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Women of the Sea: Afro-descendants honor their heritage in Mexico

For the past seven years, Afro-descendant women in Mexico have celebrated the International Day of Afro-descendant Women on July 25. These gatherings occur in regions inhabited by people of Black heritage, honoring both the International Decade for Afro-descendant Women and various civil organizations.

Yolanda Camacho and Rosa María Castro Salinas convened for the first meeting in Huatulco, Oaxaca, with the objective of breaking out of silence, invisibilization and confronting systemic and structural racism.

Women from the Diablos group dance before beginning their performance during the seventh national and international meeting of Afro-Mexican and Afro-descendant women at the fisherman's plaza on July 22.
/ Koral Carballo for NPR
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Koral Carballo for NPR
Women from the Diablos group dance before beginning their performance during the seventh national and international meeting of Afro-Mexican and Afro-descendant women at the fisherman's plaza on July 22.

This year, the national and international meeting of Afro-Mexican and Afro-descendant women was held in the town of Tamiahua, in the state of Veracruz, entitled: "From cultural resistance to the political participation of Afro-Mexican women." The meeting brought together around 200 women who participated in talks, workshops and a community market.

The meetup also featured dancers who performed the Danza de los Diablos, which translates to Dance of the Devils, a traditional dance from the Costa Chica region of the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca. Grandmothers and Grandfathers of the Black coastal communities recount that the origins of the dance come from a ritual of stomping, jumping, and shouting as gestures of rebellion against the enslavers of the region.

Detail of the hand of a dancer of the Diablos dance and a Mexican tulip tree in the garden overlooking the street at a house in Tamiahua, Veracruz, on July 21.
/ Koral Carballo for NPR
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Koral Carballo for NPR
Detail of the hand of a dancer of the Diablos dance and a Mexican tulip tree in the garden overlooking the street at a house in Tamiahua, Veracruz, on July 21.

The event was coordinated by the Afrotamiahua collective, Amco, Colectiva Ñaa Tundá, México Negro, and the community of Tamiahua, Veracruz, the National Program for Afrodescendant Research and Cultural Diversity of the National Coordination of Anthropology of INAH.

Through portraits and interviews, I sought out nine activists and artists of the Afro-Mexican community who attended this meeting, asking them what it means to be an Afro-Mexican woman today and the challenges they face when they have won struggles, such as the constitutional recognition that was given in 2019, but still demanding visibility and rights to the Mexican government to fulfill its commitments before the international decade for African descendants: "Afrodescendants: recognition, justice and development" ends in 2024.

The following statements are highlights from Koral's interviews with members of the Afro-Mexican community:

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"This is a very important day. It has a history and it has to do with the struggle and the vindication of our rights as Black women. In the Mexican context, it is a day to make our struggles visible. Our very presence. The very presence that the Afro-Mexican population has historically had along with the struggle and the work of women to sustain the social fabric and the construction of what Mexico is today, because much of the memory and what has resisted for 500 years has been preserved by Black women through orality."

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"Being an Afro-Mexican woman is pride, resistance and identity. Recognizing myself as Afro-Mexican gave me the opportunity to learn about my history, to know who were the people who came before me and the struggle they gave so that we could be here. It is important to name ourselves in order to continue resisting, it tells us about the work and the contributions that have been made by the Afro-Mexican population at a historical and contemporary level."

Inauguration of the seventh national and international meeting of Afro-Mexican and Afro-descendant women at the Fisherman's Plaza on July 22.
/ Koral Carballo for NPR
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Koral Carballo for NPR
Inauguration of the seventh national and international meeting of Afro-Mexican and Afro-descendant women at the Fisherman's Plaza on July 22.

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"Being Afro-Mexican in the diaspora is a constant coming and going, but it is also about ethnic diversity. And even though I was born in Tamiahua and now live in the USA, I am still Mexican and a Black woman."

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"Being an Afro-Mexican woman is strength. To be a Black woman is to be a leader, because we have been fighting all the time, we continue to fight against so much racism in the family and in society. It is to be a struggle in this country to which we have contributed so much, we have demanded that we be counted, that we be heard and that the federal government fulfill its commitments, in order to move forward and provide a better future for the Afro-Mexican children of the present and the future."

Croton plant and a dancer of the Diablos dance before beginning her performance in Tamiahua, Veracruz, on July 21.
/ Koral Carballo for NPR
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Koral Carballo for NPR
Croton plant and a dancer of the Diablos dance before beginning her performance in Tamiahua, Veracruz, on July 21.

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"Being an Afro-Mexican woman has been a personal and family process of recognition. To recognize and self-identify myself as Afro-Mexican. I always said I am Black, I am brown, I am coastal, but with my work as an activist, together with my allies, we have appropriated this term in order to feel belonging and pride."

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"Being Afro-Mexican is a constant struggle every day but also from the dance. Afro-women are not sexually available, we are breaking with our destiny and vindicating our ancestors who did not have the opportunity to dance with us in 'Las Diablas' to God Ruja. Because patriarchy and racism did not allow them, because roles were imposed on them."

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"Being an Afro-Mexican woman is part of my family's history, my culture, the roots of the region where I am from, which is Veracruz, which is part of the Mexican Caribbean. It is a way in which I move around the world, from its positive side as well as its negative side: such as racism and misogyny. It is a space of joyfulness and joy that I inhabit and, especially on days like July 25th, I can fully inhabit it in community with other compañeras."

Women at the gathering celebrate with a dance of the devils during at the fisherman's square on July 22.
/ Koral Carballo for NPR
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Koral Carballo for NPR
Women at the gathering celebrate with a dance of the devils during at the fisherman's square on July 22.

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"This day is important for the recognition of Black women and for us to be visible and heard. This is thanks to a process of struggle that we have been going through for many years. It is a day where I feel happy together with my sisters."

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"I began my activism in 2009, visiting the communities of the Costa Chica of Oaxaca. Motivated by racism, my personal experience gave me the strength to continue fighting with my compañeras. In 2011, there was a meeting of Black people in the community of Charco Redondo, where we discussed what we wanted the government to call us, and that is how we decided that, because we were born in Mexico and of African descent, we would call ourselves 'Afromexicanos' [Afro-Mexicans]."

Cecilia Estrada, Odalys Gonzalez, Alitzel Diaz and Jessica Tomas after the Afro-Mexican women's meeting, rest on Tamiahua beach at sunset on July 23.
/ Koral Carballo for NPR
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Koral Carballo for NPR
Cecilia Estrada, Odalys Gonzalez, Alitzel Diaz and Jessica Tomas after the Afro-Mexican women's meeting, rest on Tamiahua beach at sunset on July 23.

Koral Carballo is a documentary photographer born and raised in Veracruz and based in Mexico. You can see more of her work on her website, KoralCarballo.com, or on Instagram at @koralcarballo.

Photos edited by: Virginia Lozano

Text edited by: Zach Thompson

Pullquotes created by: Daniel Wood

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Koral Carballo
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