They play for money.
The men here, when they play volleyball, play for the reta – a challenge, a bet, laid by each team on opposite ends of the volleyball net. Sometimes it’s as low as 20 pesos per game, sometimes as much as 100 pesos – standard scoring to 15 points.
Teams are made of at least four guys, but usually five or six to a side. The money they put down on each game is often money they don’t have to waste. A day’s wage is only about 150 pesos, so 20 pesos a game can be more than an eighth of what they earn.
Do the math – if you earn eight dollars an hour, that’s a full hour of work you risk on one 20-minute game. If you play best out of three, and lose the first two, you just lost about a third of what you earned in a day.
Or, you could win that much, too.
The desire to win what you haven’t earned, at the cost of losing what you have earned, is nothing exclusive to Nahuatl culture.
Before we came to Mexico, I spent seven weeks living with the Keetoowah – a band of the Cherokee people – in Oklahoma. The local casino served good, cheap burgers – and even at 12 noon, had a number of people working the slots.
A friend of mine who was teaching me to speak Cherokee would often join us for lunch. His wife worked there at the casino, and he spent a fair amount of time there as well.
He knew which slot machines were hot, which not to touch. At times, he’d point to a certain machine, saying it was “hot” – others, he would say, should not be touched.
Behind all of it was his assumption that the system could be played – it could be gamed – it could be beaten.
That’s the same assumption my Nahuatl friends have as they play volleyball, hoping to serve, set, and spike their way to a few extra pesos.
Yet when I ask them if they’ve won lately, like my Keetoowah friend, they usually tell me they’ve only lost.
Deep in the heart of man is the desire to beat the system. We often believe it’s possible, even probable. But the outworking of that assumption both in volleyball and slot machines, is usually loss.
In the same way, we like to believe we can win at life. If we play our cards right, as my late grandfather-in-law once said, we can get past St. Peter and pass through those pearly gates.
In doing so, we try to win a game that’s already been won. All we have to do to join in that victory is believe.
But as my same grandfather-in-law said, that’s too simple.
And so, like him, my Nahuatl neighbors choose to work, and strive, and play that volleyball game in the hope they’ll win – without thinking about what they’ll lose.
They don’t know about Him who won it all yet. One day they will. One day soon. And when they do, my hope, my prayer, is that they’ll believe He’s won it all, too.
In doing so, they’ll live in victory, just as each of us can through Christ.