In Santa Ana’s El Salvador Park, four hulking tattooed men use gloved hands to hit a blue rubber ball against the wall.
Nearby, parents grill burgers and hot dogs as they wonder which players will leave the three-walled field as winners and claim a trophy on a nearby table.
The tradition of handball and competitions, like this one hosted by Reverend Santos Chavez, a former gang member who leads Street Light Ministries, is rapidly fading in Southern California.
Handball haters say the sport – popular in prison – attracts rowdy crowds that scare children and bring gang members, ex-convicts and crime to the parks. And critics have managed to tear down hundreds of three-walled public courts in recent years.
“Handball courts are chasing kids away,” said Sam Romero, a spokesperson for the Logan neighborhood of Santa Ana, where some park neighbors want the courts removed. “They bring in guys who swear and drink and do drugs. We’re stuck with this, and to say the least, we’re pretty upset.
Handball supporters say the game is an important part of Latino culture, an inexpensive sport that allows entry to anyone who can afford a $3 ball, and shouldn’t be stopped as loafers sometimes use pitches for illicit activities long after matches have ended. .
“Handball in the Mexican American community is like basketball for inner-city black people,” said Frederick P. Aguirre, 60, a handball player and Orange County Superior Court judge. “Handball doesn’t have the appeal of the NBA, but it’s important as a way to reduce stress, to exercise. I lose myself in the game.
Andrew Palma, 46, known on the grounds as “Grandpa”, volunteers at several Santa Ana parks, teaching the game to another generation because he thinks it will keep them out of trouble. “We are fighting to keep this sport alive,” Palma said.
Southern California has about 2,000 public handball courts, about 500 fewer than just five years ago, said Gary Cruz, director of player development for the Southern California Handball Assn.
“We have to change the way people perceive handball,” Cruz said.
Early versions of handball, one of the oldest sports on record, were played in ancient Egypt and pre-Columbian Latin America. The modern game, originally known as Gaelic handball, was first recorded in Ireland around 1500.
In the 20th century, the sport became popular in American urban centers, including Mexican American communities. In the 1920s, men in these neighborhoods made their own balls – smaller than the current version – out of leather-covered string.
In New York and other cities, the game is played against a single wall. But in Southern California, players face off on a three-walled court that can act as an enclosure preventing police from seeing illegal activity. This, Cruz said, led to the decline of local handball courts.
The Southern Californian version of handball has often attracted unsavory elements. Although Aguirre grew up in a neighborhood in Placentia, he didn’t play until he attended USC. His dad didn’t want him hanging out with guys in the park where we were playing handball.
Handball’s reputation led several years ago to the closure of the courts at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa and the recent decision to demolish those at Golden West College in Huntington Beach.
But Cruz said nowhere was the trend more apparent than in Santa Ana, where nearly two dozen city school courts had been dismantled in the past two years. School district officials said the structures had become meeting places for gang members and loiterers, and were used as public restrooms.
“Handball is wonderful, but what they were using the courts for was not,” said James Miyashiro, head of school policing. The smell of the courts was so putrid that weekly cleanings failed to remove the smell when students returned to class each Monday, he said.
However, Cruz criticized the decision to close the school’s handball facilities, particularly because Santa Ana faces one of the highest obesity rates among major American cities.
A 2005 study by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy found that 35% of Santa Ana children were obese and over 70% of Santa Ana adults were overweight.
“If schools were using the courts to teach handball to kids, they wouldn’t have torn them down,” Cruz said. “And once the courts are demolished, the kids can’t get in their cars and just drive somewhere else. They are just unlucky.
With the school courts gone, courts remain in more than half a dozen parks, including Logan, where some neighbors are lobbying the city to remove them.
A youth handball team that formed three years ago in Logan Park attracts 20 to 35 teenagers each week.
“The kids here use the courts to play handball,” said Carlos Nava, the park’s program coordinator. “Kids take sport seriously and they want to improve. It is a challenge for them to compete.
Elsewhere, men follow the sport, with some bringing their wives and children to watch them play at the weekend.
Oscar Siordia, 28, plays at Buena Park on Sundays, Fountain Valley on Mondays or Thursdays, and Garden Grove on Fridays. Just six years ago, he was part of a gang; now, he says, he is not.
He met some handball players on a Santa Ana school field and started playing, dragging his brother into the game with him.
“I met new people that way and got distracted,” said Siordia, a construction worker whose arms are covered in tattoos he said he got in jail for burglary. “This sport has kept me away from bad influences.”
Armando Duran, 27, said he learned handball from gang members who played at a high school in Santa Ana. “It kept me busy and kept me from doing things that I could have done,” he said.
Santa Ana Superintendent of Recreation. Jenny Rios said talks with Logan’s handball court neighbors remained deadlocked.
She said the city had no plan to tear down the courts and was trying to accommodate residents’ concerns. She added that there was criminal activity in Logan Park, but “you have to wonder if it’s because of handball. Children who play handball do nothing but play the game.”
She and councilor Michele Martinez hope to continue discussions with neighbors. Already, they have had a fence built to capture the bullets that were arriving on neighbors’ properties.
“We have to find solutions to help both parties, the players and the neighbours,” Martinez said. “With some handball courts already down, we can’t say, ‘Sorry kids, we’re destroying others.’ ”