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It’s the journey. by Michelle Nicola

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As a person who derives more than a degree of self-worth from getting things done, I always feel a slight internal eye roll when people remind me that it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.

Uh-huh, I think, as I check another thing off my to-do list.  

And yet, my recent trip to the Mexican State of Coahuila served as a daily reminder that, while arriving at the event is definitely important, the journey, the struggle and tension of experiencing doubt and finding purpose, that matters too.  

It all started back in September when my friend Daniela told me about the XIX Encuentro de Pueblos Negros. Daniela and her team at Casa Coyolillo wanted to attend the Encuentro in order to represent their town and its heritage and to gain insights as to how other Afro-Mexican towns are advancing the cause of their people. One month later, I started a GoFundMe to help make this dream possible. In a little over a week, thanks to the many incredible and generous donations from friends and family, we had enough money to take four leaders from Casa Coyolillo on the journey to El Nacimiento, Coahuila. For two members of Casa Coyolillo, this would be the first time flying, and for all of us it would be a journey of self-discovery.

Me, Gaby and Karen before leaving Xalapa. Félix and Kelly came to send us off!

Me, Gaby and Karen before leaving Xalapa. Félix and Kelly came to send us off!

Boarding the plane!

Boarding the plane!

The story of the Mascogo people is a story of crossing borders and cultures, of resistance and freedom.

My first moment of self discovery came when arranging the travel- I won’t go too much into the details, but let’s just say that it’s a good thing I’m a teacher and not a travel agent, unless of course, you like journeys that take the long, complicated routes, and require you to pay a little bit more money. If that’s your travel style, hit me up- I can make that happen for you. ;)

Four bus rides and one flight later, we arrived in the town of Múzquiz in the state of Coahuila. My friends went to check out some of the festivities and I went to bed (at that point my need for sleep was greater than any FOMO). The next day we were up by 6 am to catch the 7 am yellow school bus that would take us to El Nacimiento, the town of the Negros Mascogos. 

The story of the Mascogo people is a story of crossing borders and cultures, of resistance and freedom. The inhabitants of El Nacimiento are descendants of enslaved peoples who escaped slavery in the United States and settled in Mexico, where slavery had been abolished in law thanks to the proclamations of Father Miguels Hidalgo y José María Morelos since 1810. In practice, however, the abolishment of slavery took a few more decades and shifted depending on who was winning the border wars fought by Great Britain, France and Spain in the Americas. The relationship between Texas (a slave state) and Coahuila (a Mexican state in a country that had abolished slavery) also affected the realities of freedom. All that said, at this point in history slaves, Native Americans and abolitionists all looked toward Mexico as the land of freedom.

Historians debate the origins of the term “mascogos,” but it seems to come from the union of two groups: the Seminole Indians, and enslaved Africans. Both groups lived throughout the areas no known as Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia, and the relationship between these two groups started towards the end of the XVII century. Many people know that enslaved Africans in the United States escaped to the North to gain their freedom, but I’m not sure how many of us knew that the south, especially the state of Florida, was another route to freedom. For a time, Spain controlled Florida, and attempted to maintain its control over the territory by accepting escaped slaves as free people, on the conditions that they convert to Catholicism and fight for the Spanish crown. By 1821, Spain had lost its claim to Florida for good, but the cultural and commercial exchanges that the Seminole and Black peoples was established.

Several wars and broken treaties later, the Seminoles, Black Mascogos and Kickapoo peoples decided to travel south and seek refuge in Mexico. In October 1850, the Mexican government recognized them as Mexican.

There is so much more to this story. So many more stories to read, listen to and consider. Much of the information I wrote above I obtained from the book Negros Mascogos: Una odisea al Nacimiento by Claudia Cristina Martínez García and Carlos Manuel Valdés Dávila.

My friends from Casa Coyolillo and I spent the next two days listening to stories like these - stories about doña Gertrudis, matriarch of El Nacimiento who songs are a mix of Spanish words and slave spirituals, of the fight to include Afro-Mexican on the 2020 census and of Francia Marquéz’s bold leadership in Colombia. We sang, danced and delighted in watching Afro-Mexican performers from the state of Guerrero dance “La danza de los diablitos” (The dance of the little devils). We ate the most amazing home cooked meals of beans, potatoes, tortillas, soup- all prepared over an open fire.

On the 3 buses (and 8 hour journey) back to Saltillo, Coahuila, the five of us were abuzz with questions. What are we going to do to prepare the people in Coyolillo for the census? What does it mean to be Black in Mexico? What is the difference between reclaiming a cultural tradition and a cultural memory? What does “progress” and “development” mean, and who does it benefit?

These questions don’t have easy answers, and in fact, the 8 hours of travel time wasn’t enough. That night, the five of us, along with two more friends who we met at the conference, Roberto and Pablo, stayed up until 1 am in the hotel restaurant, feeling out what we had learned. Daniela talked about the short film we had watched about doña Gertrudis. At the start of the film, doña Gertrudis introduces herself by saying, “Soy negra y fea pero tengo claridad.” (I am Black and ugly, but clear/frank/open-minded.) Daniela asked us, “Why? Why does she have to say she’s ugly? Why do we have to learn we are ugly, only to unlearn it?” Her words hit my heart. Why, indeed?

I’m back in Xalapa now, and it’s been a week since all of this happened. My notebook is filled with notes to review, my pockets filled with business cards, and the list of articles to read continues to grow. This is not something I’m going to be able to cross off my to-do list anytime soon. This is a journey that I was lucky enough to take with mis hermanos y hermanas from Casa Coyolillo. This is a journey that, in reality, has just begun- there are still so many fascinating stories to learn, so much work to be done to promote justice and self-love. And so, the journey continues . . . .

Two young women in traditional Mascogo dress.

Two young women in traditional Mascogo dress.

Veracruz represents!

Veracruz represents!

Karen, Daniela, doña Cruz Gaby & Enrique pose with dancers from Coyolillo and Guerrero.

Karen, Daniela, doña Cruz Gaby & Enrique pose with dancers from Coyolillo and Guerrero.