Arts + Culture

Photos of traditional Oaxacan games featured in new Fowler Museum show

‘Pelotas Oaxaqueñas/Oaxacan Ball Games: Photographs by Leopoldo Peña’ is on view until July 15

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Pelota mixteca
Leopoldo Peña

Pelota de esponja players during at early morning match in Santa María.

The new exhibition at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, “Pelotas Oaxaqueñas/Oaxacan Ball Games: Photographs by Leopoldo Peña,” features 38 black-and-white images of traditional team sports played by Oaxacan ex-patriates in California taken from 2011–2016.

In these images, Peña has captured discrete moments that frame the event — sudden movements of arms arcing to reach the ball; pauses in action as players gather their strength; and families and friends watching the game from the sidelines — a testament to how the game creates and reinforces communal ties.

Nearly 150,000 people of Oaxacan ancestry currently reside in California. Since the 1980s, one way they have maintained cultural ties to their homeland is by playing traditional games, including the more popular (and centuries-old) pelota mixteca (“Mixtec-style ball”), and a variant game known as pelota de esponja (“sponge ball”).

In these games, players use two different types of devices to protect their hands from a ball — two pounds of solid rubber — as it bounces with high velocity along the narrow playing alley, about the length of a football field. In pelota mixteca, participants use heavy leather mitts that wrap around the hand, often embellished with Mesoamerican motifs, logos from modern sports and bright colors, while pelota de esponja players use a large, lightweight, square, hand paddle. Both are often decorated with metal studs.

The installation will include a pelota mixteca mitt from the Fowler’s permanent collection. Noted for rapid action and dynamic movements, both games are played and scored in a manner similar to tennis. The game has a history and network in central and southern California going back to the 1980s. Based in Fresno, the Asociación de la Pelota Mixteca de California Central organizes teams and tournaments in San José, Monterey, Oxnard, Santa Barbara, San Diego and San Fernando.

“Pelotas Oaxaqueñas offers a look at the often invisible and humane side of immigration,” Peña said, “people playing, improvising and sharing a cultural space.”

Peña was born in Michoacán, Mexico and has lived in Los Angeles since 1992. A doctoral candidate in Spanish and Portuguese at UC Irvine. His photography has been featured in journals and newspapers in California and Mexico, including Boom California, Streetnotes, La Jornada, La Opinión and El Tequio. Peña’s photographic work centers on themes of immigration and the environment, and his long-term documentary projects often emphasize cultural performance.

“Pelotas Oaxaqueñas/Oaxacan Ball Games: Photographs by Leopoldo Peña” is curated by Matthew Robb, chief curator, and Patrick Polk, curator of Latin American and Caribbean popular arts, and is on view until July 15 in the Goldenberg Galleria.

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