Black Women Are Transforming the World of Instagram Mermaids
The carefree aesthetic is appealing for many, but the inclusion also is full of political purpose
Evelyn still remembers the nickname her elementary school classmates assigned her: the mermaid. She was the strongest swimmer in her class; her mother had to fight to get Evelyn out of water when she swam at the Malecón — a large sea wall near the ocean — in Cuba, where she spent part of her childhood. Evelyn eventually decided to make her love of the ocean official: In 2014, she traveled to the Philippines to learn how to scuba dive.
“I realized that I just didn’t want to be on land anymore,” she tells me.
Since then, Evelyn has worked in a library, as a waiter, and as a lifeguard, but the profession she considers her calling is performing as a professional mermaid. In her mersona as Mermaid Esmerelda Mila, she teaches children about sustainability and biodiversity. Her love of the ocean is pure and genuine — yet it’s been tainted by discrimination that she’s encountered on the job.
Most of the time, Instagram’s professional mermaids infuse the digital world with beauty and magic. The average person can’t extract a service or buy a product from them (unless they’re planning a kid’s birthday). Merfolk exist simply to be enjoyed and to sprinkle enchantment into the monotony of everyday life. It’s also an overwhelmingly White social media niche. For years, people of color have been pushing for more diversity among merfolk, but they face a community finally reckoning with its lack of inclusivity and representation for the first time.
In 2018, Evelyn made her professional mermaid debut in a video featuring four other South Floridian mermaids. One of the other mermaids touched her tail and said, “Oh, you look like the frog princess mermaid.” At first, Eveyln considered the comment a compliment. But when she got home, she realized she had been flippantly compared to the only Black Disney princess, and it rubbed her the wrong way. The following year, Evelyn traveled to the World Mermaid Championships, where she met just one other Black woman mermaid. After that, Evelyn says it became her “mission to find out where the Black mermaids are hiding.” It hasn’t been easy.