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X-Ray of a Basketball Court

Author: Sergio Galaz and Gimena Bustamante in conversation with Jorge Neri Vargas Gómez, thinker, Municipal Secretary and resident of Tlahuitoltepec

Gimena: Neri, coming at the court from an urban perspective, could you tell us about the current configuration of the basketball court in Tlahuitoltepec?

Neri: Here in the municipality of Tlahui we have two courts: the principal court, which is covered, and the other, which we might call the ‘secondary court,’ which is somewhat smaller than the official one, but both are used for basketball.

Here in Oaxaca, in every community, or at least every community I’ve seen, that’s more or less the pattern. The court is very close to everything that has to do with the municipal government—it’s almost always right in front, alongside or behind it. It’s common to find the church, the town hall and a basketball court grouped together as a configuration.

Now that I think of it, I would call it the Civic Square instead of a ‘court.’ In reality, it functions like a plaza because of where it’s located. Here in Tlahui, its used for social and political events. For example, if a government functionary visits, if there’s a campaign event, if we’re holding the village assembly, etc. Sometimes it’s also used for cultural events and concerts. It’s also where we hold our weekly market on Saturdays, when it’s occupied as an open-air market.

Sergio: We’ve seen how this space can have various functions, that it has certain characteristics that allow it to be versatile for different activities. Given that, I’m curious how people live the basketball court day to day in Tlahui…

Neri: Let’s begin very early, though there’s not a lot of activity. In the first court—the principal one—there’s no movement in the morning except on Mondays, since the court is where the schools hold their assemblies: they salute the flag at 9am and, after that, it remains empty until 11 when the kids go out for recess. At 11, the whole court is full because all the kids are there playing, some basketball, others football, some playing chupa, etc. At 12, which is when they go back to their classrooms, it empties out again. Then at two, the kids leave school and a lot of them stick around to play, especially basketball. At lunch time, it stays empty, but from 4pm onward there are usually basketball games that go into the night. These days, because of the instructions of the municipality’s administrator, the court closes at 11pm. From that point on, no one can be on the court, there’s no way. In fact, they turn out the lights at 11.

Gimena: Speaking of the market day, could you tell us about how that’s organized? What kinds of activities do you find?

Neri: On Saturdays, merchants start arriving at five, most of them in shared transport, and those vehicles have specific schedules. They put up their businesses in the municipal basketball court and the earlier you arrive the better spot you get. The community follows the same dynamic: Whoever gets there earliest will find the best things. If you get there at seven, you’ll bring home the best products. If you get there until 11 or noon, you’ll get what’s leftover. So the vendors start to get organized or unload around four in the morning. By 6, more or less, people start getting there to do their shopping. Over the day, until about two or three in the afternoon, there’s a lot of movement in the market on court one—the open space becomes a kind of tianguis.1 People also set up stalls for selling lunch and breakfast on the other court and things like that. That court is more like a market. People might sell clothes, electronics, there are people who fix watches and things like that. They put their stalls there and stay all day, until the evening. But in the principal court, the timings are more or less from six in the morning until three or four in the afternoon. After that, it goes back to its normal uses.

Sergio: I’m very interested in the relationship between formal and informal tectonics. When you mention that there are tents, in what way does the permanent architecture of the court function as a structure for the impermanent architecture on the weekends?

Neri: On the first court, as I said, everything is set down on the ground, you don’t have to put up anything. You don’t need shade because there’s already a roof overhead. In the second, though, there are a lot of tarps. And because of that they depend on what’s already there, on the buildings that are around the court: the banisters of the town hall, the banisters of other buildings, a nail or something that’s there in the market, the kiosk or they even hang them off of the backboard of the second basketball court, which is like a goalpost, so there’s a way to climb up. I’m pretty sure they don’t touch the flagpole; I don’t think you can. And it’s cool because it becomes a sort of grid. That is, if I have the biggest tarp, I’ll have the thickest cord to support the weight of the tarp. And so there, whoever comes with a smaller one might ask: ‘Hey, let me hang my tarp from your rope.” So that’s how you end up with a grid of all these ropes and it becomes a kind of roof.

