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Catolicadas: A Cartoon Series Animating Thought and Debate

AWID spoke to Maria Consuelo Mejía, Executive Director of Catolicas por el Derecho a Decidir México (Catholics for the Right to Decide, CDD-MX) about a successful and innovative approach they began using in their advocacy in 2012. 

Maria Consuelo has led CDD Mexico for 15 years, and has dedicated a good part of her life to trying to understand and break down the Catholic hierarchy's fierce opposition to women's autonomy[1]. In 2012, in a departure from previous methods, CDD-MX launched an animated series, Catolicadas, centered around two main characters: Father Beto, a very conservative priest, and Sister Juana, an outspoken and progressive nun. The series was disseminated simultaneously on TV and online and has attracted over 2 million hits on YouTube. Its popularity landed the series a regular spot on national TV, and as they begin the fifth season, Maria Consuelo Mejía, reflects on the experiences and learnings from producing Catolicadas.  

In each episode, Sister Juana challenges Father Beto's conservative ideas and puts forward progressive ones that reflect a more respectful, loving, and inclusive church. The aim of the series is to demonstrate, using CDD-MX's own researchand polling data, as well as the Church's history and texts, to highlight the inconsistencies of the Catholic hierarchy's positions when compared to the lived experiences of Catholic believers and arguments of the Catholic tradition. The series was produced as part of a campaign to stimulate public debate on the role and influence of the Church hierarchy's teachings in Mexican society.

The development of the series and of each storyline relies on a winning formula; the use of respectful humour and data that challenges the Church from within; the Church's own history and teachings; and the disjunction between the teachings of the mainstream Church with the actual lived experiences of believers. 

The idea first occurred to Maria Consuelo when she saw a few brief clips of The Adventures of Salwa[2] at an AWID strategy meeting on challenging religious fundamentalisms in Turkey. The series specifically addresses the issue of sexual harassment and has a very different style than Catolicadas, but the medium immediately captured Maria Consuelo's imagination, as she was able to see great possibilities and potential. Back home in Mexico, she shared the clips with her colleagues, and the brainstorming began. Within months, CDD-MX was creating its very own cartoon series.

CDD-MX began producing Catolicadas episodes as one-offs, to air on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube on specific days, such as International Women's Day or the Catholic Church's World Youth Day. However, when feminist leader Marta Lamas who works with the main TV channel in Mexico saw the series, she offered her air time to present the first two episodes of Catolicadas on the popular breakfast program, El Mañanero, on March 8th, 2012. The overwhelming response led to an offer of regular timeslots, and suddenly CDD-MX had to ramp up production to two episodes a month, a great challenge when considering how intensive the process of producing each episode is.  

Although it has been difficult to keep up with the sheer scale of the popular response, CDD-MX has conducted two surveys via Facebook in 2012 and 2013, to gain a better insight into their audience demographics and into what issues are most relevant and compelling to them. Both surveys collected responses from about 1,700 Facebook followers over a two-week period. And among the most compelling data gathered "were those related with the changes the series has provoked:  around one fourth of respondents said they feel better about their sexual and reproductive lives; around two thirds said they realize men and women should have the same rights within the Church; and around one fifth said their attitudes towards a woman's right to decide changed positively; two of every three respondents said they are willing to support an initiative launched by CDD." Other findings revealed that 20% of viewers actually do not identify with any religion.

The response to Catolicadas has been largely positive in Mexico and Latin America. The official Church hierarchy has preferred to remain silent, with only one bishop openly critical. Elsewhere in the region, CDD Argentina and Honduras have begun to show the series on TV. CDD Honduras has also begun using the series in workshops, to help women who have had or are planning to have an abortion resolve inner conflicts over their difficult decisions. Maria Consuelo questions whether the Church's silence has in fact been a strategy to avoid giving the series any more attention or publicity than it has already gained. As for other opponents, there have been two prominent individuals who publicly voiced their opposition to Catolicadas: one created an 'Anti-Catolicadas' Facebook page, and the other has used his regular air time on Mexican TV to aggressively criticize and defame the work of CDD-MX.  

The challenges in developing and producing Catolicadas were varied. For instance, CDD-MX needed to translate complex arguments and information from the Catholic tradition and their own research and messaging into very brief two to three minute scripts, but in a way that did not appear didactic or preaching. The process of reaching a consensus between various people, including CDD-MX, the publicist, producer, and script-writer, all of whom had their own perspectives and opinions was also lengthy and complicated. Maria Consuelo recalls that discussions on scripts and storylines were intense; "we were worried that it would go too far." The level of staff commitment and engagement to produce the series was also not something CDD-MX had anticipated, as it was a completely new medium; each episode requires the input and efforts of 15 people.

An outcome CDD-MX did not foresee was the sudden success and popularity of the series. Not having enough resources to meet all the interest from viewers, Maria Consuelo notes that they haven't engaged directly with Catolicadas' followers on social media. Yet discussion threads following CDD-MX's video posts clearly show there is a wide and devoted fan base that defends Catolicadas online. Indeed, at the time of writing, the Anti-Catolicadas Facebook page had just over 500 'likes', while the CDD Mexico page had over 166,000, for some anecdotal evidence. 

In the end, while the learning curve has been steep, CDD-MX has been able to use the medium of animation to disseminate their ideas to a much broader audience than ever before, in an accessible and engaging format. It has also been able to significantly increase public support for its messages.  "This" says Maria Consuelo, "is one of the most outstanding achievements of Catolicadas." 

[1] The CDD network in Latin America has presence in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, México, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Perú; CDD Spain is also a member of the network. The network is comprised of Catholic individuals, mainly women, who produce and disseminate research that provides solid arguments that support the right to decide and defend the rights of women from a Catholic feminist perspective to help close the gap between sexual and reproductive rights on the one hand, and social justice, poverty and democracy on the other.
[2] The Adventures of Salwa was disseminated by Nasawiya, a young feminist network in Lebanon, as part of a campaign to raise awareness and encourage discussion about the problem of sexual harassment.
Latin America