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Muxes: celebrating Mexico’s third gender

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Juchitán is the remote town that has been championing gender fluidity for thousands of years – we report from the annual festival that sees one ‘muxe’ crowned queen

Where Mexico gets narrow in the south just a couple of hundred miles from the Guatemalan border sits Juchitán. A six hour bus ride across the high sierra from the city of Oaxaca, for most of the year it’s a place not much visited by tourists: it’s hot and it’s busy and the mosquitos here are relentless.

But what puts this place on the map nationally and internationally are the ‘muxes’, Mexico’s ‘third gender’. Specific to the matriarchal society of Juchitán, they are boys who grow up to identify as women (not as women in general but as traditional women within the family, and within the deeply rooted indigenous culture here); who might or might not dress in women’s clothing; and who have sex with men. It’s complicated and fluid. And so deeply entrenched in the culture that it’s claimed the existence of muxes here goes back thousands of years into the beginnings of the Zapotec culture.

It’s towards the end of November, and two days before the annual Vela of the muxes, a huge festival which celebrates the third gender in all of its finery. Each year, among gowns and parades and floats and dancing through the streets, one of their number is crowned queen – but not before past queens perform a catwalk, showing off incredible outfits that have been saved up for and worked on for months.

Townspeople estimate different numbers of ‘muxes’ here: “one in ten” says local painter Michel Pineda, “five thousand” shrugs someone else. “Many” all agree, nodding, smiling and looking around them. The story goes that god gave Juchitán patron saint St Ferrer de Vincent a bag of muxes to scatter as blessings across the entire continent – however the bag broke here and they all fell onto this sweltering patch of land.

Because of that, in a country where machismo dominates, femicide is rampant and homosexuality is frequently not tolerated, Juchitan enjoys a reputation for a kind of paradisiacal tolerance. “It’s considered a blessing when a child approaches his parents to tell them he is muxe” explains local human rights lawyer and Mayra Lo Pineda. “Because it means their child will dedicate his life to looking after them physically and economically until they die”.

And here where witchcraft – black and white – is commonplace, a midwife will often intuit at birth the arrival of a muxe. They are celebrated and considered blessings and also something of a prize sexually: young men are often taken by their fathers for sexual initiation by muxe.  

But in more practical terms muxes frequently have money: rising to the task of providing for their parents, they are the teachers, the shop keepers, the ones who run the market. They sell the fish, the bread, the blouses. They embroider and make the exquisitely embroidered clothes which are sold all over Mexico.

Darina is 30. She lives in a typical Mexican house on the edge of town with her extended family: rooms surround an outdoor courtyard which is host to chickens scratching and dogs flat out in the shade and flies clotting in the dust. Palm trees wave against the blue sky and next door’s children lie limpid on a wall. In the shade a figure sits embroidering at a huge frame. He looks like a typical teenage boy: surly and concentrating in shorts and a tee shirt, yet he wears long blue earrings which tremble with every pop of his needle coming up through the fabric. Nearby an old woman, an abuela, between a picture of the last supper and a rack containing size nine or ten silver shoes, irons traditional lace ruffs which she stacks in a neat pile beside her (you would recognise them from a Frieda Kahlo self-portrait).

Darina arrives typically Mexican-late. Unfolding her large frame from the confines of a three wheel taxi, she’s wearing a short skirt and a short t-shirt emblazoned with sequins. She’s sweet and beautiful and her legs are shaved (but not that recently) and her long hair hangs loose about her face. She leads us past the boy embroidering and the abuela ironing and into her office from which she runs the sewing business which supports her family. Here her nephew – also muxe – works a sewing machine.

Darina arranges herself against the wall and reaches for a large pair of scissors with which she proceeds to cut fabric. She doesn’t look thirty. “How old?”, she quips shyly. “40 or 50?” She laughs softly, searching my face for confirmation she’s still young.  I ask her how many muxes are in her family: “two” she says and nods at her nephew, the one in the lashes. Is it unusual, I want to know, to have more than one? She shakes her head, “one or two is normal”.

“I started dressing as a woman when I was 15, and my father slapped me and my mother defended me. However from that moment I was free. Free to do and be as I wanted... Now they respect me and they accept me” – Darina

“I realised at 13 I was muxe”, she goes on, “and when I told my parents, they said they already knew. I started dressing as a woman when I was 15, and my father slapped me and my mother defended me. However from that moment I was free. Free to do and be as I wanted... Now they respect me and they accept me”. She fans her face with her large hands for a moment and then coils her beautiful hair up into a plait. There’s a fluidity and grace to her movement. Behind her on the wall are pictures of her in traditional embroidered dress: “I was crowned Queen in 2009” she says, looking at them and laughing. “I was young and very crazy back then.”

I ask if she is the main breadwinner in the family. “That’s not the way I see it” she says. “We are a very close family and we all earn money. I started this business six years ago. Before that I worked in a bar but when I met my boyfriend I wanted to do something different. Something I loved to do”.

