JUCHITÁN DE ZARAGOZA, Oaxaca - Marluu Ferretti climbs into a chair at the local beauty salon to get her hair done for the annual festivity known as Vela de la Santa Cruz de Los Pescadores, one of roughly 25 fiestas held in Spring to honor the Patron Saint of Juchitán Vicente Ferrer. As the hairdresser transforms Marluu's bushy curls into one big iconic Mexican braid, she says she’s looking forward to dancing and drinking at the party. She watches her transformation carefully in the mirror as Culture Club’s Karma Chameleon plays on her cellphone.
Marluu is a "muxe," a term derived from the ancient Zapotec dialect to describe a community of gay men who date heterosexual men while dressing as women, sometimes assuming traditional female roles within the family and society.
“They say God gave St. Ferrer a bag of muxes to spread across Mexico and the entire continent. But upon arriving in Juchitán, the bag broke and he spilled them all,” Marluu says with a shy smile.
Back in the United States, muxes may not be spreading across the continent, but the awareness that some people don’t see their gender as fixed or exclusively male or female is on the rise.
Approximately 50 percent of young Americans in a Fusion poll think that gender is not binary, but falls on a spectrum. High-and low-profile trans people alike have begun to teach the nation about who they are and what their life experience has been. It’s been a remarkable time for the transgender community, although discrimination and outright violence remain an everyday part of life.
Muxes, though, are different. Their roots in the region go back to at least the 1950s and —though documentation is sparse— likely far deeper into the region’s indigenous past. They are different from the American trans movement and not really part of the larger global LGBTQ community. The muxe tradition is local and indigenous, and its own thing.
As an outsider, one can’t help but wonder what we might learn about gender everywhere by looking at this one remote town where gender norms have been openly challenged for decades. And as the trans movement gains steam in the United States and elsewhere, what might it do for or to the muxe tradition?
“I consider myself gay and muxe. I’m gay the moment I’m behaving as a boy, and I’m a muxe the moment I’m behaving as a girl. It’s a duality I have inside me. It’s two in one and that’s the only way I don’t lose my essence,” Marluu says.
This kind of duality intrigued a boom of anthropologists that began visiting and studying the muxes in the 1980s. They talked about muxes as an example of a third gender, a sign that perhaps gender norms are not as fixed as they appear. And relative to the rest of the world, to many of these anthropologists, it seemed like the people of Juchitán were remarkably accepting of gender-fluid residents.
Marluu’s hairdresser finishes up, the left side of her head adorned with multi-colored flowers. It’s time to get dressed for the party. She says she hopes to find a “real man” —someone who can make her feel more like a woman.
“It’s man and woman,” Marluu says, “not muxe and muxe, or gay and gay like in other places. Here it’s muxe and man.”
Marluu and her companion Edder Chicuellar, a local visual artist who has befriended many of the town’s muxes, invite me to join them at the fishermen's celebration. They say it won't be the typical November muxe vela, a party that “celebrates sexual diversity.” But we’ll still get to meet plenty of muxes at the party.
The town is famous throughout Oaxaca for its fiesta culture. Juchitecos are known as some of Mexico’s best party hosts. If they see you with only one beer in your hand, they’ll hand you another. It's at these parties where the community bonds over brews, seeming to form a momentary environment where the line between biological women and muxes blurs.
Scorn and discrimination are reserved for people who don’t have a drink in their hand.
Edder says muxes are welcome at the fishermen party, but are often prohibited from entering other town events "dressed or disguised as women.” Even when they are allowed in, they sometimes get treated differently from the other men and women at the party, to the point where they have their own bathrooms. It's not exactly done as a courtesy; it's because other partygoers have complained that the muxes make them feel uncomfortable, or flirt with their husbands. Edder says all that's just an excuse for discrimination.
“Muxes are not considered men or women,” Edder explains; “they’re often seen as a third gender.”
The concept is evolving.
