Diaspora and Sport: Pelota and Identity in Different Communities
12 mai 2021
Urban, regional, and national movements around the world have long used sport to sustain and promote their identities. Large cities and regions regularly develop flagship clubs in major international sports and host regional and international events like the Olympic Games, at least partially to promote their identity in the eyes of the world. More modestly sized communities often gravitate to smaller activities through which they can find success with more limited financial investments, such as the city of Badalona’s basketball tradition embodied by Club Joventut Badalona. Perhaps most effectively, some groups successfully claim a sport as part of their own unique cultural identity and tradition, like Florence’s assertion that they developed calico fiorentino in the sixteenth century or the connection between curling and Irish nationalism.
Basque pelota offers an example of the later development and, depending on how one defines bullfighting, can claim to be the only major sport developed primarily within the borders of modern Spain. Pelota’s roots go back centuries and the sport has a complex history with numerous different varieties of competition. Its story bears similarities to that of football because both sports where not codified with standardized rules until the mid-to late nineteenth centuries, well after empires had been built and large-scale emigration commenced. As a result, while Association Football dominates, different codes exist like rugby at home in Britain, Aussie rules in a colonial setting, and American football in a post-colonial one. Pelota has a similar history, developing different modalities in Basques communities across the Spanish post-colonial world during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These international codes take on added significance because of Spain’s weakness in the period and pelota’s connection to only a portion of Spain. As Basque identity and nationalism grew in conjunction with pelota, the central government repressed that identity in favor of a centralized Castilian one ultimately epitomized by the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975). Thus, the story of Basque pelota became one of extensive variety where the diasporic communities wielded more influence in shaping the sport than is common and demonstrating the depth of that community’s interconnection across oceans and continents. This article strives to track down some of these different developments and their relationships to the international pelota community. The first section defines the basic sport, its early development, and the history of its international organization. The second half tracks several modalities of pelota, discusses how and where they developed, and strives to identify the significance of each’s history. Hopefully, the discussion will begin to explain the complexity of pelota as a Basque cultural activity as a basis for more in-depth analysis.
Definitions, Home Culture, and International Organization
At its core pelota is a game played between individuals or teams of (primarily) two facing a wall, though in some versions players face one other directly across a net or line. It is most commonly played on a frontón, a court with a high front wall and a lower wall on the left side. However, some versions use only the front wall, others use a wide variety of lengths for the court from fairly short to extremely long, still more varieties use an indoor trinquet or “closed” court that add a ceiling and right wall and carry similarities to the older courts used for real tennis, while other iterations use a particularly long outdoor place libre or open court. Similarly, players use a wide variety of equipment to strike the ball including their hands, multiple different sized wooden and string rackets, a hoop with a net, and both short and long curved baskets called xisteras. Different versions use both hard and soft balls made of rubber and leather. All told this produced over fourteen defined varieties of pelota that range from the lightning fast jai alai to the more moderate and traditional handball, and all with specific histories and connections to different Basque communities.
All of these different varieties trace their roots to the Basque Country spanning northcentral Spain and across the Pyrenees into southwestern France where the Basque people have lived for centuries and maintain their own language and culture. Basque pelota has connections to the old game of royal tennis or jeu de paume where players hit a ball across a net in indoor courts. While it faded in the eighteenth century amongst the Western European nobility, versions survived in the Basque Country where players commonly hit the ball against a front wall instead of across a net. By the 1800s, it had become well established in a wide variety of forms across the region as part of rural competitions like wood chopping, sawing, and various forms of lifting and carrying that championed farm labor in ways similar to Scotland’s Highland Games. Through the nineteenth century, pelota increasingly developed the characteristics of modern sport with codified rules, equipment, and competitions, even developing a trio of specialist journals through which supporters followed competitions by 1887. Despite this long practice, rule codification only began in the mid to late-nineteenth century enabling international spread that generally followed the routes of Basque migration to the Americas, North Africa, and even a few sections of Southeast Asia like the Philippines. Notably, however, this process was multipolar with versions of the sport traveling between countries in the Americas and from the New World back to Spain instead exclusively being codified in a European metropole and then emanating outward.
