It’s the journey. by Michelle Nicola


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.

Casa Coyolillo, The Cultural Center that Opened its Doors to Me. by Michelle Nicola

For the past month or so I’ve been working in a small town outside of Xalapa called Coyolillo. I have many half-started blog posts about what I am doing there, the town’s history, etc. Given our recent success in fulfilling the GoFundMe campaign for the leaders of Casa Coyolillo, I thought I’d open the door to this town’s stories in the same way it was opened for me, by introducing you to a phenomenal woman named Daniela López Carreto, and telling you about the amazing work she and her friends have been doing.

versión español abajo.

Daniela with her grandmother, Doña Ufi

Daniela with her grandmother, Doña Ufi

As soon as I arrived in  Xalapa, people started talking to me about Coyolillo.
“You’re going to do a study on Afro-Mexicans? Oh, you have to go to Coyolillo!” they’d say.

More than one person told me about a college student from Coyolillo who was very active in raising awareness around Afro-Mexican history.  “You have to meet Daniela López Carreto,” they told me.

I asked for an appointment with her, so she could tell me about her town and her work there. We met at a restaurant called Plazoleta and Daniela started talking to me. For her, it all started about three years ago, with a community project that she had to do to maintain a scholarship at the university. She thought about her town, and Casa Coyolillo. At that time, the people who started Casa Coyolillo were about to leave. Enter Daniela and her friends, the “new generation” for Casa Coyolillo.

Daniela told me that in order to awaken the interest of the people, she started by showing a series of video documentaries about the history of their town and the Afro presence there.

“At first only the children were interested,” Daniela said to me, placing her elbows on the table and taking a sip of hibiscus juice. “But from there it began to interest more people, and the idea of doing something for Carnival came about.  In Coyolillo, Carnaval is a big deal, and people from all over come for it.”

Daniela decided she wanted to start an African dance group. For the first month or so, they didn’t have a teacher, so Daniela would watch YouTube videos and teach the kids what she learned.  For the past year, however, la maestra Gaby has taken over, and the group performs at festivals in nearby towns as well as their own Carnival. They’ve learned different rhythms, such as: kassa, synth, macuru, and Djole. When I participated in one of their classes, I noticed that maestra Gaby’s students are also learning things like how to name and recognize their emotions, how to build community, and geography and history.  This last September, Casa Coyolillo invited a drum instructor to join them, and they are beginning to play percussions, in order to have their own music in the future.
The creativity and activism of the new generation of Casa Coyolillo did not stop there. With very little money, they have already accomplished so much.

They have their mission:
We are an autonomous collective, dedicated to promote non-profit and multidisciplinary alternative activities in Coyolillo, Veracruz, which contribute to solving socio-cultural problems and encourage participation, integration and exchange of knowledge of different age groups, in a responsible and empathic manner.

Maestra Gaby with her students

Maestra Gaby with her students

And their vision:
To be a collective recognized at the regional level for creating initiatives of community interest, that strengthen the collective identity of African descent. To gain the recognition and defense of our rights, as well as to contribute to the formation of new, more conscious, autonomous and dignified generations; with greater capacities for organizing and solving community problems.

Casa Coyolillo has many projects that are in the making, such as a town mural depicting the town’s history, collecting oral testimonies, historical research projects, school presentations, and theater classes that promote justice and anti-racism.

I was speechless with everything my new friend is doing.

When I picked up my mouth from the floor, I asked a question that was bothering me.
“Daniela, how do the people of Coyolillo recognize themselves? I mean, I've talked with some people who told me that in Coyolillo people do not self-identify as Afro-descendants, that they're going to say 'we're brown and dark brown' but is it true?”

Daniela paused before she answered. “No, I do not think it's true. Maybe more in the past, but things are changing, and at Casa Coyolillo we are strengthening the identity, self-esteem, security and pride of being afro-descendant. . . we have to raise our voices to be heard.”

Another question that worried me:
“How can I help? I want to work with you, and I want to create teaching materials for my students in the United States, but this has to be a win-win relationship. What can I offer?”

Daniela giving a presentation at the local middle school.

Daniela giving a presentation at the local middle school.

And then Daniela told me that Coyolillo, as a historically documented Afro-Mexican town is a place of great interest to researchers.  “Many researchers come to Coyolillo, take their photos, do their interviews and leave- and the town is left with the same problems, we’ve always had,” she said to me, shrugging.  “Marcus Jones (a professor from the US), was different though. He gave a copy of the book he wrote to all the people who came out in it. And that’s really all we ask. Share your work with us, so that we can grow too.  Share the photos so that we can use them to create our own museum some day,” Daniela said.

Once again I was speechless, but this time it was because I wondered how someone could ethically go to a town to “study them,” without entering into relationship with the people there, without giving back.

