Manuel Gonzalez maintains law and order as four shirtless, sweaty men punch a rubber ball against a three-sided wall.
Gonzalez is the referee and scorer for an intense handball game on a field that has been around for nearly 50 years in Denver’s Whittier neighborhood.
“Where I grew up in Zacatecas, Mexico, we had a handball court similar to this one,” Gonzalez said in Spanish, played by a family member. “I’ve been playing since I was 8 and I’m 58 now.”
Gonzalez learned the game from his father. And for decades here, on this land, perched on the southwest corner of 29th and High Street, former Latinos have taught the younger generations to play.
The old dilapidated courtyard, owned by the local Salvation Army, has little to do with it. But it often attracts dozens of Latin American families on a daily basis, with even larger crowds on weekends. Guys are playing card games while waiting to play. They bring their kids and spouses, sometimes organize barbecues and play Norteño music on boomboxes.
“There are times when we bring players from Mexico and you can easily bring 50 people here to watch the game,” said Cayetano Guereca, who is known as one of the best players in the neighborhood.
Handball is similar to racquetball. Only, instead of a racket, you use your hand to hit the ball. There are different ball weights for different games and you can play with your bare hands or with a glove.
It is one of the oldest games in the world, with roots dating back to ancient Egypt. It is a big sport in many Mexican villages. Many of the men who play here in Whittier come from places like Zacatecas, a state in Mexico, where they say certain tournaments are so important that they create city festivals around them.
Part of the reason handball is so popular in Mexico, and here in one of Denver’s oldest and most culturally diverse neighborhoods, is in large part because you don’t have to be rich. to play.
“The villages where we come from, some villages are really small, so they don’t have the resources to play other games,” said Miguel Perez, who puts in concrete for a living. “This game is easy to play, you don’t need any equipment, you just need a handball.”
The game keeps players fit, young and old.
“I am the worst player, but I still love to play,” said Ismael Villegas. Villegas is 64 and has lived in Denver for almost as long as the court has existed. “I injured my shoulder a while ago, but I still love to play, but with people my age.”
But for many who play on this land – located a few blocks north of Manual High School – there is some concern that one day it will go away.
The Whittier neighborhood and nearby Five Points have both undergone a dramatic transformation in recent years. Gentrification has revitalized much of the community, but the renovation has alienated longtime residents as well. And when new things are built, old things are often torn down.
“It used to be all Mexicans and African Americans, you know,” Acevedo said of the development of the neighborhood. “Now, you know, the whites are starting to take over, making the houses pretty nice. “
Acevedo said he has seen many businesses and homes shut down due to gentrification. He said “if they close this place a lot of people are going to be stressed out.”
The players are responsible for maintaining the field. They often apply fresh white paint to graffiti and have netting on top of the pitch so the balls don’t fly off the streets.
Villegas said he was not worried about losing the court: “As long as we keep the place clean, everything is organized, we don’t have any problems with the police or the neighborhood.”
Lt. Grant Hall leads the Salvation Army Denver Red Shield, located across from the courthouse. He said there were no plans to replace the field and that in fact he would “fight to keep the handball field due to its daily use by people in our community”. Hall even said he would like to see another wall built, so more people can play at the same time.
The players have offered to make improvements like laying new concrete or planting new grass, if the Salvation Army can put the money in. Hall has said he has spoken to the players about it, but nothing is planned, at least not at the moment.
Guereca has said he will do whatever needs to be done to retain a place that has a special place in his heart.
“Some of my friends have been here for almost 30 years or more,” he said. “This is where we hang out all the time. It has become more like family than friends.