K-12 Teaching Resources

Sport in Latin America and the Caribbean

Update No. 80
October 2000
Nan Volinsky, Outreach Coordinator

An excellent primer on sport in Latin America is Sport and Society in Latin America: Diffusion, Dependency, and the Rise of Mass Culture, edited by Joseph L. Arbena (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988). This book examines the role of sports, particularly soccer and baseball, in Latin America from the late 19th century to the present

…Sport and Society in Latin America vividly demonstrates the ways in which sport can be used to study various historical and social processes and expands our understanding of sport as a major form of social behavior in Latin America. The contributors analyze the relationship of sport to foreign penetration and cultural imitation, urbanization and the rise of mass society, social divisiveness and social integration, class conflict, politics, and nationalism and revolution. [Inter-American Review of Bibliography]

The Mesoamerican Ballgame

Excerpt from "The Mesoamerican Ballgame" by Jane Stevenson Day, PhD, Chief Curator of the Denver Museum of Natural History,

Games have been part of human culture for thousands of years. From ancient Egypt to China, Greece, Rome and early Europe, people have competed with each other on the field of sports. However in these early civilizations most sports were based on individual tests of skill and strength. Even the early Olympic tradition placed its emphasis on an individual's competence in sports. It was in the Americas, particularly in prehispanic Mexico, that the focus of games became team sports, not personal prowess.

In Mesoamerica, long before the arrival of the Spanish, there was an amazing enthusiasm for team sports, an enthusiasm unequaled any other place until recent times. This vying of one group against another in team competition is still a phenomenon of American life and modern games still carry on many traditions established over 3000 years ago in the New World. The heritage of these ancient games still exists in the traditions and rituals of modern sports. The actual concept of playing on a team, formal court/stadium settings, special rituals, standardized equipment, formal gear or uniforms, gambling, professional players, the creation of heroes and the use of a rubber ball were all part of the sporting world of long ago just as they are today.

It is in the use of rubber balls that modern games are most clearly linked to the Precolumbian past. Rubber itself was a product of the Americas and unknown in Europe and Asia before the arrival of Columbus in 1492. The bouncing rubber ball was first viewed by the amazed Spanish invaders as magical, an instrument of the devil. Cortes took teams of players and numbers of rubber balls back to Spain soon after the Aztec conquest in 1521. There the Indian teams played for spectators at the royal court of Charles V. Soon the superior elastic qualities of the New World ball became appreciated and rubber began to replace wood and leather in European games.

Scholars have learned much about this game through chronicles of the colonial era, archaeological remains of ball courts and game paraphernalia, and contemporary ethnographic practices among Maya peoples. The Mesoamerican ballgame challenges our understanding of the secular nature of sports because of its intimate connection with cosmology and ritual sacrifice to the gods:

Precolumbian ballcorts were usually built at the heart of sacred ceremonial centers in cities. The ballgame was often played for ritual purposes and the outcome of these games resulted in the sacrifice of defeated players…The sacrifice of slaves or prisoners or war, who were forced to participate in ritual ballgames, was seen as something necessary for sustaining a sense of balance with the gods and with the Maya cosmos." [excerpt from "The Precolumbian Ballgame," from the Birmingham Museum of Art exhibit, May 5-October 20, 1996]

The Ancient Maya was the February 1999 issue of Calliope, a world history magazine for readers ages nine through fourteen. This issue contains a four-page article on the pre-Columbian ballgame by an anthropologist.

Ball players were not allowed to touch the ball with their hands or their feet. This is more restricted than what is allowed in contemporary soccer, where the feet are the key point of contact with the ball.

For further reading on the pre-Columbian ballgame

Harold E. Hinds, Jr. "Recent Studies in Mexican Sport and Ritual: Elite Intentions and Popular Renderings." Studies in Latin American Popular Culture, 15 (1996): 301-310.

Van Bussel, Gerard W., Paul L.F. van Dongen, and Ted J.J. Leyenaar, eds. The Mesoamerican Ballgame. Papers presented at the International Colloquium, "The Mesoamerican Ballgame 2000 BC-AD 2000." Leiden: Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, 1991.

Zeitlin, Judith Francis. The Politics of Classic-Period Ritual Interaction: Iconography of the Ballgame Cult in Coastal Oaxaca. Ancient Mesoamerica, 4:1 (Spring 1993): 121-140.

Background reading on sport in Latin America and the Caribbean


Arbena, Joseph L. "Sports Language, Cultural Imperialism, and the Anti-Imperialist Critique in Latin America." Studies in Latin American Popular Culture, 14 (1995): 129-141.

