The following was written by photographer Jorge Santiago, a documentary photographer currently based in southeastern Ohio, about his long-term project “Identity at Play.” Santiago grew up in a small village in Oaxaca, Mexico’s Sierra Norte, where Serranos, a group of indigenous peoples, live. His village, Guelato de Juárez, is famous for being the birthplace of Mexican President Benito Juárez (b. 1806), but also because it’s the site of an annual basketball tournament. Santiago is still working on the project but was happy to share a few of his images thus far.
“Like many of my fellow villagers, I grew up idolizing the star players from my village and others. I saved up money for basketball shoes and spent most of my spare time on the basketball court which, as one of the few flat spaces in hilly and terraced Serrano villages, was not only a site of play but a public gathering space.
In this project, I explored the ways in which basketball reinforces indigenous identity, and is shaped by the unique geography, history, culture and sense of community in the Sierra Norte. Basketball tournaments are the central fixture of the annual village fiesta, the single most important event in a Serrano village. During the fiesta, the basketball court is the fulcrum of activity: bulls are slaughtered there, bands give massive group concerts, dances are held, the names of the people sponsoring the fiesta – mainly Mexican emigrants living in the United States – are read aloud, and of course, tournaments are played out. The basketball court is where indigenous identity and community become uniquely manifest. After having lived abroad in the U.S. for several years, I was particularly keen on revisiting basketball from the dual perspective of a local and a returned immigrant.”