Some muxes chose to live fulltime as women, while others have a more nuanced and fluctuating gender identity. In some parts of Mexico they're marginalized, but in Juchitán they tend to play a more integral role in society as teachers, nurses, caregivers, seamstresses and event planners, among other professions.
Anthropologists and outside observers have further muddled the muxe identity with strict and prescriptive definitions that miss the mark, Edder says. “Many foreigners have come to Juchitán and left with the wrong impressions,” he says. “Some say there is a muxe in every family, and that having one is considered a blessing. That isn’t necessarily the case.”
He says there are some families that love, accept and even encourage muxes. But others discourage or prohibit that type of “behavior.”
Marluu and Edder say Juchitán's status as a muxe haven has to do more with the fact they're more visible here than anywhere else, thanks to the town's reputation for tolerance and “permissiveness.”
Yet “some muxes have been beaten and even killed,” Edder says. Juchitán is not exactly the ‘Queer Paradise’ many outsiders make it out to be.
“To call yourself a muxe you have to have been born in a Zapotec place,” insists Cony Canseco, a leader of Juchitán's department of sexual diversity who has been involved in organizing parties for many years with the famous muxe clan called The Authentic Intrepid Seekers of Danger. “Those who live outside [town] are gay,” she claims.
Others argue that’s no longer the case and that a muxe doesn’t necessarily have to be born in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region, where Juchitán resides.
The debate is ongoing and complicated, and appropriate for a land as complex as Oaxaca. “Don’t try to understand it too much,” says the driver who took us into Juchitán, “Oaxacans have a reputation for even managing to mix up their cheese.” He’s referring to the interwoven strings that shape a chaotic mozzarella-like ball known as queso oaxaca — which serves as a textbook metaphor for the intricacy of the state, the Isthmus and Juchitán.
Just as Oaxaca, Juchitán has a unique identity and culture that is difficult to pin down or strictly define. What everyone seems to agree on is that both the state and town have been forged in part through a history of resistance. Oaxaca is home to the country’s largest and most diverse indigenous populations. Federal institutions and rule of law still seem like foreign constructs to many local communities that enjoy a de facto autonomy through a system known as usos y costumbres — or “uses and customs.”
This spirit of rebellion, subversion or autonomy — depending on the lens you're viewing it from — seems to permeate every element of life.
The town is often described by outsiders as a “matriarchy,” a place where strong women call the shots and submissive husbands stay at home — in essence, a reversal of machista Mexico.
But it’s more complicated than that, says Guadalupe Peralta, a local researcher at the University of Papaloapan (UNPA) who studies female political participation in the region. A large percentage of male juchitecos are fishermen or farm workers who leave the house before sunrise and return home to rest in the afternoon.
That leaves the women to bring the product to market. Their economic role has translated into more social freedom.
“Women here don’t need men to go out and dance, drink, or smoke, because we’re the ones earning the money,” says Xóchitl Vicente, a Oaxacan state public education advisor.
Some think this concept of “matriarchy” is only a facade, pointing out that till this day there hasn’t been a single female municipal president in Juchitán.
Most still signal the town’s “strong” women as an important influence that has given rise to the muxes. However, within the region, there's still debate whether muxes are born or formed by society. Some say mothers encourage it since childbirth, especially in families without daughters. Others argue these men are born gay and society foists the role of muxe upon them.
Nelson Hernández, a muxe who identifies as “Isabella,” says she doesn't feel comfortable dressing as a woman “out of respect” for her family and the school where she teaches. “My mom tells me that since I was two years old I showed feminine aptitudes,” she says,“But I didn’t call myself a muxe, society did.”
Nelson says that her identity as a "label" became a self-fulfilling prophecy that she eventually grew into.
Others, in Juchitán and abroad, have embraced the muxe label to define their life experience, which doesn’t exactly fall under a western sexual orientation or gender category.
MUXES OF LOS ANGELES
While muxes may have a distinct identity in Oaxaca, they are not immune to the global forces of migration and the interchange of ideas about gender. Take Maritza Sanchez. She moved to Torrance, California from Santa Ana del Valle, a small town in Oaxaca, in 1988. She started out living in a house with 15 straight men. “Every weekend they would hit the bars looking for girls,” she says.
