Field of dreams: How an Indigenous softball team captured Mexico’s heart

The softball team Las Amazonas de Yaxunah has defied gender stereotypes to become a national phenomenon in Mexico.

Seen from behind, a young woman waits with ball in hand to swing. A pitcher on a baseball field prepares to throw her the ball.
Players for the Amazonas of Yaxunah softball team play a practice game on a hometown field in Yaxunah, Mexico [Bénédicte Desrus/Al Jazeera]

Stepping up to the home plate with bat in hand, 14-year-old Berenice Geraldine Cime Ay senses the sweat streaming down her back. The outcome of the game hinges on her next swing.

Cime is one of the youngest members of Las Amazonas de Yaxunah, an Indigenous women’s softball team in the Yucatán region of southern Mexico.

Their objective is to challenge local stereotypes that deem sports the province of men, leaving women on the sidelines. It is a battle they aim to win, one home run at a time.

Barefoot and dressed in a blue-and-white embroidered dress — the team uniform — Cime narrows her eyes. The pitcher, throwing for the Sailors of Celestún, a fellow women’s team from a nearby town, draws her arm back and launches the ball.

The air is hot. The ground is burning. And the path to first base is pockmarked with stones. Still, Cime digs her feet into the dirt and swings: She hits a dinger, knocking the ball straight out of the park.

“We end up with cuts and scrapes all over our feet, but it’s worth it when we win,” Cime said with a coy smile, triumphantly pointing to her latest battle scars.

Las Amazonas’s unique playing style — and their quest to combat machismo — have made them sensations in Mexico. Their games often attract hundreds of fans, and Yucatán Governor Mauricio Vila has called them “a source of pride for all Yucatecans”.

A teenager — barefoot and dressed in a white huipil dress with blue embroidery — runs from home plate to first base at a softball game.
Player Berenice Geraldine Cime Ay runs to first base after batting against a rival team, the Sailors of Celestún [Bénédicte Desrus/Al Jazeera]

But their path to stardom was not a straight course. The women are part of a tiny Mayan community called Yaxunah, not far from the ancient temples of Chichén Itzá, a major tourist attraction.

There, rates of diabetes are high, due in part to social inequality and an increasing reliance on processed, high-sugar foods. More than 10 percent of Yucatán residents suffer from the condition, according to a 2018 national health survey.

To address the crisis, the government launched a fitness programme in the region. Officials originally planned to introduce aerobics classes to Yaxunah. But that did not appeal to the local women, who had another activity in mind.

Juana Maria Concepción Moo Oxté, 62, grew up playing baseball in Yaxunah with the neighbourhood boys. But when she turned 12, her parents prohibited her from games, saying the sport was not ladylike.

“I was around nine years old when I mixed in with boys to play baseball, but my parents soon put a stop to that as I entered my adolescence,” she said. “It was not appropriate, and they believed it could hurt my chances later in life to find a good husband.”

That was a common sentiment in the community. Women often were limited to household chores, like childcare and caring for farm animals, and were discouraged from pursuing interests like sports.

But in 2019, the government health initiative created an opportunity for change. The women founded their own softball team, Las Amazonas.

Composed of 26 players, ranging in age from 13 to 62, the team gave the women a space to express their athleticism and unleash their competitive streaks.

Women dressed in blue-and-white huipil dresses lift their hands as they stand in a circle, doing a team cheer.
Players for the Amazonas of Yaxunah celebrate their win against Las Tercas de Itzincab on September 10 [Bénédicte Desrus/Al Jazeera]

Oxté, who never lost her enthusiasm for the game, joined as a backup pitcher. She is the oldest player on the team, a grandmother who counts two of her daughters as teammates.

“I keep on going because I am obsessed with the sport,” she said. “Friends my age ask me where I find the strength to run about barefoot, but I tell them I just push through.”

Still, barriers to participation remain. Initially, Cime was reluctant to join. At age 11, she received a phone call asking her to take part: The team was down one player for an upcoming match, and its members needed Cime’s help to compete. But her reply was “no”.

“I was uncomfortable about men staring at me and shouting nasty names,” Cime explained.

An hour after the phone call, though, Cime changed her mind. But Las Amazonas were already halfway to their destination. Cime begged her father to take her to the game.

“I thought it would work against me at school,” she said. “I felt everyone would exclude me, but it had the opposite effect. Even teachers come to support me in matches. Softball has changed my life.”

One of the team’s trademarks is its distinctive uniform: a traditional Mayan huipil tunic and no shoes. It’s a nod to their Indigenous roots — and the strength the players find in their femininity.

A teenage girl, smiling, leans against a dinner table covered in a blue table cloth patterned with cherries. Books and pens lay spread before her.
Berenice Geraldine Cime Ay studies at her home in Bokobá, Mexico, on October 14 [Bénédicte Desrus/Al Jazeera]

“At first, people treated us like clowns, dressed in huipil,” Oxté said, reflecting on some of the early reactions she encountered. “But they realise now that they must show us respect and never discriminate against us for expressing the power of women and our culture.”

Oxté added that she sewed her uniform herself, with white fabric and an explosion of intricately stitched flowers along the neckline.

“It fills me with joy at my age to see that the tradition of the huipil — used by my grandmother and her ancestors — is still in fashion today,” she said. “I hope it never disappears.”

Recently, in September, Las Amazonas made their first international appearance, playing an exhibition game against a team called the Falcons at Chase Field, a Major League Baseball stadium in Phoenix, Arizona.

They won 22-3, and the next night, they were invited back to the baseball diamond to throw the first pitch for the stadium’s home team, the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“Now I have seen it all,” Oxté said. “It felt like an impossible achievement to defeat the Falcons, but we did, and we received a hero’s welcome when we returned home.”

Daniela Patrocinia Canché Moo, the team’s 37-year-old catcher and one of Oxté’s children, hopes the attention will translate into more opportunities for young women, including her two daughters.

“The more young girls there are who take up baseball, the more we feel our efforts have been worthwhile,” Canché said.

Already, Las Amazonas have inspired the state government to create a “League of Change” softball tournament, bringing together women’s teams from across the region. A total of 120 teams competed in the inaugural tournament, which concluded this past June.

But Las Amazonas continue to set their sights high. They hope one day to travel to Europe to play exhibition matches in cities like Paris.

“I still cannot believe that a group of Maya women and girls from a small village managed to make it this far,” Canché said. “I hope we can help inspire others to do the same.”

Source: Al Jazeera