Daniela looked at me and said, “Michelle, look, the only thing I ask is that whatever you do, that you share it with us so that we can use it for our own research. We want to put a museum someday, and all that work that people do will help us. But if after no one receives an invitation to photography, research or demonstrations, what happens? There are many things written about my people that I found by chance - it should not be like that.”

So that’s what we’ve done. On a few occasions I have been the unofficial photographer of events, in others the guest yoga teacher. So far our biggest accomplishment has been the GoFundMe campaign.  Thanks to the incredible support of my friends and family in the United States, we have raised enough money to send 4 young leaders from Casa Coyolillo to the 19th Conference of Afro-descendants in the north of Mexico.  

On each occasion that I have given something, I feel that I have received a thousand times more, which makes me feel humble and grateful. In just two hours of us meeting, Daniela opened the doors to her house and her town and I hope it is a friendship of support and love for many, but many years.

Versión española

Nada más llegué a Xalapa y la gente me habló de Coyolillo. -¿Vas a hacer un estudio sobre los afro-mexicanos? Ah, tienes que irte a CoyolilloTambién, más de una persona me habló de una estudiante universitaria de Coyolillo que era muy activa en su pueblo y en el tema de levantar la conciencia de la historia de los afro-mexicanos.

-Tienes que conocer a Daniela López Carreto, me dijeron.

Entonces, pedí una cita con ella, para que me platicara de su pueblo y su trabajo allá.  Quedamos en un restaurante que se llama la Plazoleta y Daniela me empezó a platicar. Para ella, todo empezó con un proyecto comunitario que tenía que hacer para mantener una beca en la universidad. Pensó en su pueblo, y en Casa Coyolillo.  En aquel momento, los que fundaron la casa estaban ya a punto de irse, y entonces llegaron lo que se puede considerar la nueva generación, Daniela y sus amigos.

Daniela me contó cómo ella inició su intervención comunitaria en Coyolillo hace ya tres años. Para despertar el interés de las personas primero se proyectaron una serie de video documentales sobre la historia de su pueblo y la presencia Afro ahí. Dijo que al principio solamente se interesaban los niños, pero de ahí se empezó a interesar más gente.  Salió la idea de hacer algo para Carnaval, entonces Daniela pensó en formar un grupo de danza africana. Actualmente llevan un año aprendiendo la danza africana con la maestra Gaby y se presentan en los festivales de los pueblos cercanos además de su propio Carnaval.  Los ritmos aprendidos son: kassa, sinte, macuru, Djole y están iniciando a tocar percusiones, para en un futuro tener su propia música.

La creatividad y el activismo de la nueva generación de Casa Coyolillo no paró ahí.  Tienen su misión:

Somos un colectivo autónomo, dedicado a promover sin fines de lucro y de manera multidisciplinaria actividades alternativas en Coyolillo, Veracruz, que contribuyen a resolver problemáticas socioculturales y fomentan la participación, la integración e intercambio de saberes de los diferentes grupos de edad, de manera responsable y empática.

Los estudiantes terminan sus clases en círculo.

Los estudiantes terminan sus clases en círculo.

Y su visión: Ser un colectivo reconocido a nivel regional por crear iniciativas de interés comunitario, que fortalecen la identidad colectiva afrodescendiente para el reconocimiento y defensa de sus derechos sin intereses particulares, así como para contribuir en la formación de nuevas generaciones más conscientes, autónomas y dignas; con mayores capacidades de organización y solución de problemáticas comunitarias.

Y muchos proyectos que están haciendo y por hacer, como murales, el proyecto de la historia oral para que pasen de ser un pueblo investigado por muchos a un pueblo que se investigue y se conozca a si mismo, los talleres en las escuelas y también hay la clase de teatro que está creando una obra de títeres en contra de la mina que quieren poner en un pueblo cerca.

Me quedé boquiabierta con todo lo que mi nueva amiga está haciendo. Cuando recogí mi boca del suelo, le hice una pregunta que me estaba inquietando.

-Daniela, ¿cómo se reconocen la gente de Coyolillo?  ¿O sea, yo he platicado con algunas personas que me dijeron que en Coyolillo la gente no se autoreconcen como afrodescendientes, que me van a decir ‘somos morenos y más morenos’ pero es verdad?

-No, no creo que sea verdad. Quizás más en el pasado, pero las cosas van cambiando, y en Casa Coyolillo estamos fortaleciendo la identidad, autoestima, seguridad y orgullo de ser afrodescendiente . . . hay que levantar la voz para que nos escuchen.

Otra pregunta que me preocupaba:

-Dany, ¿cómo puedo ayudar?  Quiero trabajar con ustedes, y quiero crear material didáctico para mis estudiantes de los Estados-Unidos, pero esto tiene que ser una relación de ganar-ganar. ¿Qué les puedo ofrecer?

