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Traditional Hispanic Children's Games Disappear
Article first published in Vol. 11, 1993.
By Guadalupe G. Castillo
The table is set for dinner and the aroma of homemade tortillas fills the house. Outside, mama is pushing Juanito on a swing for a few last minutes of outdoor fun before papa gets home from work. On the street, the sounds of children playing escondidas (hide-n-seek) and bebe leche, more commonly known in this area as mama leche (hopscotch), can be heard throughout the neighborhood.
This scenario is fast becoming a thing of the past, often only a memory for those of us over 30.
Many of the games we as Hispanic children used to play are not played much anymore. These games were taught to young children by mothers and grammar school teachers, who learned them from their mothers and their teachers as well. Those games actually died, but they lie dormant in our minds because we lack the time to teach them to our children. The games we played along the border made us happy, active children, and they reflected the culture from which we came.
Struggling to keep their heads above water, many Mexican-American households have opted for two working parents, thus leaving the task of child rearing to a babysitter or a day-care center. There are not enough hours in a working parent's day to pass on the traditional children's games that we were taught by our elders.
When parents and children get home in the evening the parents begin the routine of ending the day by preparing diner, cleaning up and once again preparing for the next day. In the meantime, the child sits in front of the modern world's baby-sitter, the television set. Though this practices is a convenient way of keeping children from active playtime which professionals say is vital to children's social, intellectual and physical well being.
"Nothing that comes back into our lives during old age is as important as having good friends and happy memories of our youth," writes Mercedes Diaz-Roig, an expert on children's games.
A generation ago, children from throughout the neighborhood gathered outside after school to play escondidas, as did many children throughout the United States. We also played another variation of this game, el bote, or the tin can.
El Bote is a lot of fun and easy to learn. The game begins when the person who is "it" takes the can and slams it down on the curb. Another child then kicks the can out into the street as far as possible.
The child who is "it" then races to retrieve the can and runs back to the curb and slams it down. In the meantime all other children scatter to find a good hiding place.
The child who retrieved the can goes to look for the children. Once he finds someone, then the race is on between the two to reach the can and slam it down first, he is safe. If the doesn't, he becomes "it," all the other children are called in safe and the game is repeated.
El Chicote (the whip) was another favorite. The children, facing opposite directions, clasped each other's wrists. The lead person of this human chain ran as fast as possible with the group of children holding on for dear life. As the group ran in a serpent-like fashion, the last person of the chain got the most action, often half-running, half-flying in the air.
Not all the games were action-packed as el chicote. We often gathered for a simple game of marbles. Many of us were experts at manipulating the yo-yo, but el balero demanded much more skill and concentration. This game was played with a toy made of two wooden pieces tied loosely together to a string. The object of the game was to swing the larger round piece of wood by the string and hook in onto the cylindrical piece of wood.
Many families played lotería, or lottery, daily in their homes, and everyone memorized the names of the nouns on each card. This game not only provided fun, but also gave the family the opportunity to spend and enjoyable evening together before retiring.
While many girls spent time indoors dressing their muñecas (dolls), boys (and even a few girls) were busy outside with their trompos. The boys needed strength to make their wooden tops spin off a string onto the ground. The boy who could spin his top the longest became the champ.
Expensive toys have fast replaced these simple toys. Children's natural creativity is often lost as well. Juan Perez, an El Pasoan who immigrated from Mexico, recalls, "We could play several different games using only soda bottle caps. Nowadays, it seems that if a game isn't store-bought, it won't be fun to play." Humberto Rodriguez, a native of El Paso, remembers, "When we were children we used to make our own roads in the dirt. With a stick and some imagination we could work wonders. We dug our own trenches and made bridges out of pieces of cardboard. We made trains out of cardboard pieces and added wheels made from soda bottle caps. There was not one kid in my neighborhood who had many store-bought toys."
A visit to a day care-center where the majority of the youngsters are Hispanic reveals children playing outside with beautiful cars and ready-made tracks. They quickly and effortlessly snap the track together and run the cars along the track, occasionally crashing, in a rather routine fashion. Compared to the games that children used to play, today's toys and games seem to lack the vitality, imagination and the innocence of traditional games.
While changing times may take the old traditional games look outdated and childish, they did teach children the important socialization skills needed to live in any society. Many adults can remember a time when children ran to school early in the morning to have time to play a game of bebe leche with their friends. In the mornings, schools were filled with excitement, running, laughter and activities.
Dolores Garcia, an elementary school teacher for 22 years, recalls, "Many games were started in the morning and continued after children ate their lunch. Children hung around the school yard to finish off games from recess and to socialize for a while before going home."
Times being what they are, children are no longer allowed to arrive at school too early or to stay on school grounds after class. This is a partly because schools are short of funds and can't afford to pay playground monitors to watch the children.
An informal survey here in El Paso reveals that only one children in 21 knows how to play a game of marbles. After all, many children run home from day care or school to a television set. Approximately one in 11 day-care centers with bilingual children still teaches some of the traditional Mexican games.
Gloria Quiñones, who works at a private day-care center in central El Paso, still sings the old songs and teaches her group of children to play traditional Hispanic games. Many Hispanic parents appreciate the efforts of Quiñones, who tries to make children aware of their Mexican culture and heritage. Her co-workers say that she receives many compliments from the children's parents, who claim that their children go home wanting the parents to continue singing the songs and playing the games with them.
The demands of society on the family are partly responsible for the disappearance of our traditional children's games. The sad but true fact is that we have had to trade some of our Hispanic culture to stay within the mainstream of our changing world. As much as parents would like to spend time with their children to pass on parts of their Hispanic inheritance, our rapidly moving world demands something different.
Maybe some nights dinner or bath time can be a little late. The constant paperwork can be put off a little while longer. Instead we can go outside with our children and be kids ourselves. We can have a quick game of escondidas or bebe leche, or if we're really good, el balero.