In Oaxaca, she had not been a muxe, but in southern California, she began to undergo a sexual and gender transformation. It took her a few years to meet homosexual men and immerse herself in the gay club scene. “But I still didn’t feel satisfied,” she says.
“My transformation began in an L.A. beauty cross-dressing contest. The first time I wore makeup… that was the day I had been waiting for all my life.”
She went to a store to buy discount accessories and shoes. “When I looked at myself in the mirror I thought to myself: this is what I want.”
For Maritza, being a muxe means belonging to a third gender. “A muxe can have the best and worst of both man and woman,” she says. “I consider myself a muxe because I live as a woman, my significant other is an heterosexual man and he’s not uncomfortable seeing me as a man but prefers to see me as a woman,” she says.
Maritza dresses as a man to attend her job as a waiter in L.A.
“I was born a man but have assumed the role of a woman, I clean my house, cook, and he calls me his woman,” she adds.
But to others in Los Angeles, Maritza is a drag queen, classed in with a segment of the queer community that has its own norms and rules that don’t have their origins in Zapotec culture. Yet she sees a difference between herself and these other people.
“A transvestite is a boy who dresses as a girl,” she says. A muxe dresses with his traditional huipiles and enaguas, is proud of where she comes from. It’s a role where culture plays a fundamental part that is aligned with sexuality,” Maritza explains. “A muxe is a traditional woman: she feels dreamed about.”
“I want a macho,” says Maritza, “un hombre hecho y derecho that can take me as a woman, for him to be a gentleman and I a lady.”
Even in L.A., muxe is becoming a term adopted by men who don’t fall neatly into the categories of queer culture, gay, transvesitite or transexual. Maritza thinks the term could some day become mainstream and adopted by men who don't necessarily have any ties to Juchitán.
CROWNING A QUEEN
Back in the outskirts of Juchitán we meet with Shaula Zoe, who is helping organize the crowning of a muxe queen. She first takes us along to see Cheché, a gay stylist whose parlor has become the go-to beauty salon for many muxes who need a magic touch for a special occasion.
“I like people’s reaction upon seeing me with makeup and fully dressed,” Shaula says. “That’s what fulfills me, being able to transform. Right now I feel like the illusion I always want to be. I wish I could look like this constantly.”
She washes her face and sits in the main chair. Cheché, wearing shorts and a ragged shirt with smeared makeup, starts working his fingers through Shaula’s features. He’s seen this canvass before, knows exactly what needs to be done.
“I love to bring out the eyes,” Cheché says.
“We’re women trapped in men’s bodies,” Shaula explains as Cheché covers her skin in a layer of foundation.
“Biologically we’re men. Men are naturally wired to procreate, machos mate. We might think like women, but our organisms are still that of men.”
Sex can be easy for a muxe, but finding love is hard. “We fall in love with men who have a life, have girlfriends, men who ultimately like women,” Shaula explains. “Our relationships are momentary. I’ve been in love endless times.”
Shaula says she’s learned “to enjoy the moment” throughout the years and not worry. “A man will never commit to a muxe because he wants to eventually build a life with a woman.”
Family relations are also difficult. Shaula says she had a hard time opening up to her parents.
“I told my mom I was muxe; told her not to expect a family, children, or a girlfriend.”
Her family was supportive but told her to be careful of the intolerance of others. “There’s been cases of muxes who have been assassinated here. I don’t know the real motives. But I think it’s about homophobia. There’s tolerance and respect, but only up to a certain point.”
We ride with Shaula to Santo Domingo Tehuantepec, another neighboring municipality where the crowning of a new queen is about to take place at the annual Sol en Luna vela -— The Sun in Moon party.
We attend the regada, which literally means to “spill.” It’s called that because during the parade the muxe queen literally throws little goodies throughout the streets. Somehow we end at another party with plenty of color, dancing, booze, food and muxes.
