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Women Maya softballers brush off machismo insults to become Mexican superstars

Sitlali Yovana Poot Dzib, 20 (left), captain of The Amazonas of Yaxunah, high fives her teammates after a home run in a game played on Sept. 10. The indigenous women on the team live in the small Maya community of Yaxunah in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. They wear traditional Maya garb when they play — and eschew shoes.
Bénédicte Desrus
Sitlali Yovana Poot Dzib, 20 (left), captain of The Amazonas of Yaxunah, high fives her teammates after a home run in a game played on Sept. 10. The indigenous women on the team live in the small Maya community of Yaxunah in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. They wear traditional Maya garb when they play — and eschew shoes.

Barefoot and draped in the colorful embroidery of traditional Maya huipil garb, 20-year-old Sitlali Yovana Poot Dzib steps up to the plate, wiggling her bat overhead as she faces the pitch. The field is uneven and littered with stones while searing 100-degree heat scorches the soles of her feet. Nevertheless, she swivels on her toes, digging into the dirt for grip and ignoring jeers from the away crowd, and sends the ball soaring.

Poot is the captain of Las Amazonas de Yaxunah, an indigenous, all-female softball team famous throughout Mexico. They have even been invited to play in the U.S. They have worked to overcome the machismo attitude that softball is a sport for men, spreading the message that women are just as capable.

At bat, Mariela Beatriz Pacheco Pech, 31, a player on The Amazonas of Yaxunah, has her eye on the ball.
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Bénédicte Desrus
At bat, Mariela Beatriz Pacheco Pech, 31, a player on The Amazonas of Yaxunah, has her eye on the ball.

The decision to play in embroidered dresses stemmed from a desire to pay homage to their Maya culture as well as to demonstrate that women can be both feminine and strong. Las Amazonas reinforce their bravery by playing shoeless.

"Sometimes we receive cuts and bruises but we are hardy folk," Poot says, brushing off suggestions that barefoot softball may be reckless.

It is a common sight in Yaxunah to see people to walking around barefoot, which team members say played into their decision to compete in softball matches shoeless.

A member of the Amazonas of Yaxunah team takes a barefoot stance as she waits for a pitch. The women on the team play barefoot to show how tough they are — and shrug off the risks.
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Bénédicte Desrus
A member of the Amazonas of Yaxunah team takes a barefoot stance as she waits for a pitch. The women on the team play barefoot to show how tough they are — and shrug off the risks.

Their choice of uniform has inspired teams from three other neighboring villages to play in huipiles.

Silencing early critics

It wasn't an easy road to fame. Poot remembers four years ago that men in her village chastised her for playing a sport. She says many men in her rural community believe that women should stay at home or tend animals in the backyard –not run around the bases.

The team gained national attention when a video circulated in 2019 featuring them playing a game in their unusual uniforms.

"Our lives are different now," says Poot, who is married and cares for numerous nephews while undertaking full-time study at the Benito Juarez University of Wellbeing (UBBJ) in the nearby town of Yaxcabá. "The same people who criticized us have become our biggest fans. Sport is a powerful tool."

"The misogynistic insults have converted into positive cheers," she says.

Leaders in their community have cheered them as well. Yucatán Governor Mauricio Vila thanked the team for "empowering women and putting Yucatán before the eyes of the world."

Joel Almícar Diaz Canul (left), 22, is the team manager. Above: He coaches his spouse, Sitlali Yovana Poot Dzib (center), to keep her focus following her home run during a game at the Paseos de Itzincab Multisport Complex in Itzincab, Yucatán, Mexico, on Sept. 10.
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Bénédicte Desrus
Joel Almícar Diaz Canul (left), 22, is the team manager. Above: He coaches his spouse, Sitlali Yovana Poot Dzib (center), to keep her focus following her home run during a game at the Paseos de Itzincab Multisport Complex in Itzincab, Yucatán, Mexico, on Sept. 10.
The manager of the Amazonas of Yaxunah, Joel Almícar Diaz Canul stands with the team before a July 1 match.
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The manager of the Amazonas of Yaxunah, Joel Almícar Diaz Canul stands with the team before a July 1 match.

