While the “machismo” social construct continues to root deeply in Mexican culture, and homophobic sentiment still runs high, it may come as a surprise to hear that the country is also home to one of the most gender-bending societies to date; and it’s allegedly been that way for thousands of years.
Nestled near the Guatemalan border and a six hour drive from the southern city of Oaxaca sits the dusty district of Juchitan. Not a lot goes on around here, and from a distance the townspeople appear to pursue the mundane rituals of work life and getting their hair done. It’s not until you notice the extravagant make up, fluttering false eyelashes of the hairdresser and the masculine build beneath her summer dress that you realize something beautiful is going on in Juchitan.
Meet the Muxes. Not woman, nor man, but considered a gender of it’s own. Muxes (pronounced moo-shays) is a term is derived from ancient Zapotec dialect to define the vast community of gay men who choose to dress as women and assume “traditional female roles” while dating heterosexual men. This Muxe identity is actually considered a third gender of it’s own and it’s indigenous roots have made it so widely accepted that the international public has dubbed Juchitan as a “Queer Paradise”
Legend has it that God gave San Vicente Ferrer, patron saint of Juchitan, a bagful of queers, and everywhere he travelled, he left behind a Muxe. But when he reached Juchitan, Vincente’s bag came undone, spilling all the Muxes out in the town. According to The New York Times, anthropologists believe the acceptance of people of mixed gender can be traced to pre-Columbian Mexico accounts of Aztec priests and Mayan gods who cross-dressed and were considered both male and female.
It’s considered a blessing in each household to have a muxe and young boys are welcomed, if not, encouraged, to grow into his effeminate traits. A culture where witchcraft is practiced, some midwives would even anoint the birth of a muxe. But what makes this community a prized possession in Zapotec culture is their hard-working reputation that champions them as the breadwinners of the family in the local community. In this matriarchal society, they’re the ones that are making the buck; muxes are usually the shop owners, the teachers, the hairdressers, embroiderers, they are the ones running the show. The beautiful Tehuantepec fabrics are distributed across Mexico and beyond, a vibrant style inspiring the likes of artist Frida Kahlo. It’s in tradition that they assert the role of providing for their parents until they die and are recognized as an integral component of family life.
The gender fluidity doesn’t have a certain structure: Some muxes take hormones to change their bodies, some are considered vestidas (wearing female clothes) or pintadas (wearing male clothes and make-up).
Although it challenges binary gender norms, the indigenous community is not really synonymous with the global LGBQT movement. It’s more of a cultural thing. Anthropologists had begun travelling to Juchitan in the 1980’s to study the remarkable gender duality in such a remote town. Gender norms were more or less dismissed here, so what did that say about the rest of the so-called “progressive” West?
But it’s complicated: While there’s no exact number of individuals that identify as muxe, it’s evident that there is a large margin and heated debates live on what exactly a muxe is. Some say you are not considered one unless you are born in Isthmus of Tehuantepec region. They say that if you are born outside of the village you are gay and cannot be granted muxe status. Most are accepting but there are always places that don’t allow it.
If you’re in Oaxaca at the right time, you’ll catch the three-day festival called Vela de Las Intrépidas — or Vigil of the Intrepids. Created in the 1970s, the festival is dedicated to muxes but celebrated by all, as they flock by the thousand from all across Mexico. This late November fiesta is marked on every muxe’s calendar and hairdresser appointments are all booked up months in advance.
This is a festival with all frills included: Dancing street parades, monumental floats, intricately sequined costumes and glitz galore. The best part of the event is not only the coronation of the queen but the gorgeous outfits that the muxes had been working on all year. This is a time where they can celebrate sexual diversity and gender fluidity. They can laugh, dance and unapologetically be who they want to be; shaking their flower crowned heads at the idea of merely confining to a sex assigned at birth.
—words by Maya Amoah