Players of "Las Diablillas de Hondzonot", pose for a picture after a softball match against "Guerreras de Piste", in Hondzonot, municipality of Tulum, Quintana Roo State, Mexico.-AFP photos

Barefoot and resplendent in traditional embroidered garments, women from an indigenous Mayan community in rural Mexico are challenging gender stereotypes and the country's machismo culture on a dusty softball field. There are no locker rooms or manicured lawns where the Little Devils of Hondzonot play visiting teams, in their village in the southeastern state of Quintana Roo. Spectators, mostly men with a beer in their hand, sit on rocks in the shade of trees to protect against the harsh sun. But the fans were not always there to cheer for the Little Devils. One of the first barriers that the team encountered was sexism, said captain Fabiola May.

"They didn't think we could play as we're women, but we've shown them that we can do just as much as men and even more," the 29-year-old said proudly. "Now our husbands support us a lot. There are still people who criticize us, but we don't care." Most of the players are mothers and housewives. Some make a living selling handicrafts-a trade that like many has become much less lucrative during the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken a heavy toll on Mexico.

A player (right) of "Las Diablillas de Hondzonot", throws the ball to a batter of "Guerreras de Piste".

'Part of us'

After more than an hour's delay, the visiting team finally took to the field. May gave final instructions to her players in the Mayan language. Their opponents on this occasion were the Piste Warriors from neighboring Yucatan state, also made up of Mayan women but competing in trousers, T-shirts and sneakers. The 20 Little Devils of Hondzonot village choose to play barefoot because they find it more comfortable. It is one of their hallmarks, along with their colorful huipil garments, embroidered by hand using techniques passed down through the generations.

"We decided to use our huipil as our uniform because it's a part of us, of our identity as Maya," said Juana Ay Ay, 37, wearing a huipil adorned with violet flowers. The traditional garment, the fruit of several months' work, helps to make the high temperatures in Quintana Roo more bearable. The Little Devils also wear earrings and makeup on the field to help mark each game as a celebration for them.

'I know we can'

The amateur team was born three years ago when the local authorities offered to teach the women of Hondzonot a sport. The official support faded away, but the players' love of the game lives on. At first they used tennis balls and borrowed equipment, but today they have their own thanks to a donation from their heroes, the Mexico City Red Devils professional baseball team. All of the Little Devils' games are friendlies. Mexico has no professional women's softball league, although there is talk of creating one.

The country qualified for the first time for the softball event at the Tokyo Olympics with a team made up mostly of players of Mexican descent who were born and compete in the United States. Mexico is number five in the women's ranking of the World Baseball Softball Confederation behind the United States, Japan, Canada and Puerto Rico. The Little Devils hope to be a part of the future success of the sport, which has been present in Mexico for more than a century.

In addition to the long-standing challenges facing their community, the coronavirus pandemic has destroyed many jobs in the tourism and construction sectors. Without money for gasoline, they can only play at home. But their experience as a team has given them inspiration for life off the field too. "Here, as you can see, there are a lot of needs and poverty," said May. "When you want to, you can. At first I didn't believe that this would happen. I said that we couldn't, but now I know we can and we'll be able to do more as a team," she said. - AFP