JUAN CARLOS COB YAM
Juan Carlos is of Mayan heritage; he is 40 and with his family he lives in the small community of Chapab, Yucatan, Mexico. Juan Carlos works to rescue the Pok Ta Pok, the ancient Mayan ballgame, which centuries-old courts can be seen at archeological sites in the region. He leads the first Pok Ta Pok team of Mexico, manages weekly shows in the city of Merida and trains the team for international tournaments. Juan Carlos is also a craftsman and earns a living by making handbags; but he uses his skills to make adornments of ancient Mayan inspiration for his team, with the aim to rescue his ancestors’ living culture.
INTERVIEW – december 2016
What are the Pok Ta Pok rules?
About the ancient Pok Ta Pok, based on findings we think that the game could last hours, days, weeks, or even months… It would end when one player got the ball through the hoop, which was very difficult. But today’s game is slightly easier to play.
One plays Pok Ta Pok in a court or in the street, painting down the limits of the playing area, which is a like a double “I” or double “T”. In the middle you have a hoop. Each team has five players and is like a tribe… For example “los Cupules” against “los Contrachives”, or the jaguars against the deer… To start the game you throw the ball from an end of the court. Each time a team gets the ball through the ring it scores a point. There are also faults: if you flatten the ball on the ground, you get a point against your team. There are different ways of hitting the ball: you can hit from just above the ground, or from a bounce, or directly in the air. You can only hit the ball with you hips.
How did you come to recreating the Pok Ta Pok?
I started working on the Pok Ta Pok revival ten years ago. One day, a schoolteacher came and settled in this village. That was José Manrique. He already had the ancient ball game in mind, and he shared his idea with us. Some of us liked it and we followed him. He’s a teacher of physical education, and he wanted to include traditional games in his teaching. But we went further. José is our group leader: with him, we started exploring how to make the ball, how to hit it… He would ask us to try different ways of playing, and we would refine the movement until getting nice ball exchanges. It took us a lot of time! We started with a soccer ball, but we found that it wasn’t bouncing well. So we tried with a basketball, and then with other balls. Then we decided we had to make our own and we gathered material to vulcanize rubber. But the ball wasn’t bouncing. A friend traveled to Belize and Guatemala and he told us that there they still produced the hule, the natural rubber, from the Castilla tree. So we got some hule, the raw “milk” or resin from that tree. And we managed to create a proper Pok Ta Pok ball. A member from our group specialized in making the balls, and fortunately now we have a couple of those in stock!
We are now around twenty people devoting ourselves to the traditional games. We are struggling to prevent them from disappearing. We started a vast work of investigation, recreation and transmission to our children. It was lost during 400 to 1000 years, and we don’t want it to be lost again. I am proud that we managed to recreate the Pok Ta Pok, and so we will never allow that it dies.
José’s next goal is to have traditional games included in schools sports curriculums. In our culture we have the Pok Ta Pok, the trompo, the tinjoroch, the tira-hule, and countless other traditional games. Here in this village, children already learn traditional games at school.
What is your role in the group?
I am the president of the club called Wayanune. I am a member of the team and a trainer, and I am in charge of the group. But the actual project leader is José Manrique. He is the President of the Association of Indigenous and Traditional Games and Sports (Asociación de Juegos y Deportes Autoctonos y Tradicionales) [of Yucatan], which we are part of.
What is Pok Ta Pok to you?
It is a symbol. The Pok Ta Pok is very important, because it was played over 400 years ago, and now we have it again. We feel very proud to have brought back this game. It is a heritage from our ancestors. It belongs to us.
We can see that there is a positive feedback from audiences, too. In the beginning it was more difficult, though. People would make fun of us, because of the costumes we wore. Because of this we had to work twice as hard. Getting the materials, the tools and the clothes was already a lot of work; but receiving people’s mockery was very challenging.
Some people don’t appreciate their heritage; they are ashamed of their roots. These people don’t want others to know they are of Mayan descend, and they stop speaking Maya. But we are Mayas and we speak Maya.
Why is it important to save the ancient traditions?
Because it is very much ours. It is from our roots. By reviving it we are giving it its importance back.
There is now a movement where people of indigenous descend want their heritage to be valued again. Now the Maya language is taught at school, while before only Spanish, or English, was to be learned. But now pupils are requested to learn Maya. This helps saving our language.
How does one rescue something that has disappeared?
