Author: Sergio Galaz and Gimena Bustamante in conversation with Mich Aguilar, Morelos León Celis, Francisco Pérez and Yair Tamayo
Sergio: Despite coming from different parts of Mexico, basketball courts have been key spaces in your lives. Do you remember your first experience with basketball?
Yair: I started with basketball when I was in primary school in Cuajimalpa at the western edge of Mexico City. My mother had told me that I had to play a sport and I was trying out different things until a physical education teacher who specialized in basketball put me on the school team. That’s when I started to play.
Francisco: My favorite things to do are to read and to play basketball. I also came to the sport when I was in primary school, which I did in Aguascalientes.1 A physical education teacher invited me to play, and we ended up being champions in the first tournament I played in. There were some state-level scouts at the tournament who invited me to play on another team—on a wooden court!—and that’s when I started to train for the Aguascalientes state team.
Michelle: Yeah, when you make that transition to playing on hardwood it’s just wow, isn’t it? When I started playing on wood, I stopped wearing out my sneakers. Here in Ixtlán, in Oaxaca, my sneakers didn’t last more than six months because of how worn out they go playing on the cement court.
Morelos: I saw my first wooden court when I arrived in Mexico City. I was invited to play in a league of the Mexican Institute of Social Security (imss).2 It was the first time I’d played on wood, and it seemed super luxurious, but I also found it very uncomfortable. I also thought they seemed useless because a wooden court can’t be communitarian because they’re very restrictive, they’re only for the game, and I like to think of the basketball court as useful for a diversity of things.
Yair: Yes, the wooden court doesn’t have that characteristic of sharing space or being inviting to other people. There are people who get mad if you walk out onto the wooden court and you’re wearing ordinary shoes, if you’re not in the right kind of sneakers. The first wooden court I went to was in the Alcaldía Venustiano Carranza3 in the center of Mexico City. The caretaker of the court would throw a ball at you if you walked on without sneakers.
Morelos: Coming back to the original question, I came to basketball by watching my brothers play and because of the tournaments held in the Mixteca Baja, the part of Oaxaca that I’m from. In Oaxaca we love the game. There we have the connection through migration—since the 80s, we’ve been migrating out of necessity to Los Angeles, New York, the United States, Mexico City. At some point in my village, they started to hold mixed tournaments of locals and people that came from the United States. I grew up watching these tournaments. In Oaxaca, we’re pretty short, we’re not so tall, but we’re tremendous shooters… In the beginning the prizes were things like cut flowers, corn, animals, etc. Later, they started using trophies and now there are prizes in dollars.
I owe a lot to basketball, especially professionally. I’m a visual artist and a lot of my work is related to the basketball court. My first work related to basketball was an homage to my grandfather. He was a saddle-maker and was the village administrator a few times. I would often wait for my grandfather to leave the municipal building on the basketball court, which was right beside it. In the mountain communities of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas, the municipal basketball court almost always functions as a small, social zocalo,4 located in front of the local government building, next to the atrium of the church, and often next to a park. That’s where I started to understand the basketball court as a public community space.
Michelle: Same here—my whole life has been basketball. My mother says that, since I was in her belly, I liked watching games where Jordan and Magic Johnson played. I had basketball in my blood, to put it one way, but the first time it really boiled up in me was during a 21st of March tournament, which they hold in Guelatao, in Oaxaca, in honor of Benito Juárez. Not everyone can play. You can only play if your father or grandfather was born in one of the communities. It’s a matter of local pride and tradition. I started to play in the Cup when I was little, and I’ve continued playing basketball since.
Yair: My experience on basketball courts has always been within Mexico City. My only experience playing in a tournament like the one Michelle is talking about—although this competition was more open—was in Ometepec, Guerrero. And as soon as the tournament ended, the court turned into a bazaar. Suddenly there were stalls selling tamales, tlayudas—the sports ended and the idea of a zocalo began, as Morelos put it. The ground because the zocalo and it wouldn’t be a basketball court again for the rest of the day.
Michelle: The courts in Ixtlán are next to the park and sometimes there are bazaars in the courts, too, because they’re next to the park. But the bazaar would only happen on one side and the rest would remain open so you could shoot. There was always the issue of the loudspeakers that made announcements: ‘Today we’ll await at thus and such a time, there’s going to be a bazaar.” When it was the village festival, they would have the court painted, give it its maintenance, and after there would be a tournament that would last for two days, and after that there would be a dance. It would go from being really full because of a tournament to being really full because it was a dancefloor.
Gimena: One of the key questions is the versatility of the court: a lot of things can fit on the court.
Morelos: They’re public spaces, but everything is together. You get used to people watching you play, inhabiting the court, being observed. Everyone passes by, from your aunties to the girl you like, everyone goes by, and they see you and it’s a way of being recognized in town. It’s a way of showing yourself in the community, which is the same as quinceañeras and weddings: a way of showing ourselves off to everyone. In urban basketball courts, maybe because the population is so much bigger, it’s not really like that, it doesn’t have that same importance as public space, and not in the covered arenas, either, where there’s a caretaker.
Yair: I’ve never lived anywhere but Mexico City. My first court was the one at school. It was used during recess and for lunch and all of that, but in the end it was a court for sports. Where I trained was a recreational center. The court would sometimes be used for other things, but it didn’t work as a public plaza in the way that Morelos is talking about.
