WATSONVILLE — At Lakeview Middle School, a few men stand around wrapping their hands in leather and tape. They are preparing to play Pelota Mixteca, a primarily Oaxacan ball game that has old and debated origins.
They come from as far away as Greenfield to spend their Sunday afternoons playing the game. To play, they hit a sewn leather ball — about the size of a softball — with a mitted hand, sending it flying to the opposite side of a long thin court they have drawn out.
The game is something like net-less tennis. Using just one hand, a receiving player must return the volley, in-bounds, to the other side. Typically, five players make a team.
Many of the men here have ties to Oaxaca, said 39-year-old Leonel “Leo” Cervantes of Watsonville.
“It’s a really old sport,” he said. “My dad used to play. My grandpa used to play. It’s the first game we played in our village so we don’t want to lose our tradition.”
The game is more popular in areas such as Bakersfield and Los Angeles, where they hold tournaments with six to 10 teams in the summer, the men said.
Some players discovered the game here. Oscar Guzman, 49, said he knew of the sport, but was a footballer when he lived in Mexico, and didn’t start playing until he met Jorge Cervantes, Leo Cervantes’ older brother, more than 20 years ago.
The game can be dangerous, the hard leather ball can break fingers if hit incorrectly.
“I’ve been playing for 15 years,” Jorge Cervantes said, raising his hand, showing the damage. “My fingers aren’t straight.”
In some places, he hadn’t healed quite right, one middle finger was bigger than the other.
“We don’t play for money or anything. We just play because we like it,” he added.
Diane Barnes was passing by on a walk with her family on a recent Sunday and was intrigued by the sport, saying she had never seen or heard of it.
Her first impression was that the game requires a lot of strength.
“Look at how far back they are; you’ve got to be strong to hit it that far back,” she said.
Player Miguel Chavez of Watsonville said it’s more about the history for him.
“I like it because it’s part of my culture,” he said. “It’s not a big spectator sport, but it’s fun for us.”
The group welcomes those who are interested. They play from about 12:30-4:30 p.m. Sundays at the Lakeview Middle School basketball courts, 2350 East Lake Ave.