Match day starts shortly after sunrise. The village of Yaxunah sits still at 6.30 a.m. as Poot's husband, 22-year-old coach Joel Díaz Canul, loads recently donated baseball equipment into a hired minivan. His weekly headache is to figure out logistics and cover travel costs for games that may be as far as a 12-hour drive from home. There's no revenue stream from ticket sales since exhibition games have free entry. His hope is that the opposing team will cover half the travel costs. For the remainder of the fees, the team members – a handful of them have jobs — put up the money themselves. And if they're lucky, the team will get a free meal after the match. This time, it is just over three hours to Celestún on the edge of Yucatán, and the first pitch is at 11 a.m.

A member of the Sailors of Celestún team invited the Amazonas of Yaxunah players home for lunch following their game in Celestún, Yucatán, Mexico on July 1.
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Bénédicte Desrus
A member of the Sailors of Celestún team invited the Amazonas of Yaxunah players home for lunch following their game in Celestún, Yucatán, Mexico on July 1.

The team of 26, ranging in age from 13 to 62, line up in their matching huipiles to board the rented minivan, their collective embroidered short-sleeved blouses forming a grand tapestry. One of the youngest, 14-year-old Berenice Geraldine Cime Ay, records a Facebook video for the growing national and international fan base on Las Amazonas social media pages. This is her first visit to the flamingo-filled lagoons in this paradise on the Gulf Coast.

Berenice Geraldine Cime Ay is one of the youngest players on the Amazonas of Yaxunah. Above, the 14-year-old runs to first base.
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Berenice Geraldine Cime Ay is one of the youngest players on the Amazonas of Yaxunah. Above, the 14-year-old runs to first base.

"I love traveling with the team," she says. "No matter where we go, we always send our message to end gender violence in Yucatán." They use social media and press conferences to make that point.

She played at age 7 — and now at age 54

María Enedina Canul Poot, 54, a recent widow and mother of four, perches on the edge of her seat as she lists the batting order in her notebook. A team founder and assistant coach to her son, Joel, she has a resolute attitude.

María Enedina Canul Poot, 54, one of the founding members of The Amazonas of Yaxunah, with her granddaughter at their home in Yaxunah, Yucatán, Mexico. Canul Poot played softball as a girl and was thrilled to return to the game years later.
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Bénédicte Desrus
María Enedina Canul Poot, 54, one of the founding members of The Amazonas of Yaxunah, with her granddaughter at their home in Yaxunah, Yucatán, Mexico. Canul Poot played softball as a girl and was thrilled to return to the game years later.

"I've dealt with machismo my entire life," she says, recalling her childhood as the only girl in the village who dared play baseball with the boys. She started when she was 7. When she turned 14 and her mother forbade her from playing.

"My mother demanded that I acted more like a woman, which was incredibly frustrating," she says. "I had to face the reality that it was prohibited in my village for young girls to play a man's sport."

So, it was no surprise that Canul took up the earliest chance to play softball again when the opportunity came 35 years later through a government fitness program under the Ministry for Social Development (Sedesol). Health officials in Yaxunah wanted to introduce a fitness program for women to address the high prevalence of diabetes in the area. They proposed aerobics. Canul had another idea.

"I prefer the competitive nature of team sports," she says. Her sentiment resonated with many women participating in the fitness program. And so, with the approval of the government health officials, softball became their chosen path to fitness and camaraderie.

"Sport was a no-go for women, but we had enough and decided to tell our husbands, fathers and brothers that we would play whether they approved or not," She recalls.

Damari Yasuri Balam Canul, 24, a player for The Amazonas of Yaxunah, catches the ball during a practice session.
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Damari Yasuri Balam Canul, 24, a player for The Amazonas of Yaxunah, catches the ball during a practice session.