Pelota also maintained strong connections to small towns and traditional Basque life, making it a natural activity for nationalists to promote as an intrinsic aspect of Basque culture. The game brought communities together and created public spaces even as the Spanish and French governments cracked down on Basque nationalism as a threat to their own. For example, Professor González Abrisketa argues that frontons provided public spaces for Basques, predominantly men, to gather, share a passion, and follow rituals that bound them together. Its competitions displayed traditionally masculine virtues of strength and passion, but also required rules and behaviors championing proper play that benefited everyone and reinforced social norms. Not coincidentally, pelota rose as a formal sport during the same decades as Sabino Arana founded the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), the organization most central to establishing Basque nationalism and defining what it stood for. The PNV embraced and promoted pelota as both a symbol of Basque uniqueness and an avatar of its values, producing an enduring connection between the two that has brought the sport both benefits and limitations in the decades since. Subsequently, Spain was wracked with internal problems through the first half of the twentieth century. First the pseudo-democratic Restoration government gradually lost control, leading to the repressive, conservative Primo de Rivera dictatorship in 1923. 1931 saw the established of the tumultuous Second Republic, which itself collapsed into the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, and ended in the even more repressive Franco dictatorship, which cracked down forcefully on regional identities for the next three decades. As a result, the Basque County had little freedom or resources to promote regional identity until at least the 1950s, when the Franco government began allowing sport to grow as a distraction in various forms across the country.
In contrast, Argentina had a large Basque expatriate population and experienced some of its most successful years as an independent country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Argentine economy boomed as British imperialists built railroads and public utilities to support meat and grain exports from the Pampas and founded banks to finance such endeavors. With this new affluence, Buenos Aires emulated European cities by embracing the arts and other European activities like football, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Argentine Basques delved into codifying and spreading their traditional game of pelota. As a result, when groups of enthusiasts first established the Federación Internacional de Pelota Vasca (FIPV) in 1929, the Spanish and Argentine federations played lead roles in a process actually started in Buenos Aires. When the new organization met a second time in March of 1930 to establish statues, they did so in Espelette, France and under the leadership of Jean Ybarnegaray of the Fédération française de pelote basque, emphasizing further the international nature of the endeavor. The divisive Ybarnegaray came from French Basque heritage, was a pro-fascist deputy in the French parliament who later denounced Basque nationalism when its leaders joined the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, but later joined the united French government to resist Germany at the start of WWII, briefly became part of the Vichy government before switching to the resistance, and even spent six months in Dachau. He offers an excellent example of the complexities of the period, from the conservative nature of Basque identity despite its desire for independence, to the international nature of pelota’s institutional consolidation in the midst of larger world events. As a result of these divisions, little international planning and competition developed in the decade and a half after the FIPV’s foundation as the Spanish Civil War and World War II occupied everyone’s attention and the Southern Cone countries competed amongst themselves.
After 1945, the FIPV became more active in organizing competitions leading to the first pelota world championships held in San Sebastián in 1952. For this inaugural event, federations from Spain, France, Argentina, Uruguay, Italy, Mexico, Cuba, and the Philippines all sent teams and the athletes competed in hand, paddle, basket, and frontenis competitions on four different types of courts. In the decades since, the competition has been held regularly in a loose rotation in Spanish Basque cities, French Basque ones (usually Biarritz), and Latin America municipalities (most commonly Montevideo in early decades and Mexico City more recently). Curiously, Buenos Aires has never hosted the event, partially because Argentina declined economically and entered a prolonged period of political instability just as regular international competition commenced in the 1950s. Another reflection of the sport’s complex political are the official locations where it maintained headquarters over the years. From the 1940s, the FIPV centered its organization in Madrid, away from the sport’s heartland and presumably where the Franco government and its Consejo Nacional de Deportes could exercise oversight. With the advent of Spain’s democratic government and federated constitution in the late 1970s, the FIPV promptly moved its organizational location first to San Sebastián and then to the Palacio Urdanibia, a historic building in Irún near the French border. Finally, it moved again to its current location in Pamplona, another symbolic location for Basque identity. These developments suggest that once the political situation allowed, the FIPV promptly moved its base away from the seat of Spanish government and to several important sites in the Basque heartland before settling on a permanent home. Today, the FIPV brings together over thirty different national pelota federations and sits at the center of an international sports network that reflects the modern, international Basque community. It is recognized by the IOC and represents one of only a handful of international headquarters based in the Basque Country.
