropriation and transformation. The Huautecos11 have incorporated the sport into their local festivals;12 the Zapatistas gather on their basketball courts to discuss and deliberate with food, dance, music and fireworks;13 other communities in the highlands of Chiapas use their courts for assemblies and distribution of goods and for setting up medical centers, emergency shelters and markets;14 the Zapotecs15 have formed an entire identity around basketball, from the weaving community of Teotitlán del Valle in Oaxaca to the diaspora settled in Los Angeles, California;16 the Mixes17 use theirs for assemblies, candelas, concerts and civil ceremonies. The basketball court functions as the symbolic epicenter for organization and renewal of communal government. To accommodate these auxiliary uses, the communities often add extra elements, both permanent and temporary, such as catwalks, kiosks, stalls, markets, and tarps, among others.18 In our field research, we have documented a system for aggregating functionalities where collective processes, social imagination, and forms of direct democracy19 have subverted the developmentalist typologies of modernization.
The campesino basketball court, repurposed, is much more than the deconstruction of a Western sporting facility: It is the foundational unit of construction upon which indigenous utopias build cultures of resistance.
Various institutions of higher education in Mexico: the National Autonomous University, the Autonomous Metropolitan University, National Polytechnic Institute, and the National School of Anthropology and History [T.]. ↩︎
“Desmadre” is Mexican slang for a chaotic mess, perhaps closest to the English ‘clusterfuck’. “S.A. de R.L. de C.V.”, short for “sociedad anónima de responsabilidad limitada de capital variable”, is a Mexican business entity form. S.A. de (i)R. (i)L. de C.V. roughly translates to (un)limited (unre)liability company [T.]. ↩︎
Zapatista National Liberation Army (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) [T.]. ↩︎
A highly nutritious and filling indigenous beverage made of lightly fermented masa blended with water [T.]. ↩︎
Subcomandante insurgente Marcos, “Invitación formal de Marcos al festejo por el nacimiento de los Caracoles”, La Jornada, 30 de julio de 2003; available at:[ https://www.jornada.com.mx/2003/07/30/016n1pol.php?origen=index.html&fly=2](file:///Users/jaimesoler/Downloads/%20). ↩︎
Delmar Penka, Te sututet ixtabil / El giro de la pelota, series: Tz’akbu Ajaw, Ensayo 11 (Tuxtla Gutiérrez: Consejo Estatal para las Culturas y las Artes de Chiapas, 2020), 117-119. ↩︎
Joseph L. Arbena, “Sport, Development, and Mexican Nationalism, 1920-1970,” Journal of Sport History 18, no. 3 (1991): 354. ↩︎
In 1921, the Secretaría de Hacienda (the tax collection agency, roughly equivalent to the IRS in the United States) decreed tax exemption for all open-air sporting facilities with the aim of incentivizing, for example, the construction of athletic courts. See David Wysocki, “Exercising the Cosmic Race: Mexican Sporting Culture and Mestizo Citizens” (Ph.D. Dissertation, The University of Arizona, 2017), 61. ↩︎
“Cárdenas, for example, deployed military engineers and cadets into communities to construct sports fields and aid human development projects for the state, keeping otherwise idle provincial soldiers busy.” Wysocki, “Exercising the Cosmic Race,” 61. ↩︎
The Campesino’s Guidebook, for example, includes plans that explain how to build a basketball court. Ramón Galaviz and José Moya, Manual del campesino (Mexico City: Secretaría de Educación Pública-Comisión Editora Popular, 1936), 191-193. ↩︎
The demonym for the indigenous of San Antonio Huautla and the surrounding areas in the mountains of northern Oaxaca [T.]. ↩︎
Even the symbolic relationship between basketball and the pre-Columbian ballgame constitutes a form of appropriation. While doing field work in the Sierra Mazateca in Oaxaca, the anthropologist Benjamin Feinberg asked how long the community of San Antonio, Huautla had held its basketball tournament. The organizer responded that the tournament had taken place for years. When Feinberg asked, “For how long? Since before you were born?”, and the community official responded: “Yes, forever.” That is, basketball has been subsumed as a part of much older festivities and rituals. Benjamin Feinberg, The Devil’s Book of Culture: History, Mushrooms, and Caves in Southern Mexico (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2003), 112. ↩︎
“In fact, a common feature of Zapatista gatherings—along with food, dance, music, and fireworks—is basketball. Both male and female ski-masked participants populate the basketball court while more senior level Zapatista commanders (including both women and men) meet in nearby tents.” Charles Fruehling Springwood, “Basketball, Zapatistas, and Other Racial Subjects”, Journal of Sport and Social Issues 30, no. 4 (November 2006): 364-373; available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0193723506292973. ↩︎
Penka, Te sututet ixtabil. ↩︎
The Zapotec-speaking indigenous communities concentrate in the central valleys of Oaxaca and the lowlands of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec [T.]. ↩︎
The problem of decoloniality is not national and the appropriation of basketball courts for purposes that go beyond the exercise transcends borders. Zapotecs who have migrated to Los Angeles since the 1990s took their love of basketball to the United States, where they host tournaments with weekly games. For Zapotec migrants, basketball has become a way of “animating their ethnic traditions to define themselves against, and indeed buffer themselves from, not only a dominant White America as well as a pervasive Black and Asian America but from a prevailing Latino and mestizo Mexican population in Los Angeles that too often scorns them.” “And these tournaments generate income, from entry fees to refreshment sales, which is often sent back to Mexican villages.” Springwood, “Basketball, Zapatistas, and Other Racial Subjects,” 372, 369. ↩︎
An indigenous group concentrated in the Sierra Madre del Sur in northeastern Oaxaca [T.]. ↩︎
See, for example, the extension project undertaken in San Pedro y San Pablo Ayutla, Oaxaca. ↩︎
Unlike representative democracy, direct democracy requires deliberation through assemblies constituted by members of the community itself. ↩︎
Translation: Michael Snyder
Proofreading: Jaime Soler Frost