The by-now world famous barefoot Triqui Indian basketball players from Oaxaca played their first games to huge crowds at a children’s tournament at Toberman Park in Pico-Union today.
The Triquis, ages 10 and 11, use an impressive warm-up routine, smothering full-court defense and able ball handling to suffocate opponents. They’re hampered only by the fact that their thin arms and small bodies can sometimes barely hoist the ball above the rim.
Still, one local team didn’t score and lost to what I took to be the Triqui’s second string, 10-0. Another team lost to the Triqui first string, 47-4.
As I wrote in a blogpost below, the team from Rio Venado, Oaxaca — some of whose players went barefoot today — comes from a school formed to instill discipline and conserve the group’s languages and traditions. Along the way, it has become a public-relations strategy to call attention to Mexican Indian poverty, and in particular that of the Triquis, who are Mexico’s most impoverished ethnic group.
Basketball being a huge community sport in Oaxacan L.A., the crowds were large and discerning and lined the court. Vendors also lined up to take advantage, selling bacon-wrapped hot dogs and ice cream.
As is often true about basketball in L.A.’s Oaxacan community, the event and the Triqui team became about something transcending sport, to include immigration, assimilation, poverty, and more.
“The reason these kids are better than ours is that we want to give our kids everything we never had when we were growing up poor, so we give them everything they ask for” and spoil them, said Enrique Perez, who sells cemetery plots in Inglewood, lives in West LA, and came from Oaxaca 20 years ago. “These Triqui kids have to earn it.”
Also, Perez went on, “here when you tell a kid to do something, he won’t. He calls the police. The kids in Mexico obey. So they’re more disciplined than ours.”
The team still had three games to play when I left and will finish the tournament next Saturday.
Don’t miss it.
The barefoot Triqui Indian basketball team, from the mountains of Oaxaca, is in Los Angeles for a couple weeks.
The team of 10 and 11-year-olds from the village of Rio Venado, Oaxaca was welcomed with a brass band and a press conference at Casa Oaxaca in Mid-City.
A full schedule awaits. A tournament next two Saturdays. Visits to UCLA, USC, Disneyland, and the Lakers. As well as meals at several of the many Oaxacan restaurants that have proliferated in Pico-Union and West LA in the last 10 years.
The team formed out of an academy set up three years ago in Rio Venado, with a focus on bringing education to the isolated Triquis in the mountains of Oaxaca.
Since then, the boys, playing barefoot, have become something of international stars. They won a tournament in Argentina. They’ve toured Orlando and played the San Antonio Spurs barefoot in Mexico City, winning 10-4.
The Triquis (Tree-Kees) are considered among the poorest indigenous ethnic groups in Mexico. (Los Angeles has few Triquis, but they form a large part of the Central Valley agricultural labor force.) For years, the Triqui region has seemed stuck “in the 18th Century,” said Sergio Zuniga, the coach. “Their dream before was to finish elementary school and go the U.S.”
The academy formed to change that, with Triqui teachers. It adopted the attitude of making do with what it had available, which in Rio Venado doesn’t include tennis shoes. One thing that was available was basketball, which is a huge sport across the mountains of Oaxaca.
“In Mexico, we don’t teach the culture of competitiveness,” Zuniga said. “What we’re doing with these kids is teaching them competitiveness — that they learn to win and lose.”
Since then, the image of shoeless four-foot Indian basketball players has captured the imagination and sympathy of people across the continent.
The team amounts to a public-relations strategy to call attention to the long-forgotten Triqui region, where average education is four years. The Indian-taught academy spent its first 18 months without any help at all. But as the team garnered attention in the Washington Post and CNN, the Mexican government has supported it, promised to build houses for the players’ parents and pay for the kids’ education, including college.
“The idea for the school wasn’t to place blame [for the Triqui situation], but simply to act,” Zuniga said. “With Indians, we’re forming winners. This has astonished people [across the Americas] — how Indians are changing their history.”
I love that school’s sports program, man! It’s all about competition, even when they’re not competitive.
As a kid, I remember going to see my father’s college — Claremont McKenna — play Cal Tech in basketball. They would crush them every year, sometimes with the JV team. Didn’t matter. CT kept on putting up teams with players who often really hadn’t ever played their respective sports in high school.
Btw, you should NOT miss Quantum Hoops (2007), a documentary about the Cal Tech basketball team. Really great filmmaking — about a team that had lost a similar number of games.
It talks about the losing, yet proud ways of the team. About the coach who would try to recruit A++ students, kids who could also play, only to find that even they couldn’t quite make the academic grade the school requires.
I’m happy that Cal Tech keeps on with sports — seems to be the right focus on sports, if you ask me.
One dismaying aspect of the Quantum Hoops doc is that it quotes Cal Tech grads, an alarming number of whom ended up on Wall Street using their brains to devise complicated financial gimmicks for making a lot of money without really creating anything of value — unlike the rest of that great school.
Unlike, in fact, the Cal Tech sports programs, those Wall Street CT grads seem the embodiment of the “Win at any cost” philosophy that characterized our late, unlamented Age of Excess from which our country is now suffering junkie withdrawals.