We constituted a basis of images from historical sites and books. There is an ancient book called the Popol Vuh, which was written by the ancient Mayas [and relates the Mayan creation myths]. In those early texts the Pok Ta Pok was already mentioned. We also visited antique ball courts in different archeological sites, and we studied the bas-reliefs depicting the game as well as building decorations. That is where we found inspiration to recreate the game, but also to make our costumes and body painting. We also went to see our elders and ask them questions. This was a slow process; little by little we investigated and shed light on the game, constantly improving the reconstitution. There was no Master to teach us! So, with the players’ team, I studied every aspect: the ball, the costumes, etc.
We make the costumes ourselves, trying to make them as similar as possible as those depicted on historical images. We tried different clothes and protections, saw that some were not very efficient, improved them… Until we found the most adequate ones.
Before you started this project, was the ancient ballgame still practiced in some areas?
Some people play ball games in other places, like in the Sinaloa State, but what they play is Ulama [another version of the ancient Mesoamerican ballgame]. Some communities in Guatemala play other types of ballgame too. But the actual Mayan Pok Ta Pok had disappeared. No one was playing it until we started working on its revival. Chapab is the re-initiator of the Pok Ta Pok!
About the music that is performed during the demonstration – did you have to do the same revival work?
We had to recreate some of the instruments: the tunkul [a small slit drum], the zacatan [a big drum made from a tree trunk], the rattles, the conches… Music is important; it is an actual part of the Mayan ball game.
What is your main challenge?
We don’t have any adequate training place, and we don’t get any remuneration… So we have to work aside. We are farmers, craftsmen… We lead our “normal” life, and for two or three hours, two times a week, we gather at the sports court or in the street to train.
It seems that the Pok Ta Pok makes you a sportsman as much as an actor. Sometimes you play actual tournaments, but you often showcase demonstrations too. To you, is it sports or a show?
It is another way to practice sports. The Pok Ta Pok is a sport, but it is also a ritual and a part of our forefathers’ culture. The show we present every week in Merida is a ritual. Our shamans lead it; they call the five cardinal points [four plus the center, as commonly accepted in Mayan culture], they do purifications, and only after that can we play. The shaman is the authority, he’s the judge. He is the one who purifies the ball court and the players with copal incense. He is an essential part of the ceremony. We can’t do the game only; it has to include the ritual aspect.
For the ancient Mayas the Pok Ta Pok wasn’t only to play a game, it was sometimes to fight for pieces of land, or crops. They would organize a game for different motives.
How do you envision the future of Pok Ta Pok?
In the future, I would like that many people play Pok Ta Pok, like today they play soccer or baseball. I would love to see kids play traditional games in the street. It would be good if the youth practiced more sports, instead of doing drugs or drinking alcohol.
The situation is difficult though. The youth don’t like it too much. They feel the ball is heavy and it hurts in the beginning. They rather play soccer. So it is difficult, but not impossible. Look at us, we are adults and we can manage it! One of our members is fifty, and that’s no problem for him to play. Another member is seventeen. So I have hope that the youth will play Pok Ta Pok. We regularly get invited in different places to demonstrate the game, so little by little we are raising awareness about it.
What is the Pok Ta Pok world cup?
We participated in the world cup, among only four teams in total! The other teams were from Guatemala, Belize, and another team from Mexico. It was a beautiful experience. I enjoyed meeting people from other countries, around our common game. We were speaking Maya between us; but their Maya is quite different from ours, so sometimes it was just easier in Spanish! The world cup will be again organized next year, probably in Guatemala.
What is your best memory in this project?
We always enjoy playing a game. But the best thing with this project is that it allows us to travel to places and visit around! We would not have been able to travel otherwise, because our occupations don’t allow us to make much money. We went to Verona, Italia, and we traveled inside Mexico too, to Acapulco, Guadalajara, Michoacan, Oaxaca, Mexico City…
Do you have a message for the world?
I am very proud about the work we are doing. We will never let the traditional games disappear again. I encourage you to come and watch a Pok Ta Pok game, and to practice it! In the Mayan world there is no border. So anyone can play Pok Ta Pok: this is beautiful.
You can see Juan Carlos’ team perform Pok Ta Pok every Friday at 8pm in front of the cathedral of the city of Merida, Yucatan, Mexico.
The Pok Ta Pok world cup is organized by the Central-American Pok Ta Pok Association (Asociación Centroamericana del Pok Ta Pok): click here to visit their Facebook page >>
Pour les francophones, So Foot a publié un article plutôt décalé sur le Pok Ta Pok, à lire ici >>
PORTFOLIO – A POK TA POK GAME