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These Indigenous Mexican women are reclaiming their power through ancestral practices

<strong>Left:</strong> Apolonia Plácido picking up flowers. <strong>Right:</strong> Flowers offered to the placenta of a newborn who was just born in the CAMI.
Tania Barrientos
Left: Apolonia Plácido picking up flowers. Right: Flowers offered to the placenta of a newborn who was just born in the CAMI.

Photographer Tania Barrientos followed the stories of several women who wanted to share a part of their lives as midwives and leaders in Costa Chica de Guerrero, a coastal region in southwest México.

In México, Indigenous women have long relied on traditional midwives. The Costa Chica de Guerrero is a geographical area that is distinguished not only by the presence of various Indigenous groups (Amuzgos, Tlapanecos and Mixtecos), but also by a high percentage of Afro-descendant population living in the region.

In Guerrero, some women have given birth with midwives at Indigenous women's centers called CAMIs (Casas de la Mujer Indígena o Afromexicana). The CAMI is a house dedicated to traditional midwifery and sexual and reproductive rights that provides support with an intercultural perspective to women from the Costa Chica and Montaña regions.

In this region, there are different rituals to honor life and nature using the placenta as an offering to the water and earth to ensure good health for children and a productive life in their future life as adults.

It is also an area that is characterized by intense political and social movements led by women of both ethnic groups, who began to organize in spaces specifically for women more than a decade ago and who now continue to strive to preserve the fruits of that struggle, facing many obstacles, especially due to customs and harmful practices rooted in the region, such as machismo, violence and corruption — in addition to the marginalization, poverty, social backwardness and discrimination in which the state of Guerrero has historically been submerged.

The Pacific Ocean off the coast of México's Costa Chica region.
/ Tania Barrientos
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Tania Barrientos
The Pacific Ocean off the coast of México's Costa Chica region.
Nadia, an Indigenous psychologist from the Costa Grande who has participated in various investigations on maternal health, midwifery and reproductive rights. She dedicates her life to activism and research, giving psychological advice and support to women who have decided to have an abortion in secrecy, since until May of the last year, abortion in the state of Guerrero was still criminalized.
/ Tania Barrientos
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Tania Barrientos
Nadia, an Indigenous psychologist from the Costa Grande who has participated in various investigations on maternal health, midwifery and reproductive rights. She dedicates her life to activism and research, giving psychological advice and support to women who have decided to have an abortion in secrecy, since until May of the last year, abortion in the state of Guerrero was still criminalized.
The hands of Francisca, a Mixteco midwife from Rio Iguapa, in the Montaña region of the Mexican state of Guerrero.
/ Tania Barrientos
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Tania Barrientos
The hands of Francisca, a Mixteco midwife from Rio Iguapa, in the Montaña region of the Mexican state of Guerrero.

These lags are exacerbated for Indigenous and Afro-descendant women, those who speak only one language — mostly their native languages — those who live in rural areas that are difficult to access or in marginalized areas of the cities, and for those who are unaware of their rights and freedoms, especially their reproductive and health rights. They are the ones who suffer the most from problems derived from nutritional deficiencies, low levels of schooling, access to economic resources and, therefore, subordination to their partners, families, communities and society in general.

Tomasa Noyola, a leader in San Nicolás, in her garden on a background of one of the many textile handmade pieces crocheted by her.
/ Tania Barrientos
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Tania Barrientos
Tomasa Noyola, a leader in San Nicolás, in her garden on a background of one of the many textile handmade pieces crocheted by her.
Still life of a rose in Tomasa's garden.
/ Tania Barrientos
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Tania Barrientos
Still life of a rose in Tomasa's garden.
<strong>Left: </strong>Tomasa Noyola's life has not been easy, but her resilience and her work as an activist helped her overcome difficult environments. <strong>Right:</strong> Digna is one of Tomasa's grandchildren.
/ Tania Barrientos
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Tania Barrientos
Left: Tomasa Noyola's life has not been easy, but her resilience and her work as an activist helped her overcome difficult environments. Right: Digna is one of Tomasa's grandchildren.

One of the consequences of all this is the high rate of maternal deaths that Guerrero faced for several years, when compared to the national average. It has been reduced slightly in recent years, most likely thanks to the social pressure that, for some years, several civil organizations have been doing, working to encourage various groups of Indigenous and Afro-descendant women to autonomously develop local actions and strategies to deal with these problems.

Carnizuelo is a plant with thorns that keeps ants inside that sting very painfully. Tania Barrientos says she's heard stories in the Costa Chica region in which the plant is used to punish people.
/ Tania Barrientos
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Tania Barrientos
Carnizuelo is a plant with thorns that keeps ants inside that sting very painfully. Tania Barrientos says she's heard stories in the Costa Chica region in which the plant is used to punish people.

These efforts materialized with the creation of a space specialized in maternal health and reproductive rights, which serves Indigenous, non-Indigenous and Afro-Mestizo women with an intercultural approach who require care during their pregnancies and at the time of delivery. This space is the CAMI Nellys Palomo Indigenous Women's Health House, coordinated and cared for by traditional Tu'unsavi (Mixteco) and Me'phaa (Tlapanecas) midwives.

CAMI was established in 2011 in San Luis Acatlán, one of the communities on the Costa Chica de Guerrero, located on the border with the Montaña region of the state. Its location is strategic, with the majority of users being Indigenous women who live in remote communities in that region and who hardly have access to official health services, whose coverage and infrastructure are insufficient.

