23 September 2021
23 September 2021 - Written by Verónica Sanchis Bencomo
In her series Mystery of the Disguised, Mexican photographer Koral Carballo documents the vibrant ancestral Afro-Mexican traditions of a small village in her homeland that carries untold history and family heritage.
Mystery of the Disguise is a personal project that looks into the oral narratives of a town in Veracruz, Mexico named Coyolillo. The diminutive town is an Afro-Mexican community in the south of the country. The founders of the area were originally from Congo and Angola and worked harvesting sugar cane fields in Haciendas during the 16th and 17th Centuries.
Today, Coyolillo locals narrate how the slave’s owners forced people of African origin to work in precarious conditions, with only one day of rest per year. To celebrate this day, ancestors organised a day-feast to commemorate freedom. Over the years, this remembrance has become a Carnival. Its protagonist is the ‘disguised’ or ‘jejés’ who cover their faces with animal masks like; cows, deer or bulls.
How did you first become interested in the topic of Afro-Mexicans in Coyolillo, Mexico?
I came to Coyolillo on an assignment from a local agency; AVC, in 2014. I went to cover a Carnival Tuesday; by rumors some people told me why they were celebrating the festivity. I remember that on that day everything was very brief information, compared to the energy that the party had. At that time, I recall that there was a main character who transformed himself and made a performance in the streets, people shouted at him: ‘Disguised’.
After that moment, life didn't let me go back to Coyolillo, I faced challenges, it even made me hesitate in photography after my friend and fellow photojournalist, Rubén Espinosa, was murdered in 2015. It wasn’t until late 2016 that I was finally able to return to Coyolillo. I went to investigate the history of that Carnival that although it is very short, it was never explained why and who were its protagonists as well as the background of that party. So, I was determined to investigate this story.
From the first day I met Octavio López, an Afro-Mexican artist-chronicler from Coyolillo who told me the history of his town, and little by little I began to understand this story over the months. I listened a lot and I put my camera down.
I told Octavio that I wanted to do a project about this celebration, that I wanted to take photographs about this story, and the idea of the staging. And over the years we worked through the desires of both of us, and a constant dialogue that brought us closer as friends. Later, I met Genaro López, Jesús López, Henry López, Axael, Liz Morales, Vanely López, Angelito and Yoel Zaragoza, who have also collaborated in the project.
Would you say this project plays visual activism? If so, was this intentional?
I did not create the project ‘El Misterio del Disfrazado’ with that intention of visual activism. What is a fact is that the process was stimulated from a narrative that was always open and in continuous collaboration with its protagonists.
So, my process with the community I do consider it political, from my position as an outsider (although I am from Veracruz and my origin is very close to Coyolillo, this story is not mine, I was not born there), so I knew I did not want to impose my idea as a photographer and I wanted to make a horizontal process, I wanted that together we could think about the photos, what would be the location, the right moment to photograph, how they wanted to appear in the photos.
Choosing together the elements that would be in the photos. The story we claim to tell, in the end, is one more version of the Coyolillo Carnival.
Could you share with us more insights of their traditions and costumes that you have photographed?
Octavio told me the story that his ancestors told his father Bartolo. The first settlers of Coyolillo (the name comes from the name of a Coyol palm tree) were people kidnapped in Africa and forcibly brought to Veracruz and the central part of the state to work in the sugar cane fields. It is said that slave owners back then only gave them one day of rest per year. Then, the ancestors of Coyolillo celebrated with their rituals that ephemeral freedom.
One day a group of men and women found a treasure on the hill in front of the hacienda and bought their freedom, founding Coyolillo. With the passing of 500 years, the slaver would become Cacique – translate to tribal-chief in indigenous groups in Latin American regions - and this celebration became a Carnival that continues until 2021.
The protagonist of this story is the ‘Disfrazado’ or ‘Jejés’, who are Coyoleños who hide to disguise themselves with these colourful costumes that they make with these masks of antlered animals that symbolize “the forbidden”, "the bad" of the Catholic religion - as elsewhere in Latin America the communities of the African diaspora are represented with horns or devils.