A quick personal note: The coach of the school that lost that 1985 game to Cal Tech — the University of La Verne — was my high school coach at Claremont High School several years before. Won’t mention names. Never got along with the guy and he never did know how to pronounce my last name.
Now for something a lot less inspiring than great students at a great school….here’s one about the Mexican Mafia. Keep scrolling down…. 🙂
The next few days have a couple very hip events taking place west of downtown that you don’t want to miss.
On Thursday, The Perfect Exposure Gallery holds an opening of photographs by Michael Cannon, centering around the 3rd and Vermont area. That ‘s one packed section of town, and one of my favorites, with folks from Korea, Bangladesh, Oaxaca, Salvador, and probably elsewhere as well.
It was there that I grew to love the strip mall — the immigrant’s blackboard. But that’s for another blog post.
Cannon, one of whose photos is above, has been living in and shooting the area for 15 years and his images will be on display at the gallery beginning at 6 p.m. Thursday.
By the way, The Perfect Exposure (3519 W. 6th St.) is fantastic photo gallery, exhibiting some of the best photographers from Los Angeles and elsewhere. Really worth a visit.
Oaxacan basketball tournaments usually involve 20+ teams and bring together folks from all over Southern California.
(I wrote about them in my first book, True Tales from Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx — which you should also not miss.)
They used to be held at Normandie Park, a few blocks away. Normandie Park is in fact a bi-nationally famous little park due to the role it played in maintaining the Oaxacan community, mostly folks from the Sierra Juarez mountains, for many years beginning in the 1970s by hosting hundreds, probably thousands, of tournament games by now.
But tournament size and disputes with park management meant that organizers switched the events to Toberman.
Either way, a fun way to see another part of LA on a Sunday.
Pittsburgh-based photographer Jorge Santiago has put up stunning images of Oaxacan village basketball tournaments at his website.
Santiago it appears spent much of 2012 wandering in the Sierra Juarez mountains from tournament to tournament and has grasped the essence of the basketball world up there — that basketball, the most urban hip-hop 21st Century sport, has become an integral part of Oaxacan Indian culture and tradition.
Check them out. They’re great!
My admiration for the photos, of course, is only enhanced by the fact that Santiago partly drew his inspiration for the project from the story on Oaxacan basketball in my first book (True Tales from Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx).
But the images do make me envious. He’s traveled far into this culture and tradition and captured some beautiful shots. I’m looking forward to see what he can do with the Oaxacan basketball world here in Los Angeles, which is deep.
One thing I always found interesting about this topic: Though Oaxacan Indians are some of the most anthropologically studied of any group in Mexico, I could find no academic researcher who had even a superficial knowledge of basketball and its importance in the cultural, social, and traditional life of Oaxacan villages — or for that matter the enormous importance it plays in the lives of Oaxacan immigrants in Los Angeles, where my story (Zeus and the Oaxaca Hoops) took place.
How many dissertations have been written on pelota Mixteca — an almost extinct sport played 500 years ago? And nothing on basketball, a sport that tens of thousands of Oaxacan young men and women play with a passion bordering on obsession. I find that remarkable. Any thoughts as to why that would be? Please chime in…..
I had lunch the other day with an old friend, Zeus Garcia.
In his day, Zeus was like the Michael Jordan of Oaxacan Indian basketball – this in the mid-1970s. He and his brothers and cousins formed a basketball team from their village outside the City of Oaxaca and won tournaments for miles around for years. In the 1980s, they all migrated to LA., part of a large Zapotec Indian migration to the area that really heated up during those years. Almost all of them moved to either Pico-Union or Mar Vista or Venice. (More on why not East LA in a later post.)
Zeus, when I first met him in the late 1990s, was a bus boy and intent on bringing a purer form of basketball to the United States, which he felt had corrupted the sport he loved. He coached a team of Oaxacan all stars, which he called Raza Unida.
Oaxacan Indians are basketball-obsessed folks and the sport plays an enormous role in their lives here in Southern California. Tournaments take place almost every weekend somewhere in the LA area. Zeus was kind of the guru of Oaxacan Indian basketball here. I wrote about him in my first book, True Tales from Another Mexico. I later went to the Copa Benito Juarez in Guelatao, Oaxaca, and watched 7000 people take in the tournament at a small outdoor court in the birthplace of the legendary Mexican president, who was Zapotec.
Zeus is now a truck driver delivering for a fruit and vegetable wholesaler near downtown L.A. He told me his brother, Isaias, himself a great basketball player in his day, last year returned to their village to take on a servicio – a public job that is unpaid and that each member of an Indian village must do if he wants to remain in good standing. Some who’ve refused have had their lands taken. Zeus was full of stories of how folks back home seemed from another world to Isaias, mired in gossip and unwilling to try new things or work hard.
This is the story of many Mexican villages, seems to me. The ones with the drive and gumption leave. Those left behind depend on the dollars sent down from El Norte, and the result is a kind of welfare dependency that drives a lot of returning immigrants nuts.
I may do that story. Keep you apprised as it goes along.
Photos: Zeus Garcia then and in 1999, and two shots of village teams from the Copa Benito Juarez.