The Other Spurs: The Nahua Women Who Find Strength in Basketball

“Xik ita, xik ita,” (“Go get her, go get her”) shouts Faviola Alba on a concrete basketball court near Mexico City’s center, the hoop looming above her 4-foot, 11-inch frame. “Shic panolti, shic panolti,” (“Pass the ball, pass the ball”) yells her teammate in Nahuatl. Their native language gives the team an edge over their opponents, who can’t decipher what they’re saying.

It’s Sunday and Faviola doesn’t have to clean, sweep, iron, or cook for the two girls and single mother she works for as a nanny in an upscale Mexico City neighborhood. She’s traded in her work clothes for extra large red shorts and a baggy black jersey. Her cheeks flush as she dribbles the ball and takes a shot.

“Ne ni tonana iba cosa nik kuelita nik akuiltis pelota,” (“I am a woman who likes playing basketball”) Faviola says.

Meet the Spurs – not from San Antonio, but from Zoquitlán, a small town in the mountains of northern Puebla. They are the only all Nahuatl-speaking team in the amateur basketball league in Delagación Benito Juárez. During the week, Faviola and her friends and cousins on the team hold jobs as domestic workers. In a city that devours immigrants who flock to it from all over the country, these women – aged 18 to 25 – cling to their origins through basketball.

In their youth, they developed a love for the sport at their rural high schools. Most of them grew up in families where men work as farmers or builders, and women stay at home cooking traditional food, cleaning, watching soap operas, and taking care of children and pets.

These women – aged 18 to 25 – cling to their origins through basketball.

Faviola did everything she could to play, participating in little tournaments and competing against teams from Mexico City. “The mayor [of Zoquitlán] supported us,” says Alba. But when the money ran out, the girls made Jello, cakes, and tamales to sell outside the school to raise the funds needed to travel.

Four years ago, Faviola decided to leave Zoquitlán and follow her cousin (and teammate) Crecenciana Alba to Mexico City. She is now putting herself through law school while working full-time to help support her family back in Puebla, so the weekend games are a welcome relief.

Crecenciana, who is one year younger than her cousin, said her family thought basketball was too rough for girls, but she refused to be kept away. “I was not allowed to play, but my brother was, so he helped me out and told my parents I was with a friend when I really was playing. One day I just told them, ‘I like it,’” she recounted, pulling her long braid over her right shoulder. Since then, playing basketball has been non-negotiable.

As girls, they all developed a love for the sport in their rural high schools.

The original team roster of 12 lost some players due to health reasons. Others went back to Puebla. So now only eight girls have to hustle through every game with no bench time.

“At first we came here just to have fun; we spent the time laughing and laughing,” said Crecenciana. “But gradually we had to put in more effort because our coach told us that it was good to come to relax from work, but that it was also great to win games.”

Their occasional coach Felix is married to one of the players. His encouragement paid off one recent Sunday when The Spurs won 27-14.

Off the court, Crecenciana is a live-in maid for a well-off family and earns 5,000 pesos ($270 USD) per month. But since she doesn’t pay rent, she is able to send a little money home to her parents in Puebla. “They treat me well,” says Crecenciana of her employers.

Today 30,000 people speak Nahuatl in Mexico, less than 1 percent of the population.

A recent study conducted by the Mexican government surveyed 1,243 domestic workers and found that 33 percent had experienced disdain because of their ethnicity, 17 percent had been falsely accused of theft, and 12 percent suffered sexual harassment. The lack of regulation of domestic labor agreements can lead to abuses, and the jobs often lack basic benefits like vacation time and health care.

But The Spurs are proud of their work and their language, which has been passed down from the Aztecs, who lived in majestic Tenochtitlan 500 years ago. Today 30,000 people speak Nahuatl in Mexico, less than 1 percent of the population. That helps the team keep their basketball strategies secret.

Faviola is still adjusting to the pace of city life. “I come from a little town where there were just a few cars and nature. We slept well in a quiet place and didn’t have to run around and be stressed. But I also want a better life for me and the children I will have one day,” Faviola says. “I will teach them Nahuatl, but I also want them to learn English.”