These "disguised" from anonymity go out to walk the streets of the town, to allow themselves to do things they usually do not do. Octavio tells me that it is a freedom to be who you want to be like: kissing someone (single or married), jumping or entering other people's houses, drinking cane or being mean to someone you don't like. Once in costume, anything goes and its part of the tradition.
You have gone beyond the use of photography for this project, projections and archival imagery has been used. Can you tell us more about your motivations behind this?
When I was in the process of creating Mystery of the Disguised, I became obsessed with Afro-descent in Veracruz. Then, while researching and talking with my mother, together we dropped the blindfold of the invisibility/forgetting the origin of our maternal and paternal family (later I discovered it too).
From this process, I have allowed myself to experiment visually with my family album. I first began to learn tools to clean and take care of my photos. I started to reinterpret my photo album, to see it with different eyes, to see the faces of my siblings, my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins... my own. I knew that there were important traces there to explain where we came from. I understood that although whiteness had won in my skin colour, in my hips (like those of my grandmother Eloisa), in my nose, in my hair and my blood there was a story I wanted to tell to explain us in the present, and to prepare a gift for those to come.
One day I told this to my friend, Berta López in Coyolillo, we talked about the value of these intimate photos, and the importance they have to recognize us as a group. Then she encouraged me to show her some tools to learn how to take care of her family photos. There began the first chapter: Album.
I understand that the project has several chapters, could you tell us more about it, what are they called and how do they differ from each other?
In 2019, the project was born along with its name in honour of my ancestors and the African root that tried to be erased, that was forgotten by the government, almost as an answer: we were always here.
So, this project has a prologue, which I understand as the opening, as the first layer of my process and it is: ‘The mystery of the disguised’. A first chapter: ‘Album’, which explores the Afro-descendant album, in two approaches, the first one: the awareness of the importance of our archives for our family, with the facilitation of preservation workshops and care of archives in Afro-Mexican communities that do not have access to this type of tools. And the second part, is linked to the promotion of a category of ‘Afromexicanos’, as well as the inclusion of archives in the National Photo Library.
The second chapter is titled; ‘What history owes us’ and is a research that I started in 2017 and is ongoing about the route of the rebellions, the landscape as sentinel, witness of the vexations of the slavers in Mexican territory. About the resistance of the past. The third chapter; ‘Resistance’, is about the fight of the present, and is still under construction, slowly. At the end there is an epilogue: ‘La Sangre Llama’, and the story we are building with my family.
As the project progresses into chapters, I imagine you plan to publish a book at the end, is this something you intend to do? If so, why?
To be honest, the project has this structure because for me it is a methodology that is organised and allows me to move freely in the process. Sometimes I think that each prologue, chapter and epilogue could be a book in itself, because I think about it even with many stories contained in each one. It's a difficult decision now that you ask to make just one.
I have never published a book, but I would also like to approach it as in my work process together with the people I have been working on this project. So, the time will come and the right people to do the first one. I am not in a hurry.
Finally, what is the most important lesson that this personal project has taught you and that you would like to share with us?
About the lessons there are many, I could make another book about this....But this project is transforming my present and my family. I also understood many things that my dad said while I was young that he referred to as bad luck, now I know it was racism and it is there silently. I am understanding my privilege of being born white mestiza skin; I'm learning too that this is just one more version of the multiple stories we need to understand Afro-descendants in Mexico.We were always here, it brought me to the beginning of where I had to start from.
All photos © Koral Carballo, from the series Mystery of the Disguise
Koral Carballo is a Mexican photographer currently based in Mexico. She has received awards-grants such as Catchlight Leadership Fellow, Women Photograph + Getty Images 2019, Magnum Foundation Global Covid Projects 2020, We Women 2019, the Moving Walls 25 Open Society Foundation 2018. In 2014, she founded, Mirar Distinto International Festival of Journalistic and Documentary Photography in Mexico. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in New York. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the works of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
This article is part of In Focus: Latin American Female Photographers, a monthly series curated by Verónica Sanchis Bencomo focusing on the works of female visual storytellers working and living in Latin America.
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