Y entonces Daniela me contó que si, efectivamente, como son un pueblo de interés por tener esa herencia africana, muchos investigadores vienen a su pueblo, sacan sus fotos, hacen sus entrevistas y se van, y el pueblo se queda con los mismos problemas de siempre.  Han habido como dos investigadores, uno en particular que la gente de Coyolillo todavía me habla, el maestro Marcus D. Jones de los EUA, quién entregó una copia del libro que escribió a toda la gente que salió en él.

Otra vez estaba yo boquiabierta, pero esta vez por pensar que la gente puede padecer de la ética básica, de decir, bueno si yo tomo, también tengo que dar.

Daniela me miró y me dijo- Michelle, pues mira, lo único que te pido es que cualquier cosa que hagas, que nos lo compartas para que podamos usarlo para nuestras propias investigaciones. Queremos algún día poner un museo, y todo ese trabajo que hace la gente nos servirá. ¿Pero si después nadie recibe una invitación a las exposición de fotografía, investigaciones o demostraciones, qué pasa?  Hay muchas cosas escritas sobre mi pueblo que me las encontré por casualidad - no debe ser así.

Entonces quedamos en eso.  En unas ocasiones he sido la fotógrafa no oficial de eventos, en otras la maestra invitada de yoga, y está por ver qué más.  En cada ocasión que he dado algo, siento que he recibido mil veces más, lo cual me hace sentir humilde y agradecida. En nada más dos horas de conocernos, Daniela me abrió las puertas a su casa y a su pueblo y espero que sea una amistad de apoyo y amor por muchos, pero muchos años.

Después de bailar en el festival de Actopán.

Después de bailar en el festival de Actopán.

On Photos and Palabras by Michelle Nicola

A few weeks ago I went to Mexico City for the First Annual Conversatorio de José María Morelos y Pavón. Morelos is a national hero, a man celebrated for helping win the war for independence. Look at these depictions of Morelos. What do you notice? 

You probably noticed that in the first painting, Morelos has lighter skin. The last depiction, the most recent, shows Morelos as clearly Afro-Mexican. What happened? Which image is closer to his true image? We may never know- the context of the time said that lighter skin was better, so many painted images of Morelos show him lighter-skinned than he may actually have been. Furthermore, physical phenotype (aka just looking at someone) is only one (not very scientific) way to tell someone’s ancestry. Take another look- What’s the one thing all of the images above have in common? Yep! You got it- his head covering. What historians know about that time period was that all Black folks were required to cover their heads. This is how many historians, sociologists and anthropologists I’ve interviewed are able to trace African roots in Mexico- by choosing a thread and trying to untangle it based on the context of the time.

What about words? How to they shape how we understand our history? How and why to they change? Turns out that just like in the US, Mexico also has conflict over words.  

Afro-mestizo: For some, including Professor Marco Polo Hernandez, Afro-mestizo is not the right word because mestizo implies a mix, which implies that there was, once upon a time, a pure race. Yet, in the town where I teach, there is a sign welcoming visitors to “Coyolillo, un pueblo de afro-mestizos.” 

Afro-descendiente: This term means simply of African descendants. I’ve heard both academics and activists and people from town use this term. Yet (and these are just my dos centavos- take ‘em or leave ‘em) this term also seems a touch problematic because a) Africa is not a country, it’s a continent and b) because Africa is a continent, people from countries like Morocco, Egypt, and Algeria who emigrate to Mexico (or the US for that matter) are technically “Afro-descendientes.” Technically pretty much everyone in Spain is “descendant from Africa,” because the Moors conquered Spain in 711 and stayed for several hundred years. But that’s not really what we’re talking about is it? When we use the term Afro-descendants, we’re not talking about people whose ancestors hail from Morocco, are we? We’re actually talking about Black people. 

Pueblo Negro: Literally “Black town” though one could also translate this to “Negro Town.” During the conference, I often heard people say that “negro is not an OK word in the US, but people have to understand that in Mexico it’s OK.” It took me a while to realize that they were translating negro to Negro, an outdated word in the US, and not Black, which for some is slowly replacing the term African-American. 

Afro-Mexican: Like African-American.  

All of this is leading me to the central questions for my Spanish World Language unit: How do our ancestors shape our identity? As a follow-up: How do we reshape our identities by better understanding the stories/histories of our ancestors? I’m curious to see what my students will do with those questions, as well as the uncomfortable fact that we really don’t know the answers to historical questions like which photo of Morelos is the “real” foto? And since we’re still co-constructing our language that we use to talk about all of it, I expect that my students in Coyolillo and I will bumble through answering these questions together.