Their Maya garments got them noticed

The initial days were far from easy. Canul shares that the team had to fashion makeshift bats from pieces of wood and play without gloves, resulting in some scrapes and splinters. Nevertheless, she believes these challenges make them tougher than teams from larger towns who compete in official leagues and use full gear.

Six months later, a neighboring woman's softball team from Pisté spotted them playing on their field dressed in huipiles and extended an invitation for a friendly match. Until then, the team members had played matches against one another, sometimes inviting boys from the community to join in.

Word of their talent and unique uniforms spread quickly, attracting interest from teams in Yucatán and neighboring states of Quintana Roo and Campeche. The Yaxunahteam needed a name that embodied their tenacity and fierceness, which led to the birth of the name "Las Amazonas." "This is what we are: women warriors," says Canul. "Men insulted us, spread nasty rumors and sometimes beat us, but since we became famous, they finally show us respect."

Canul meanwhile has her own measure of fame. She says she's "the person who hit a home run in the video that went viral. It became famous because I was barefoot and wearing my huipil, even though this is normal for me and older women."

Yessica Yasmin Diaz Canul, 30 (left), a player of the Amazonas of Yaxunah team, practices at the community field.
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Bénédicte Desrus
Yessica Yasmin Diaz Canul, 30 (left), a player of the Amazonas of Yaxunah team, practices at the community field.

The roar of the crowd — and the team

At 11:07 a.m. the minivan pulls into the parking lot behind the Omario Gómez Chacón Baseball Camp. The Sailors of Celestúnwait on the field clad in pristine black and white uniforms, matching baseball caps and laced boots. A roar from fans erupts as the teams jog onto the field. Within minutes, the match begins.

Entering the final innings, the teams are tied. The baseball camp becomes a cauldron in the midday summer sun as 20-year-old Amazonas pitcher Joemi Patricia Tec Ay marks her target. The tough encounter ends with the batter hitting another meatball straight out of the park. Las Amazonas lose 11-8, but this doesn't dampen their spirits. They form a circle in the middle, raise their open hands to the air and cry out: "We are amazons, we are Maya, we are women warriors!"

Jazmin Guadalupe Lopez Poot, 17, a player for the Amazonas of Yaxunah team, wears a faceguard with mask and shin pads as she takes on the role of catcher.
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Jazmin Guadalupe Lopez Poot, 17, a player for the Amazonas of Yaxunah team, wears a faceguard with mask and shin pads as she takes on the role of catcher.

In September, the Amazonas were invited to play the Falcons from Phoenix University in Arizona. Several hundred spectators and tens of thousands online saw them make history at Chase Field, home of major league baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks, in a stunning 22-3 win over the Americans.

Their next step could be Europe. Potential sponsorship deals promise an exhibition match as part of a cultural exchange in Paris – with the bulk of support coming from the Yucatán Government together with Los Leones de Mérida as well as some potential sponsors they're not yet willing to reveal at this point. The Yucatán Government promotes cultural exchanges to export Maya culture.

"We are Maya," says Sitlali Yovana Poot Dzib. "I think the municipal mayors and the Governor of Yucatán are beginning to realize and value our contribution. It's a real turnaround. Who would have thought a few girls and women from a small Mayan village could make such a difference."

A fan takes a selfie with Juana Maria Concepción Moo Oxté, 62, of the Amazonas of Yaxunah. A viral video of the team helped launch them to national fame.
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A fan takes a selfie with Juana Maria Concepción Moo Oxté, 62, of the Amazonas of Yaxunah. A viral video of the team helped launch them to national fame.

Mark Viales is a freelance journalist and photographer from Gibraltar with ten years experience working in Europe, Africa and Latin America. His projects include in-depth features on socio-political issues, climate change, inclusive sports and indigenous cultures. He has conducted investigations into irregular migrant routes in Europe and Latin America, exposed institutional corruption in Gibraltar and worked undercover infiltrating far-right extremist groups in Spain.

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

Mark Viales