Diaspora and Difference
Despite this central connection to Spanish Basque identity, much of the diversity in equipment, courts, and rules in pelota results from the game’s international spread in the nineteenth century along migration routes from the Basque Country to Cuba, Florida, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, and other areas as well as different European traditions in Valencia and France. Tracking pelota’s branches, therefore, produces a cartographical representation of the Basque diaspora and highlights the changes the community underwent in these different locations.
The most famous of the American varieties is jai alai which became popular in the Caribbean, Mexico, and some parts of the United States, predominantly Florida, Connecticut, and Texas. Its popularity even spread as far afield as the Philippines, several cities of costal China before the Communist Revolution there, and sections of the North African coast from Morocco to Egypt. Like many varieties, it is played on a fronton with a long with a wall on the left side and evolved from the xistera version of Basque pelota that used a short basket on the player’s hand. Late in the nineteenth century in Argentina, the use of the xistera shifted to a longer curved basket, the cesta-punta, that allows players to hold the ball for longer, often to the chagrin of purists, but then launch it more forcefully and dramatically and creating what the Basque government regularly promotes as the fastest sport in the world. This new variety spread across much of Latin America in the early twentieth century and became closely connected to gambling industries. It attained particular success in Mexico and Cuba, where enthusiasts built massive frontons that sat hundreds and offered a mass entertainment spectacle. From there fronton’s where built in Dania, Tampa Bay, West Palm Beach, and Daytona, Florida in the 1950s as part of the state’s tourist boom, grew even further as Cuban refugees fled there after the communist revolution in 1959, and then beyond Florida in the 1960s through 1980s as the gambling industry established it in Connecticut and Rhode Island. This success created a professional circuit owned by U.S. entrepreneurs, but played by roughly 90% Basques that lasted for several decades. The system offered lucrative, if short, careers for talented Basque players from Spain. However, this also undermined the sport’s larger growth because few groups beyond the U.S. Hispanic/Basque communities actually played jai alai and fans there to bet are inherently less invested in the sport itself. By the 1980s, political and economic conditions in Spain improved leading to fewer players willing to come to the US and those who did demanded better pay and treatment. This produced a massive players strike in 1988 that the sport never fully recovered from and today only a few active frontons survive in the US, mostly in Florida. Jai alai’s rise and fall show that while tightly holding onto a particular cultural identity can help a sport’s survival, it also potentially stifles growth beyond that group in a competitive capitalist sporting world. Nor is this a unique situation, as many sports organizations have to decide if preserving an identity or financial success represent their preeminent goal. One need look no further than the football club Athletic de Bilbao and the issue of whether to sign non-Basque players for an example.
The development of other varieties of pelota return us again to Argentina and the important role it played as an incubator for the codification of different varieties of play. Versions of pelota in Argentina can be traced back to the early nineteenth century, with enthusiasts later building the first large court in Buenos Aires’s Plaza Euskara in 1882, followed in 1889 by the 2,500 seat Frontón Buenos Aires and the short-lived Frontón Nacional. Most of these where standard long, thin courts for jai alai, but Argentine’s standardized many of the types of equipment used on them. Besides jai alai, the format that took root most among the local population used a wooden paddle that, through the nineteenth century, was generally handmade with numerous variations and imperfections. In 1904-5, Gabriel Martiren, a player and immigrant from the French Basque County, developed and began using a more uniform flat wooden paddle, a paleta, that offered him a competitive advantage. This sparked a process of racket standardization that formalized pelota paleta or pelota argentina. Over the next few decades, this format became the central version played within the Confederación Argentina de Pelota. When the international pelota community established the Campeonato del Mundo in 1952, two versions of paleta cuero, the version of paleta played with a leather ball, were included as the main competitive version of the sport using a wooden racket. Today it has become one of the most common forms of pelota internationally and spread beyond that Basque community within Argentina to become a significant aspect of the larger national culture as successfully as any form of the sport.
