Souls on ‘The Line’ | Guatemala City sex workers turn to fútbol for a sense of who they are

This background of male control and delineation of female space makes Las Estrellas’ choice of fútbol as their agent of self-expression all the more logical—and potentially volatile. Susy Sica—43, illiterate, Mayan, single mother of seven—identifies the game’s potential for self-actualization when she says, “When I’m on the field practicing, even though I’m only a few blocks away from the tracks, I forget I work there. I feel like I’m someone else” (Catherine Elton, “Prostitutes Win Respect with Soccer,” Miami Herald, 31 Oct 04).

A Late Classic Period (600–800 CE) carved limestone plaque, 15 inches tall, from the Usumacinta River region in Guatemala depicts a ball player in full regalia. (Jay I. Kislak Collection, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution)

Sica’s Mayan background also points directly to the heritage of ur-football among the Maya in the highlands to the west of Guatemala City and throughout Mesoamerica. Sica, whether consciously or not, taps these cosmic sources of identity preserved in the ancient ball courts, artifacts and literary relics of Mayan culture. More than 1,500 ball courts have been unearthed in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras as well as other evidence of ball playing among the Olmec, Maya and Aztec civilizations.

The Mayan ball games, writes Yale art historian Mary Miller, enacted foundational tales of life and death from the Popol Vuh, the Mayan creation narrative and anthology of etiological tales incorporating the first four human beings and their contests and other interactions with gods of the underworld. The four beings, hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque along with forefathers Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu, play ball games with the gods. Through guile and artifice, the twins ultimately prevail and exhume their father’s and uncle’s bodies from the ball court of Xibalba; the corpses are placed in the sky to become sun and moon.

The fanciful tales were enacted on the ball courts of life, with the story of the life cycle of maize and the resurrection of the Maize God, who is identical to Hun Hunahpu, at the center of the ritual. The game as played by the Mayans employed hands only to put the ball in play. Otherwise, players propelled the rubber ball off surrounding walls using upper arms, hips and thighs, attempting to send the ball through elevated stone rings. Hips and knees were padded. Surviving artifacts show players wearing headdresses and long hipcloths. “[T]he balls themselves,” Miller writes, “were dangerous: heavy and sometimes moving at great speed, such a ball could break a bone, if not a neck, or damage internal organs” (81). At one point in the final encounter between the twins and the Xibalban lords, Xbalanque receives the ball, “the ball was stopped by his [waist] yoke, then he hit it hard and it took off, the ball passed straight out of the court, bouncing just once, just twice, and stopping among the ball bags.”

The ball court, now replaced by the fútbol field, was central to the Mesoamerican belief system and perhaps remains so. Presbyterian missionary Ellen Harris Dozier writes in correspondence of 2004 that women with whom she works in San Felipe, Guatemala, when asked to draw maps of their villages, customarily depict the soccer pitch at or near the center. Yet the ball game that “provided the physical and symbolic fulcrum of an entire continental culture” (10), in the words of David Goldblatt, has in its modern form been largely closed to women. Hence we imagine Las Estrellas boldly reclaiming this preserve in order to cast their own tales of death and renewal. Miller writes:

Life is both taken and renewed in the ballcourt. The ballcourt is the place where fortunes are reversed, and then reversed again. It is the ultimate place of transition, and the Maya seem to have found this particular characteristic of the game absorbing. (85–86)

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