‘Pok-Ta-Pok’ identity honors indigenous culture
There will be a new version of the old ball game coming to the Southern League in 2023. No, not the one with pitch timers and pickoff limits. This is a much, much older ball game. One that dates back nearly 4,000 years. The game is Pok-Ta-Pok, and it’s coming
There will be a new version of the old ball game coming to the Southern League in 2023.
No, not the one with pitch timers and pickoff limits. This is a much, much older ball game. One that dates back nearly 4,000 years.
The game is Pok-Ta-Pok, and it’s coming in the form of Double-A Pensacola’s Copa de la Diversión identity. The Blue Wahoos bring one of 13 new identities to a Copa field that’s expanded to 95 communities in its sixth season. Pensacola is one of eight clubs that are new to the program while four returning members have rebranded their Copa identities. Lehigh Valley added a second Copa identity, Mamajuana, for this season.
The Pok-Ta-Pok identity is truly unique to Copa de la Diversión. The game itself is the first ball sport in recorded history to be played in the Americas. Though many of its rules have been lost to time, the sport has similarities to modern basketball and soccer. Competing teams attempt to hit a heavy ball made of pure rubber either through an elevated hoop or past the opposing team using their hips, thighs, elbows or torso.
The game was played by both men and women, and while it was often for fun, it was also used to settle conflicts that could escalate into full-blown wars. Some studies of ancient Mesoamerican cultures have found evidence of both winners or losers of the game literally playing for their lives. In many places, the game was banned by Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century.
The dimensions of the courts on which these games took place varied, depending on where they were found in Latin America. Many ancient archaeological sites in Latin America, like Chichen Itza in Mexico, feature Pok-Ta-Pok courts that have been preserved for thousands of years.
Though the game has ancient roots, it is still being played, and it’s actually growing in modern times. There is even a World Cup that will return to Belize for its fifth iteration in December.
“It's making a comeback, which is super cool that we get to be involved in our small way,” said Pensacola director of communications Daniel Venn.
Just about every other Copa brand – understandably – references an aspect of Hispanic culture. But just like the game itself, there are many pre-Colombian cultures, such as the Mayans, that remain prevalent in Latin America.
The idea to choose Pok-Ta-Pok as a Copa identity came from conversations Venn and the club had with members of the local Hispanic community and the city’s Spanish-language newspaper, Coastal Latina, which has helped the Blue Wahoos with past Latin American celebrations at the ballpark. Venn also reached out to former students and classmates from his time teaching abroad.
Born from those conversations was the desire to honor the millions of people in Latin America who practice indigenous cultures or don't speak Spanish. Once the decision was made, the club went the extra mile – and eventually, 625 nautical miles – to figure out how to properly honor cultures like the Mayans, of whom many know little about or even that they still exist.
“There are so many people who are like, ‘You’re Mayan? I thought all those people were dead.’ … It’s just, maybe, that you haven’t seen us,” Pensacola local Nikté Cuyuch said. “My antepasados … are now smiling down upon us because our culture is being shared. And that’s the most important thing, that the culture never dies.”
While Spanish is the most commonly-spoken language of Latin America, millions today speak other languages like Mayan, Quechua, or Nahuatl as their first language.— Pensacola Blue Wahoos (@BlueWahoosBBall) March 21, 2023
Pensacola's Copa uniforms are the first to feature the Mayan language!
More: https://t.co/jqh5K6x4eB pic.twitter.com/nMkUnSIwQH
The club was introduced to Cuyuch and her family through Coastal Latina. The paper and the Cuyuch family, who moved to Pensacola from Guatemala, helped the team figure out its Copa identity and have guided the plans since then.
An important way of staying authentic was to properly capture the traditional Mayan aesthetic. The club wanted to make sure the logo and images on the cap and jersey were designed by someone of Mayan heritage. Brandiose, the design company which has made many Minor League and Copa logos, brought the Pok-Ta-Pok opportunity to Mexico City-based graphic artist Jacobo Vidal.
“For me, to create these identities and to create these logos that represent my culture, my city and my people is something that I’m proud of and thankful for,” Vidal said. “I tried to represent the most traditional form of the game. The most epic form of the game, a form that makes people feel proud and identified.”
The cap logo depicts a Pok-Ta-Pok player wearing “traditional garb” – a headdress, collar and loincloth – leaping in the air to hit a ball with his hip in front of a silhouette of Chichen Itza’s El Castillo pyramid. The jersey features the same player and pyramid on the bottom right near the hip, but the ball is instead going through a hoop on the right shoulder.
For the main logo, the club found a linguist to write “Pok-Ta-Pok” in Mayan glyphs on the heart of the jersey.
Earlier this month, Blue Wahoos owner Quint Studer rewarded the front office, who oversaw a Southern League championship in 2022, with a cruise to Cozumel. During the trip, members of the staff got to see a Pok-Ta-Pok demonstration and speak with the athletes to learn a bit more about the game.
“Getting to pick up the ball and realize they're playing with an 8-pound rubber ball – just the sheer strength and athleticism it takes to play this game,” Venn said. “It was cool to see it and feel it in person instead of just watching it on YouTube.”
As far as ballpark activities on Copa nights, the club is still in the planning stages. But Venn has kicked – or hip-checked – around the idea of hosting a Pok-Ta-Pok demonstration at the ballpark in the afternoon before a game or letting some kids play some version of the sport -- though, more likely with a kickball and not 8 pounds of solid rubber. The first of the club’s scheduled Copa nights will be on Cinco de Mayo, with two more tentatively planned for the rest of the season.
“I view our Copa games as an opportunity to teach about Latin American culture beyond the traditional Spanish-speaking way it's been done in the past and bring in other languages, other cultures, indigenous groups and honor them at our games because I think that's an important addition to Copa,” Venn said. “We want it to be one part of a bigger overall celebration of Latin American culture.”
Gerard Gilberto is a reporter for MiLB.com.