Jorge Santiago

Identity At Play
Location: Pittsburgh, PA
Nationality: Mexican
Biography: Born in Guelatao de Juarez, Oaxaca Mexico, Jorge Santiago is a documentary photographer currently based in Pittsburgh, PA. His work has been exhibited in Mexico City, Los Angeles, Madrid, Havana and Bratislava. He has taught workshops in basic,... MORE
Public Story
Identity At Play
Copyright Jorge Santiago 2023
Updated Feb 2022
Location Oaxaca
Topics Basketball
Basketball culture in indigenous communities in Oaxaca, Mexico.

I grew up in Guelatao de Juárez, a village of approximately 500 people in Oaxaca's Sierra Norte. Guelatao is famous not only as the birthplace of Mexican president Benito Juárez, but also as the site of the annual Copa Benito Juárez, in which more than 200 teams of indigenous Zapotec, Mixe, and Chinantec players compete over a period of three days.

Unlike in wider mestizo Mexico, where soccer reigns supreme, in the Sierra basketball is king. The sport was introduced in the 1930s by president Lazaro Cardenas as a way to bring Oaxaca's disparate and historically rebellious indigenous groups into the national fold. Cardenas' dream of a unified national identity didn't take root in the Sierra, historically isolated and impoverished, but basketball soon became tied to the region's most significant traditions, and to indigenous identity itself.
Like many of my fellow villagers, I grew up idolizing the star players from my village and others, saving up money for basketball shoes, and spending most of my spare time on the basketball court which, as one of the few flat spaces in hilly and terraced Serrano villages, served not only as a site of play but also as a public gathering space.

My documentary photography project explores the way in which basketball reinforces indigenous identity. Basketball tournaments in Oaxaca are the central fixture of the annual village fiesta, the single most important event in a Serrano village. In the past, migrants would return from the United States for tournaments in their villages; now, with changes in U.S. border policy, they simply send money for trophies, slaughtered bulls, fireworks, uniforms, shoes, and prizes. During the fiesta, the basketball court is the fulcrum of activity: bulls are slaughtered there, bands play in massive group concerts, dances are held, and the names of the migrants sponsoring the fiesta are read aloud.

Identidad en Juego - Fotografias de la cultura del básquetbol en la Sierra Norte de Oaxaca. 
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