Argentina also played a significant role in the development of a third discipline called xare, or share, that uses a curved frame and a loose leather net inside to strike the ball. It is played exclusively on a trinquet court that is closed on both sides and drew on traditions of the indoor sport of royal tennis or jeu de paume played in England, France, and other areas of Europe and pasaka in the Basque country. As well as the establishment of frontons noted previously, supporters built several trinquets in Buenos Aires starting in the 1860s and then with renewed growth in the 1880s through early 1900s as the city. A key figure in its development was another Basque immigrant, Juan Cruz Orué, who arrived Buenos Aires in 1881. He began playing pelota in the local community, joined the Club de Gimnasia y Esgrima in 1886, worked with several other prominent players to develop the size and weave of the modern xare equipment, and then spread it amongst the city’s Basque migrants. This successfully codified the game and allowed it to spread to other outlying areas like Zamora outside the capital, multiple towns in the province of Entre Ríos, across the river to Uruguay, and up into Paraguay by the 1920s. During the 1930s and 50s, its main clubs successfully established themselves producing regular local and regional competitions, that again spread to the international level after 1952.
Other areas of Basque settlement around Latin American also developed distinct modalities of pelota, often versions that dispensed with the side wall and merged with sporting traditions from the English-speaking world. In Peru, pelota first penetrated the national culture in Lima around 1906 when construction of the Lima Frontón drew widespread interest. Jai-alai spiked in the 1930s and the sport grew in mountain towns like Apata, Pilcomayo, and Orcotuna that tended to have higher percentages of Basque immigrants. By the 1950s, a distinctive Peruvian version called paleta frontón had evolved with both players facing a front wall, no side wall, a relatively short court in depth, divisions into sections similar to a tennis court, and a short racket instead of hands or a basket. It thus represents a blend with the appearance of tennis, the fronton of pelota, a racket similar to paleta, and a smaller court that fit better in the vertical landscape of mountainous Peru. Paleta frontón then expanded gradually across the country and today has its own Federación Deportiva Peruana de Paleta Frontón, in affiliation with the FIPV. The sport gets support from the Peruvian government as a distinct national activity, but has not reached them same level of international competition as other forms.
Mexico experienced similar developments though its history is complicated by the pre-Columbian Mayan and Aztec ball games that are sometimes confusingly conflated with modern ones. As elsewhere, immigrants introduced Basque pelota in the late nineteenth century and in 1895 they built Mexico City’s first court for cesta punta. Despite occasional conflicts with the government over gambling that limited growth, the subsequent introduction of the faster jai alai led to the construction of more frontons in 1906, 1923, and 1929 in Mexico City and a first period of large-scale success in the 1920s. On one hand, jai alai developed a strong tradition as a spectacle building the large arenas such as Tijuana’s El Foro Antiguo Palacio Jai Alai, a massive edifice that survives today as an event venue and monument in the aftermath of the sport’s decline. On the other hand, these structures allowed for the growth of family and community competitions. These smaller events spread into neighborhoods of the capital like San Rafael, Polanco, and Roma, and then out to other cities, regularly finding a home in the patios and gardens of the wealthy and breaking past some of their Basque roots. In both large and small locations around 1916, tennis and pelota players who wanted to practice while walls where being repaired and only a soft ball could be used, developed their own iteration of pelota called frontenis. In this variety, opponents play in a typical fronton with front and left side walls, but with rackets similar to tennis, and a soft (today rubber) ball like in racquetball, again representing a mix of different sporting traditions. This version successfully spread around Mexico, to the Canary Islands, and then back to Spain where, by the 1980s, it attained a significant level of popularity. Today, frontenis maintains strong connections to both Mexico and Spain with regular leagues and has spread beyond the Basque political identity as well as any form of the sport.
Even in Europe, different pelota traditions and sets of rules exist as alternates to Spanish Basque traditions. In Spain, Valencians claim their own version, pilota, which goes back to roughly the thirteenth century as their own distinct national sport. In this iteration, team competition predominates, competitors face each other across a net instead of facing the fronton, and players exclusively strike the ball with their hands similar to the most traditional version of pelota. After having been a part of the Basque FIPV, in 1985 the Federació de Pilota Valenciana (FPV) broke away as its own organization to better promote the Valencian version. Since then, the FPV has gradually built interest in the sport by working with the Generalitat Valenciana, its provincial subsections, and the educational systems of Valencia, Castellón, and Alicante to infuse the sport into school curriculums. Pilota offers a somewhat insular activity in which simply understanding the rules and participating denotes connection to Valencian identity. This echoes the role of pelota in Basque identity and its revival in the post-Franco era reflects the reassertion of regional autonomy under the democratic, federated constitution.