She’s reluctant to talk about her relationship and shakes her head shyly when I ask to see a picture. “I dream that one day I can have my own house without anyone to bother me and just have my boyfriend over to stay and not fight with my parents all the time”, she says and rolls her eyes.

She’s excited about the Vela and explains its importance: “We will all have to opportunity to celebrate ourselves as we really want to be seen, to look beautiful. And I will have an opportunity to use the make up I bought months ago!”

Naomy, 23, could not be more different: slight, birdlike and more a fashion model in the way she dresses. She takes hormones and has small breasts and hips. Although family is central to her, she’s ambitious outside of the family also. She’s an activist and speaks in schools on muxe issues: sexual disease, discrimination and violence within relationships.

She claims to be one of the few muxes to have gone to university. “The problem”, she explains, “is that many of us leave school early at 14 or 15 as we are often victims of bullying from classmates”.

It’s a different story from the halcyon image painted of Juchitán. Naomy shrugs. “It’s about 20 percent who don’t accept us”, she says. “and the majority of them are men. However it’s much better than it was”.

Indeed the Vela, according to Naomy, came about forty years ago because the muxes were banned from taking part in the traditional vela and celebrations which take place in Juchitán in May. “It’s important that we can celebrate who we really are”, she says.

And now, 40 years on, it is this vela, the Vela of the Muxes which is arguably the most important here.

So what does discrimination look like on a personal level? When Naomy tells the story of when she first arrived at university, it echoes similar situations for those in education in North America and the UK: “I used the women’s bathroom” she says, “and the women complained. So I used the men’s bathroom, and the men complained. Then I had nowhere to go”.

And that, she says, was what prompted her to turn activist: “I decided to give a workshop on sexual disease. I thought 15 people were going to show up. Then 500 came… That was the moment of my life. I spoke about masturbation, and about my own sexuality. Even the teachers came and now everyone knows who I am and I even have my own bathroom”.

The youngest of eight, Naomy’s story is typical: when she was five she swapped her cars for dolls and when she was 13 she told her parents she was muxe. “My father’s reaction was very strong” she says, “he gave me a hug and said, you are my son and I love you”. And her mother spent three days “analysing it”. When she was 17 Naomy started dressing as a woman. Now Naomy is the only one living with her parents. However she doesn’t just feel responsible for her parents, she also feels responsible for the muxe community, particularly younger muxes: “I work for the Intrepidas organisation which means when a muxe has a problem within the family, I go there to negotiate, to help sort it out”.

“I decided to give a workshop on sexual disease. I thought 15 people were going to show up. Then 500 came… That was the moment of my life. I spoke about masturbation, and about my own sexuality. Even the teachers came and now everyone knows who I am and I even have my own bathroom” – Naomy

Naomy has two heroes, the first is Amaranta, a social activist for the rights of muxes and the prevention of AIDS within the community, and another muxe, America, who makes beautiful dresses and embroiders. “The first time I saw America’s body, I said one day I will have that body” she says. And does she have that body now? She shifts on her seat, looks down and smiles. “Yes. I’m happy with my body”.

When I ask her if she’d like a family of her own she clasps her face in embarrassment. “It’s very hard for muxes”, she says eventually. “Often men just want you for sex and if you are in a relationship they want to keep it secret. It’s not accepted everywhere”.

I’d heard about this before: about the mayates as they are known, the ‘dung beetles’ – the men who are with with muxes for sex and for money but remain married to women.

“It’s very difficult for muxes to find love”, Naomy goes on. “We all grow up looking for it and often we don’t find it. It’s not easy being muxe”.

She brightens at the prospect of what she will be wearing this weekend, scrolling through her phone to find pictures: an incredible champagne and gold lace gown. She excitedly talks us through the cutaways, the panelling, the exquisite lacework and the five foot train.

Neilson, a 35-year-old muxe, is different again. Aged 35, he dresses as a man (except for the odd vela or contest) and is a professor of folkloric studies and modern art at the university here. Last week at a pre-Vela Vela, Nielson got crowned queen. For his victory dance he performed a tightly choreographed and complicated dance routine wearing fishnet tights and a spangly leotard based on Christina Aguilera. “I was carried onto the stage in a heart made of lights” he says, “my father made it for me”.

“I don’t want to be a woman”, he says. “I respect women. But muxes are not women. They want to look similar sometimes. But we are not women. It’s very beautiful to be muxe, and I accept it with enormous pride.”

He hasn’t decided yet what he’s going to wear at the vela: “If you want to look amazing, there’s not a good place in town to buy a dress. You have to go either to Mexico city or have a muxe friend down here make one.”

But right now across town the hairdressers are booked up and the dressmakers are sewing around the clock, as ten thousand people from all over Mexico and beyond prepare to descend on this small town in a sweltering patch of Mexican jungle to celebrate the third sex – and to crown a new queen.