Juego del Palo (Game of the Stick) is a traditional martial art/folk sport of stick fighting practiced in the Canary Islands. It involves the combative use of a slender stick from 4 to 6 feet (1.2 to 1.8 m) long, wielded in both hands, and characterized by smooth motion in attacks and defenses.
This may be described as a form of stick fencing between two players that is characterized by the spontaneous interplay of attacking techniques and defense techniques. No protective equipment is worn in traditional Juego del Palo; safety is maintained through the skilled control of attacks, which are restrained rather than being made with full force upon the opponent’s body.
Though similar stick fighting techniques are present in the Iberian peninsula (e.g. Portuguese “Jogo do pau”), the origins of Juego del Palo may be traced back to the Guanches, the aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands in pre-colonial times during the early 15th century. A Spanish engineer named Leonardo Torriani wrote a history of the Canary Islands in 1590 and included a record of early Juego del Palo, accompanied by an illustration of two Guanche warriors performing a type of ritual combat with short staves in a small arena. Torriani wrote: "When two Canarians went to duel, they met at a special place established for this purpose. It was a small enclosure with a level, raised stone platform at each end. To begin, they each stood upon a platform, armed with three of the smooth throwing stones they call tahuas, and also with the stick called magodo or amodeghe. Then they dodged the stones as they were thrown, skillfully twisting their bodies without moving their feet. Next, they stepped down and fenced with the staves, each one trying to gain advantage over the other, as is our custom also."
The art has been maintained through to the present day, undergoing a particular renaissance during the 1970s as part of a general effort to maintain native Canarian folk traditions. It bears resemblance to the Portuguese martial art Jogo do Pau and the Venezuelan martial art Juego del Garrote. Juego del Palo is now a popular sports activity in the Canaries among both genders and has been the subject of considerable academic interest as well, with a number of professional conferences having been held at local universities to investigate the history, culture, and technique of the art
Perhaps, this practice was the best way these natives had to prepare themselves for war. As a matter of fact there are many chronicles from the times of the conquer of the Canary Islands that show the hard and difficult combats that the Spaniards had to fight against the “Guanches”, showing clearly the mastery of the sticks by the Canarian.
The use of the stick vanished after the conquer of the Islands due to the laws that forbid the carry and use of sticks, because of that, the art was only practice illegally, in rural areas and by members of the some families. These families of the mountains have maintained the use of the stick during centuries. There are still some old masters that remember stories of their grandparents fighting with sticks to defend their lands, their animals, or simply to show their abilities. Some years ago, it was very common to see fights with sticks between members of different families in the parties of the countryside. There could be a fight anywhere, but one of the favorite places was the parties. Someone challenging any other caused these fights, and sometimes the reason was fighting for a woman. Many people thought that if there wasn’t a fight it was not a true party.
With the beginning of the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship, this popular art was forbidden again, and forgotten by many. Again, only some families maintained the knowledge of the art. Every family clan developed a personal and particular style of using the stick. Some were specialized in long distance range, some used it in the short distance, and others used it as a defense against edged weapons. Nowadays there are different styles, Deniz, Verga, Garafiano, Morales, Vidal, Conejero, Quintero, and Acosta style. Every one of these styles shows different techniques that can be identified very easily. This diversity of styles and technical richness is part of the greatness of the martial culture of the Canary Islands.
Many of you could think that “stick play” is just a game or a sport and that the name is because the two fighters just indicate (marcan) their strikes. To indicate the strike does not mean going slowly or without strength. A master of “Juego del Palo” has great ability and precision and can knockout many fighters specialized in martial arts. This is a gentlemen art in which the players look for physical control to avoid hurting each other.
Sticks are hardened by fire and a strike to a vital point could be extremely dangerous. That is why they just intend their attacks and look for a continuous work. During the game there is one person that acts as a referee, this person is called “Hombre bueno”, (good man), he usually is the older master and is respected by all. The name “Juego”, (game, or play), is just a name, and is not a description of the art. For example Judo is a martial art although its name means something like the “smoothness way”, and nobody doubts about the efficiency of karate as a martial art for self defense although the fighters also stop their strikes a few inches from the target.
In “Juego del Palo” you can use various types of sticks defined by length. The “Palo corto”, or short stick, also known as palo chico, macana, bastón, palo camellero, o boyero, etc. It was used as a working tool to control the camels. Nowadays its techniques and use are not very known. Other stick is “la Vara”, with an approximately length from the level of the chest to the floor. It is widely known and the most extended along the Islands. It is characterized by its plasticity and mobility. The other stick is the Garrote o Lata, it is a more heavy stick, longer than a person’s height, and its origins come from the islands of Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura.
“Not all the sticks are the same, not every one is used the same way, not every student become master, and there are not so many masters as you could think”.
It is surprising how in every continent there has been a development of different fighting arts, each one with its own characteristics, but all of them with some common ethic, moral or philosophical aspect. In this way, the “Juego del Palo” is similar to other arts, with the presence of a Master, a family tradition, its own names, traditional costumes, and a philosophy of respect and occultism. Said this, it is not strange that still at present, the masters select only a group of students to transmit their knowledge.
The masters only taught family members, and in a few occasions they taught other people, because they knew that a man that could handle the stick could fight against three or four people or to the master
himself. If there was someone very smart, he simply was not taught because it was said that he came in search of knowledge. These techniques in the hands of a student that did not show enough respect could be used without spirituality or justification. For some of them “strength without spirituality was just brutal strength”.
The “Juego del Palo” is something more than a show; it is an art, a form of expression, where the values of the Canarian people are perfectly reflected. Respect, humility, and perseverance are things that only with the course of the years can be perfected.
“To practice and maintaining the tradition of “Juego del Palo”, not only allows us to be better Canarians but also better persons”
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