Arbena, Joseph L. "Sport and the Promotion of Nationalism in Latin America: A Preliminary Interpretation." Studies in Latin American Popular Culture, 11 (1992): 143-155.

Arbena, Joseph L.. Winners Without Losers: Perspectives on Latin American Sport. Studies in Latin American Popular Culture, 7 (1988): 303-308.

Archetti, Eduardo P. "The Meaning of Sport in Anthropology: A View from Latin America." European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, 65 (Dec 1998): 91-103.

Klein, Alan M. "Sport and Colonialism in Latin America and the Caribbean." Studies in Latin American Popular Culture, 10 (1991): 257-271.

Beezley, William H. "Sports: Introduction." Studies in Latin American Popular Culture, 4 (1985): 1-2.


Galeano, Eduardo with Mark Fried, trans. Soccer in Sun and Shadow. Publisher:Verso Books, 1998. ISBN:1859848486. In a series of short reflections, Galeano speaks about mortality and immortality in the game of soccer. Titles such as "the fan," "choreographed war," "creole soccer," "the opiate of the people?," and "from mutilation to splendor" head each reflection.

Levine, Robert M.. Sport and Society: The Case of Brazilian "Futebol". Luso-Brazilian Review, 17:2 (Winter 1980), 233-252.

Fiction for K-5: Marzollo, Jean, with Irene Trivas. Soccer Cousins. Publisher: Scholastic, 1997. ISBN: 059074254x. Subjects: Mexico, Day of the Dead, Sports.

Cricket in the West Indies

Birbalsingh, Frank M. The Rise of West Indian Cricket: From Colony to Nation reviewed by Brian Stoddart. New West Indian Guide, 72:3-4 (1998): 319-321.

Beckles, Hilary, ed. An Area of Conquest: Popular Democracy and West Indies Cricket Supremacy. Reviewed by Jay R. Mandle and Joan D. Mandle, New West Indian Guide, 70:1-2 (1996): 101-106.

Ruck, Robert L. Three Kings Day in Consuelo: Cricket, Baseball, and the "Cocolos" in San Pedro de Macorís. Studies in Latin American Popular Culture, 13 (1994): 129-142.

St. Pierre, Maurice. West Indian Cricket: A Socio-Historical Appraisal; Part I. Caribbean Quarterly, 19:2 (June 1973): 7-27.

St. Pierre, Maurice. West Indian Cricket: An Aspect of Creolization, Part II. Caribbean Quarterly, 19:3 (Sept 1973): 20-35.

Walcott, William. Cricket and Caribbean Unity. Caribbean Quarterly, 39:1 (Mar 1993): 60-80.

Thompson, L. O'Brien. How Cricket Is West Indian Cricket?: Class, Racial, and Color Conflict. Caribbean Review, 12:2 (Spring 1983): 22-25ff.


Oberg, Keith. Grassroots Development...Béisbol...and Golf?. Grassroots Development, 19:2 (1995): 12-13.


Mandle, Jay R. and Joan D. Mandle. The Failure of Caribbean Integration: Lessons from Grass Roots Basketball. Studies in Latin American Popular Culture, 13 (1994): 153-164.

Mandle, Jay R. and Joan D. Mandle. Caribbean Hoops: The Development of West Indian Basketball. Reviewed by Hilary McD. Beckles. New West Indian Guide, 71:3-4 (1997): 338-339.

Mandle, Jay R. and Joan D. Mandle. Grass Roots Commitment: Basketball and Society in Trinidad and Tobago. Reviewed by Michael H. Allen, Latin American Perspectives, 18:3 (Summer 1991): 118-120.

Sport in Cuba

Arbena, Joseph L. Sport and Revolution: The Continuing Cuban Experience. Reviewed in Studies in Latin American Popular Culture, 9 (1990): 319-328.

Pettavino, Paula J. and Geralyn Pye. Sports in Cuba: Castro's Last Stand. Studies in Latin American Popular Culture, 13 (1994): 165-184.

Ince, Basil A. Nationalism and Cold War Politics at the Pan American Games: Cuba, the United States, and Puerto Rico. Caribbean Studies, 27:1-2 (Jan-June 1994): 65-84.

Martial Arts

Almeida, Bira. Capoeira: A Brazilian Art Form. Reviewed by Eric A. Wagner, Studies in Latin American Popular Culture, 5 (1986): 228-231.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Black Martial Arts of the Caribbean. Review, 37 (Jan-June 1987): 44-47.