Marina Diaz is an Amuzgo woman who has done social work for the women of her community and for some years at the CAMI house in Ometepec, where she regularly receives pregnant women from various communities and gives them intercultural support during their delivery process.
/ Tania Barrientos
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Tania Barrientos
Marina Diaz is an Amuzgo woman who has done social work for the women of her community and for some years at the CAMI house in Ometepec, where she regularly receives pregnant women from various communities and gives them intercultural support during their delivery process.
Leonides García is a Tlapaneco midwife in the delivery room in CAMI.
/ Tania Barrientos
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Tania Barrientos
Leonides García is a Tlapaneco midwife in the delivery room in CAMI.

The women who work at CAMIs play an important role within their communities — like Apolonia Plácido, the president and one of the founders of the CAMI San Luis Acatlán, who organizes mainly Tlapaneco and Mixteco women with knowledge in traditional midwifery who are also provided with constant training through workshops and activities that take place in CAMI.

One of the rooms in the CAMI used for the pregnant women and their families to rest during their deliveries.
/ Tania Barrientos
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Tania Barrientos
One of the rooms in the CAMI used for the pregnant women and their families to rest during their deliveries.
Paula Cano, a traditional midwife, holds her youngest child, who suffers a disability in her motor system. Paula thinks her daughter's disability is a result of her cesarean birth and because she wasn't allowed to keep the placenta to conduct the proper rituals.
/ Tania Barrientos
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Tania Barrientos
Paula Cano, a traditional midwife, holds her youngest child, who suffers a disability in her motor system. Paula thinks her daughter's disability is a result of her cesarean birth and because she wasn't allowed to keep the placenta to conduct the proper rituals.
<strong>Left: </strong>One of the streets painted in the community of San Marquitos Oaxaca and Marlene, one of Emma's daughters, resting on a hammock. <strong>Right:</strong><em> </em>Hair of a young Afro-descendant woman touched by another woman during one of the activities of the sixth Afro-descendant women's meetings in the Costa Chica of Oaxaca.
/ Tania Barrientos
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Tania Barrientos
Left: One of the streets painted in the community of San Marquitos Oaxaca and Marlene, one of Emma's daughters, resting on a hammock. Right: Hair of a young Afro-descendant woman touched by another woman during one of the activities of the sixth Afro-descendant women's meetings in the Costa Chica of Oaxaca.
Basil flowers used along with bathing are recommended by midwives for women who recently gave birth to accelerate their recovery process.
/ Tania Barrientos
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Tania Barrientos
Basil flowers used along with bathing are recommended by midwives for women who recently gave birth to accelerate their recovery process.

Within the traditional practices that are used in the CAMI for maternal health care is the use of plants with healing properties during labor to facilitate it, and after it for the recovery of the mother. This knowledge represents, on the one hand, the ability of these women to preserve through memory and oral tradition, the wisdom inherited from their ancestors, and on the other, the ability to self-manage their own health and that of their communities in deprived contexts of services and medicines, and where health unfortunately continues to be a great privilege.

The women coordinators and midwives of CAMI houses have managed to change the narrative in which Indigenous women have historically been portrayed as victims, denying them recognition as agents of change that they have been in various social struggles.

When Aurea Sorroza (left) was young, she always smoked tobacco leaf cigars. She believes the smoke she exhaled from those cigars protected her from bad air.
/ Tania Barrientos
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Tania Barrientos
When Aurea Sorroza (left) was young, she always smoked tobacco leaf cigars. She believes the smoke she exhaled from those cigars protected her from bad air.
Muicle leaves are used and recommended by midwives for women who suffer from anemia during their pregnancies. The leaves are drunk in tea.
/ Tania Barrientos
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Tania Barrientos
Muicle leaves are used and recommended by midwives for women who suffer from anemia during their pregnancies. The leaves are drunk in tea.
Emma (left), who possesses great knowledge of plants along with many of the women along the Costa Chica regions of Guerrero and Oaxaca, uses the Hoja Santa leaves (right) as healing pads for her grandchildren when they have a cold. The leaves are heated in the stove and placed with ointments on a patient's chest or back.
/ Tania Barrientos
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Tania Barrientos
Emma (left), who possesses great knowledge of plants along with many of the women along the Costa Chica regions of Guerrero and Oaxaca, uses the Hoja Santa leaves (right) as healing pads for her grandchildren when they have a cold. The leaves are heated in the stove and placed with ointments on a patient's chest or back.
<strong>Left: </strong>Maria Adelaida, an Amuzgo traditional midwife from CAMI house Ometepec, lives in Paso Cuahulote. In her town, few people can pay for her services and so she survives on the "scholarship" she receives from working at CAMI. <strong>Right:</strong> The Guadalupe Virgin drawn by a child who came with her mother looking for legal and psychological support.
/ Tania Barrientos
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Tania Barrientos
Left: Maria Adelaida, an Amuzgo traditional midwife from CAMI house Ometepec, lives in Paso Cuahulote. In her town, few people can pay for her services and so she survives on the "scholarship" she receives from working at CAMI. Right: The Guadalupe Virgin drawn by a child who came with her mother looking for legal and psychological support.

The Houses of Indigenous Women are part of a project promoted by the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous People, with the collaboration of ONU Mujeres and various civil society organizations, to promote sexual and reproductive health and prevent gender violence against women, among Indigenous people. In 2007, the model of care for reproductive violence and health in Indigenous areas was designed, which has allowed the expansion of the proposal to 15 states and the installation of 18 houses throughout México.

These women have shown great resilience and wisdom to manage economic resources and contribute to the sustainable use of natural resources for their families and communities, making use of their traditional knowledge and practices for their benefit.

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

Tomasa holding a rose from her garden.
/ Tania Barrientos
/
Tania Barrientos
Tomasa holding a rose from her garden.

Tania Barrientos
Estefania Mitre
Estefania Mitre (she/her/ella) is a production assistant for social media who works with visual elements to amplify stories across platforms. She has experience reporting on culture, social justice and music.