Bola in the Barrio
There’s a wall in the heart of the West Side that’s outlasted vandalism, drive-by shootings and external changes.
A fence surrounds this wall which serves as a sanctuary for men who once served time in prison; this barrier is an essential piece of the handball courts at Escobar Park. The park is maintained by the city of San Antonio.
Many of the men credit the court for keeping them away from drugs, trouble and potentially influencing the youth.
Since 2000, many people have visited the handball courts. However, the same core group of men consistently return.
“I’ve been coming here for over 30 years,” 72 year-old, Bore “Buddy” Herrera said. “I was never into gangs or drugs but some of my camaradas (comrades) were. We come to get exercise and have a good time.”
San Antonio’s sweltering heat doesn’t derail competitors from rolling up in their old-school vehicles and blasting oldies-music for their weekend ritual of handball games.
The bola (ball) used in handball games is blue, rubbery, two and one-fourth inches in diameter and whistles in ears when smacked, “thwonk, thwonk, thwack, thwonk!”
The game consists of four players, one spectator who officiates and a vocal audience waiting to play. At the handball courts neither Spanish nor English is spoken; instead Tex-Mex is the language used to communicate.
“Buena Bola! Line-ball is a good ball,” one player hollers to the rest. “Viente (twenty,) bola-bola!”
“Buena bola,” or good ball, is vocalized when someone scores.
“Bola-bola!,” is yelled when a bola is lost and or when the players need a new bola.
“This handball court is very important to community, it gives these people something to do,” Edward Vasquez said. “These dudes could corrupt the youngsters but there’s this to do.”
Word-of-mouth has been a key source of discovery for the West Side gem.
Anthony “Flaco” Pereida, a 10-year veteran, first heard about the handball courts while incarcerated.
“I started playing handball here when I got out of prison in 2007,” Flaco said. “I heard about it through friends that were locked up and when I got out, I came straight over here.”
Other regulars used the internet to locate the courts.
“I first came here in 2001 when I returned home from my state-funded tour of Texas,” Hernandez said, smiling. “The court reminded me of the prison yards except, here, I don’t have to look over my shoulder.”
Although the court features the same association of players, they welcome people of all ages and background.
Pereida’s son, Johnathon is amongst the few young faces at Escobar Park’s handball courts.
“I honestly don’t really play that much but I come here to support my dad and watch the old people get down,” Johnathon said. “It’s cool seeing everyone in their environment, laughing, communicating and knowing that there is another life out here.”
The sound of hands connecting with the bola, crashing into the wall: “thwonk, thwonk, thwack, thwonk;” indications of a new life.
Eugene Vasquez, 72, praised the “youngsters” for not taking it easy on the older gentleman, making it an extra-competitive game.
“Some of them (youngsters) come out with this attitude like there are going to run this court but these dudes (veteran players) have been playing here for years. . .decades,” Hernandez said. “They know how to put the ball where they want. . .they’ll have these youngsters running around and then. . .the youngins will be gone again acting a fool in the streets.”
Many people have been victims of the streets but Hernandez is hopeful for those younger than him.
“At some point you hope for them to become the wise man instead of the baboso (idiot) going in and out of jail,” Hernandez said.
“Thwonk, thwonk, thwack, thwonk, bola!” is a reminder that prison isn’t a life worth returning to.
“When I got out of the pinta (prison), I said ‘Hell Nah!,” Vasquez said. “I never wanted to go back. This (expletive) ain’t for me.”
Hernandez jokingly echoed Vasquez, “Yeah me neither dude. . . I didn’t like it that much.”
Pereida says the transition from prison to the community is difficult but encourages those incarcerated.
“I would say for them to come down here and play handball with us because it keeps you away from drugs and all that stuff,” Pereida said. “It is good for you, your family and good for the (community).”
Noises of stray dogs, ice cream trucks, Tejano music, Via buses and Tex-Mex conversations consistently reverberate in the Westside of San Antonio; on the corner of Zarzamora and Potosi the sounds of new life in the barrio echo “Thwonk, thwonk, thwack, thwonk, bola!”