Pelota, pelotari, cesta: Jai alai is still alive in Cebu

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A Cebuano pelotari with his cesta ready to serve the pelota. Cebuano former professional and amateur pelotaris still meet at the run down fronton in Cebu City every week.
A Cebuano pelotari with his cesta ready to serve the pelota. Cebuano former professional and amateur pelotaris still meet at the run down fronton in Cebu City every week.

Speak of Cebu and images of the Sto. Niño , the province’s patron, come to mind. And so does the valiant Lapu-Lapu, sweet mangoes, the famous lechon, guitars and beaches. But it is more than that. Cebu is a special and beautiful place. It is also my home.

Jai alai as a sport has been quite popular a few years ago during the 60s, 70s and a few years in the 80s. Yes, its the Basque ball game of a thousand thrills that has many Filipinos agog not only because of the rocket speed that the pelota or ball flung by the pelotari (jai alai player) with his cesta, that curved basket attached to his hand and properly pronounced as thesta, but also because the game also fueled the illegal numbers game of masiao which was predominant especially in Cebu, the wider Visayas and Mindanao. I should know, bets were tallied at the back of our house owned by a kin. Just imagine, every 25 centavo bet garnered the winner a peso and some won big. Today, instead of masiao, you have suwertres or swertres.

Jai alai used to be a popular sport in the country and in Cebu, it fueled the illegal numbers game of "masiao"
Jai alai used to be a popular sport in the country and in Cebu, it fueled the illegal numbers game of "masiao"

Other than the Basque imports that made up part of the roster of pelotaris playing in Manila, there were already many Cebuano players. They usually started as boys from the neighborhood within the fronton or cancha located in Mambaling who trained hard and later played for teams. Being drafted as a pelotari in Manila was a sure ticket to success and wealth.

The speed of the pelota as it is flung by the pelotari against the wall is one of the fastest in any sport. Watching this game is really a thrill as pelotaris try to capture or sometimes evade from it
The speed of the pelota as it is flung by the pelotari against the wall is one of the fastest in any sport. Watching this game is really a thrill as pelotaris try to capture or sometimes evade from it

Today, the fronton in Cebu City is a shadow of its former self. Leaking roofs rusting screens and broken wood flooring is ever present but these never dampen the competitive spirit of the former players and enthusiasts who still meet every week to flung that pelota for an afternoon of camaraderie and fun. Othen than Cebu, there is also the cancha in Quezon City.

Estan Cabigas is freelance photographer, blogger and writer based in Makati City, the Philippines. A true blue Cebuano, he makes stunning images and meaningful photo stories. His work has been published in local and international publications including National Geographic Magazine, Geo (Germany), Sunday Times Magazine (London) and other publications.

He is also a peripatetic traveler and has traveled to all 81 Philippines provinces.

I'm open for work, collaborations and inquiries, including hotel, restaurant and site features and reviews.

11 thoughts on “Pelota, pelotari, cesta: Jai alai is still alive in Cebu

  1. I’ve only seen this game once during my first year in college during the hey days of harisson Plaza.
    Is there any action on reviving this once famous game? I’m really looking forward to it.

    Thanks for posting.

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