Similarly, the French Basque community on the northern side of the Pyrenees also have their own modalities, though it has long played a role in the international spread of pelota. The most important specific French variety is grand chistera which is similar to jai alai, but developed independently, and is played on large outdoor courts. Its origins are similar to those of the original handball variety of the Spanish Basque game played on a fronton. While much of the Spanish game transitioned to smaller and indoor varieties in the nineteenth century, French Basque communities in Biarritz, Bayonne, and other areas continued to play outside on courts with only a front wall and at least 80 meters of space facing it, one of the largest areas used by any version of pelota. Players on both sides of the Pyrenees increasingly wore a leather glove to protect their hands in the late nineteenth century, and over time some added wicker or willow baskets on the end starting first with a shorter version or petit chistera. It then evolved into the larger grand chistera, which is similar to those used in jai alai in the Americas and remonte in the Spanish Basque Country, and became common by 1892 in southwestern France. By 1925, the variety had spread enough nationally that the early Fédération française de pelote basque established its first Championnat de France National de Grand Chistera under the leadership of Jean Ybarnegaray. The sport has maintained a limited, but significant, following ever since with regular competitions, reasonable audiences, and courts as far afield as Paris. It offers another example of a version of the sport that plays a significant role in binding its community together and offers just enough difference to make a claim as a unique reflection of the French Basque people.
All told, pelota has a long and complex history with dozens of different varieties spanning almost as many countries. It has roots in traditional games played in France, Spain, and other European countries that survived in rural mountainous regions, mostly in the western Pyrenees. As nationalism rose as a movement in the nineteenth century, pelota became intertwined with Euskara (the Basque language) and other cultural factors as an easily identifiable pillar of Basque identity. At the same time, it developed some of the hallmarks of a modern sport, but struggled to complete the process. The pelota community was divided by a mountain range, a national border, and maintained strong connections to the rural world that made establishing a centralized, sports bureaucracy challenging. Similarly, each town and Basque region tended to have their own varied traditions, making it difficult to establish uniform rules for the sport. On top of this, by the late nineteenth century and before significant standardization occurred, economic and population pressures spurred migration from the Basque homeland to Latin America, which in turn sparked regular interchange between European and American Basque neighborhoods.
This proved to be a recipe for extensive variety as groups across the America’s where reintroduced to the basic sport at the turn of the century, but felt free to modify and adapt it to their own national circumstances given the lack of uniform rules. Argentine’s in Buenos Aires took much of the lead in this process as the country’s economic boom in the early twentieth century gave them the scale, resources, and confidence to develop their own traditions. It was in Argentina that innovators made the changes to the basket that created modern jai alai which then spread to Cuba, Mexico, the Philippines, the United States, and other areas farther afield. They also codified pelota paleta and xare the most common modalities using a racket and net. Similar processes happened in other counties, such as Peru’s development of paleta frontón and Mexico’s of frontenis, offering their own national varieties. Similarly within Europe, French Basques and Valencians maintained and later reasserted their own versions of the original sport as represented by grand chistera and pilota. When the Basque community finally established a regular international championship starting in 1952, the FIPV included many of these varieties as their own competitive divisions and have added more in the decades since. As a result, the competition and modern pelota more broadly, represents a coming to together of the now international Basque community that is far richer and more complex after over a century of migration and independent cultural development.
Andrew McFarland is Associate Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History, Political Science, and Philosophy at Indiana University Kokomo. He holds a Ph.D. in modern European and Spanish history from the University of Texas- Austin and researches the development of sport, football, and physical education in Spain from the nineteenth through the twenty-first centuries with particular interest in how sport intertwines with modernity and identity. On these topics, he has published articles in the Journal of Sport History, the International Journal of the History of Sport, the Oxford Handbook of Sports History, and the European Review, among others.
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