Sergio: From what I’m understanding, the uses of the court in Tlahui are quite stratified, it’s not like Diego Rivera’s Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central where everything happens…

Neri: Organizationally, that’s what the very high-functioning local government has allowed. There’s nothing written down, there aren’t regulations, just common knowledge. The people themselves have learned to coexist within certain parameters, like, for example, turning off the lights at 11pm. What you’re talking about in that painting, it happens on Saturdays. On Saturdays you’ll see a bit of everything: there’s the band playing, there’s an event going on in front of the church—someone getting married or a baptism—a caravan will go by with a band to accompany the people who are walking around the village. There are a lot of activities on Saturdays. But, on other days of the week and throughout the year, yes, its well-established and a bit restricted. The court, as such, is a public space, but it’s a space that’s protected by the municipality. So yes, if someone wants to use the court, first they must ask permission from the office of the Municipal President, let them know that they plan to use the court and, at the same time, they take paperwork to the councilwoman of Education. It’s quite free, the use of the court, but not so free that you can mount activities there without consent from the municipality.

Sergio: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen organized on the court?

Neri: Some time ago we organized a skating demonstration there on the court. It was very cool because we brought in ramps and people were jumping from the backboard to the skate ramp. We failed in what we were attempting because we’d thought that maybe, based on that, people would get excited and would say: “I want to skate, too.” But no, the guy who said “Tlahui’s sport is basketball” was right. These days it’s a lot of people who play, it’s true. I think it’s the number one hobby here after music.

Gimena: A moment ago you mentioned that you would call this space a Civic Square instead of a basketball court…In Tlahui, what do you call it? Is there a specific word you use in Mixe?

Neri: In Mixe, we call it kuyätäjk. The translation is something like ‘the space of play.’

Sergio: I love that you call it ‘the space of play—it’s so much more ambiguous than ‘basketball court.’ Thinking in terms of the dynamics of time, when do people actually play basketball on that court?

Neri: There are really people playing there all the time. Especially when you have the Juárez Cup in Guelatao, starting on March 21, around that time of year the court is occupied practically every day, every afternoon. There are people playing every day on both courts. The principal court is used more by kids who are training formally. And the second court is used more informally. You could say it’s an overflow space for the primary court.

Gimena: When you mention the informal part of the court, I imagine that you’re talking about quotidian activities, people getting together to hang out. Is it common to see people doing other activities that have nothing to do with basketball on a day-to-day basis?

Neri: There are people in the bleachers, people chatting, but not that much. Since the court is covered, it’s colder there. In truth, the principal court tends to be very cold. So there’s almost always more activity during the day on the second court since it’s warmer there and people are more comfortable when they play. There you will see people eating an ice cream on the bleachers.

Sergio: Speaking of roofs, how has that come about? That is, was it pushed by the government or did it come internally from the community in Tlahui? How is it that you decided to put a roof over the court?

Neri: In reality, all of this has been done at least in part using federal funds. Out of the money that’s sent to every municipality, a part of those resources is to be used exclusively on infrastructure. The roof projects come directly from petitions from the community itself, but now, because of operational rules, they have to be built using contractors. You can’t put them up anymore using tequio2 as you could before. That’s been lost.

Here, the choice of which project to pursue, that’s put to a vote by the Assembly. They list out the community’s needs or people propose works and, in the end, they vote for the ones they want to do this year and, well, those go ahead. It’s not a proposal from the authorities. It’s not like a guideline that’s sent to us by the federal government. In reality it’s been because people want to cover the courts, which has a lot to do with issues of rain and sun.

Gimena: It occurs to me—do these assemblies where the community makes decisions take place on the basketball court?

Neri: The court was always used for that, just that since now there are other community spaces that have a bit more climatological control, they prefer to use those other spaces. The Community Assemblies do always take place on the basketball court—I mean those where community members from all the localities and agencies gather. Those are done on the municipal court because sometimes as many as 800 people attend. If there’s an assembly of just the population center, that’s done in the Municipal Market, since it’s warmer and more contained. In the smaller agencies or other localities, they hold them in the basketball courts or in the communal dining halls.

Sergio: When you say that ‘the basketball courts have always been used for assemblies,’ do you know what was there before the basketball court was the basketball court in Tlahui?

Neri: As far back as I can remember, the court has always been a court. From the time I was a kid, there has always been a basketball court. There were some bleachers, but very handmade, to put it one way. There was no roof, only the sheet of concrete surrounded by dirt.

I don’t really know if the court was installed to meet some kind of need. Maybe it just had to do with the modernization of the town so that there wouldn’t be mud or, for example, the issue of rain and sun. But in any case, this was already a space that the community utilized, it’s just that today we call it a basketball court. Maybe someone thought: we need an open space for the events we hold. Looking at photos, it seems that the public space was here before this, just before the court.

  1. A term derived from the Nahuatl work for market used to refer to temporary markets in much of Mexico. [Trans.] ↩︎

  2. A system of shared labor and barter used in many rural communities in Mexico. [Trans.] ↩︎

Translation: Michael Snyder
Proofreading: Jaime Soler Frost