Morelos: A lot of things happen on the basketball court, but in reality you can do whatever you like. You can play, but you also do other things. On the village basketball court they would hold the Saint’s Day festival, quinceañeras, and obviously they would play basketball. People would also get together to do tequio;5 that’s where we would vote in elections, where we were vaccinated during the pandemic. Culturally, the court was also central. These days we have a library, a community museum, but before the basketball court was all of that, too. Even now it’s where the wind orchestras practice. It was how we made culture from these mountain villages.
Francisco: In Aguascalientes, the courts were maybe a little less communitarian, but they were very social. You could live your entire life there. You knew the best time was after seven, because that’s when people arrived after leaving work or school, and you could pass the whole afternoon there. Very occasionally they would use the courts for events, even the wooden ones. On Mother’s Day there would be a big party in the court complex. They would make us go in our uniforms and we would do this exercise called “figure-eight,” which consisted of making passes in a kind of zigzag. On Mother’s Day, instead of balls, we did it with roses. They would gather all the mothers and see us throw roses and then we’d give them to them. There was another time when, instead of bringing people to the court, they brought the court to the people. During a military parade celebrating the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, the state government attached a court to a tractor, and they had us shooting throughout the whole parade while they moved us around the city.
Sergio: What an interesting way to relate to politics!
Francisco: Something else that strikes me in that sense is how the court can sometimes became an instrument of the state in other situations. For example, in the 1970s, a lot of community basketball courts in mountain communities were where the soldiers would count people in the village and try to identify members of guerrilla groups. Another thing I’ve heard is that, exactly in that same period, in the 70s, they built a lot of basketball courts in the mountains in the south so that army helicopters could have better control over indigenous communities.
Morelos: The question of why there’s a basketball court in front of the municipal building and next to a park in Tezoatlán, Oaxaca, and why the next town over has the same configuration, and why I go to another state and find another village that’s the same—all of that also comes from a certain kind of politics that separates Mexico’s basketball courts from those in other places. One of the ways of mitigating alcoholism in indigenous communities starting in 1923 was a government campaign called Art, Culture and Health. These campaigns arrived with a doctor, with teachers of physical education, music, and art—the famous ‘Rural Cultural Missions’ of Vasconcelos.6 That’s where they started to configure a government campaign to flesh out the idea of a sports facility that was also a nerve-center for the communities. What they came up with, due to monetary and topographic restrictions, was a basketball court.
Gimena: Speaking of day-to-day frictions, I imagine that, with all the things that can be squeezed into the basketball courts, they sometimes can give way to friction…
Yair: I don’t know what all of you think, but something that happens with basketball courts, above all with multiuse courts, is that there’s always a goal for football and people who want to use it. This still happens on all of the courts because sports facilities are scarce, and that scarcity leads to competition that can be a little bit problematic…
Michelle: Yes! In Ixtlán, where I lived for a bit, you had to share the court with kids who were playing football. You’d be practicing and all of a sudden, you’d come across a football. It was a whole thing. The truth is that it was pretty annoying because you’d be trying to play or to train and all of a sudden in the middle of the game—they could really hurt you. Imagine, to get hit really hard with a football, a total cannonball, I mean…
Morelos: Like Michelle says, you must negotiate, the basketball court is a negotiation—of time, of activities. It’s public debate. For example, you’re fighting with the people who want to play football—and with football players, who have their own field!
Sergio: Not even the football players want to leave the basketball court!
Morelos: Obviously in every debate there are postures and differences but also encounters and that’s what I try and take away from it. For me, basketball in Mexico is a practice of identity. This sport came out of other places, a lot of them private, like covered arenas. A caged court, well, it doesn’t allow for a vendor or a neighbor to pass through, or that, all of a sudden, someone from the neighborhood tosses you a ball decides to join in. The game as we play it in Mexico, at least in the communities in the mountains, is cohesive and, a lot of the time, allows to resolve disagreements. I think basketball is really generous, even if you don’t play, even if you don’t practice. All you have to do is get close to the court. It seems it’s a magnet for a lot of people and I love that.
Yair: Basketball is, at the level of the court, a sport about coexisting. For a game like soccer, a half court isn’t sufficient, but for basketball it is. You can have two groups, each using a half court, but soccer players eventually want to use both goals because in football you can’t play with only one, but with just one net, you can still play basketball. There’s always something latent there to share. In basketball and its courts, there’s always a point where you can create a community between people or groups that are completely separate.
A city in north-central Mexico and capital of its eponymous state. [Trans.] ↩︎
Mexico’s state-funded body for public health, pensions and social security. [Trans.] ↩︎
One of 16 administrative districts that make up the state of Ciudad de México, formerly Distrito Federal. [Trans.] ↩︎
Term for central plaza used widely in Mexico and adapted from the colloquial term for the central plaza of Mexico City, present and historic center of political, economic, and cultural power. [Trans.] ↩︎
The term for a traditional system of shared labor. [Trans.] ↩︎
Native of Oaxaca, Secretary of Public Education from 1921-1927, and intellectual architect of Mexico’s post-revolutionary regime. [Trans.] ↩︎
Translation: Michael Snyder
Proofreading: Jaime Soler Frost