The beers are flowing; it's our last day in the land of muxes.
Whether or not Juchitán’s muxes adopt the current trans thinking that’s being popularized in the United States, they do face similar challenges as other members of the broader LGBTQ community. Like some other gay communities, there are starting to be cases of HIV-infection. Sexual education and promoting a culture of prevention in a town as remote as Juchitán has proven to be a difficult task, in spite of the tireless work of those fighting to raise awareness.
Naomi, an activist who took her name from British supermodel Naomi Campbell, has adopted some of the terminology of the current trans movement. While most other muxes don’t see their gender identity as something that they change permanently, scooting back and forth between male and female roles, Naomi claims to be the first fully transitioned at Juchitán’s Technological Institute.
Living as a woman persistently, she began to use the women’s bathroom at her college. “When I entered the women’s restroom, several female students complained to the administration,” Naomi says. “There was always a cop at the bathroom. He said I couldn’t go in either the women’s or men’s room. I told him, 'Where do you want me to do my necessities?’”
Naomi fought back and eventually got her own key to access the teacher’s bathroom.
Some muxes say it’s not only a matter of fighting society’s conservative ways and prejudice but managing to overcome a lack of unity within their own community.
“There’s a lot of hypocrisy," Marluu alleges; “there’s still no brotherhood.” She believes muxes first need to accept themselves before they can be embraced by society as a whole.
“We muxes denigrate, insult and humiliate each other,” she says. “There’s jealousy because you’re younger or prettier, or because some have breasts, or others are more frequented by men.”
Superficial brawls aside, muxes must also face deep emotional obstacles. Although some claim they have achieved steady relationships, many say the heterosexual men they pursue will eventually chose a biological woman over them.
“Solitude is an integral part of the muxe life. It’s difficult to have a partner; most people who have approached me have done so for economic reasons,” says Julio César Fuentes, a 48-year-old muxe who works as a preschool teacher.
Some of the self-identified straight men who frequent muxes are locally referred to as “mayates,” or dung beetles. It’s a derogatory term for local boys who prostitute themselves to the muxes. “Many of them are in high school or college,” says Edder. “They might have a job, but want the easy money.”
Ruben Martínez, a muxe known as “Rubitch” who's preparing to become this year’s first queen of Juchitán, says there’s also a tradition of fathers bringing their sons to a muxe for their first sexual experience.
But there's not always an economic transaction involved, says Julio, “Some mayates seek to satisfy buried desires that they can’t fulfill or are not allowed to do with their girlfriends or wifes.”
Julio believes the term mayate is not a pejorative, rather an expression of Mexican mischievousness or picardía like how some town folks compare them to lizards and iguanas because “they’re always climbing from limb to limb.”
Back in L.A. Maritza says that when she first started dating heterosexual men, she was very nervous about revealing who she really was. She claims finding a “straight” man who’s willing to fully love and accept you can be hard, but sometimes the truth renders unexpected results.
“He treated me like a woman, but I had to tell him I wasn’t one,” Maritza says. “We would go out in the park, have dinner, but nothing happened. I was afraid to kiss him, thinking that if he found out he would harm me. One day we were in his car and I told him I needed to confess something; I told him I was born a man. He was shocked, took his time, then said: 'I don’t care, to me you’re a woman, and I want to be with you.’”
The muxes not only can complicate mainstream society’s takes on sex and gender, but those on love as well. In the end, it seems the heart wants what the heart wants.
NO ‘STRAIGHT’ ANSWERS
Gubidxa Guerrero, a Juchitán born and based anthropologist, says the connotation of “gay” in the rest of Mexico is mainly based on sexual preference. “This isn’t the main aspect in our community; the main aspect is the social role a muxe adopts,” he says.
However, Guerrero acknowledges the concept of muxe is evolving and many of them, specially those within a younger generation that are undergoing hormone therapy and sex change operations, are jumping the boundaries that divide muxes and women. “A re-definition will come, many will become women and society will have to recognize them as that and not necessarily muxes,” Guerrero theorizes. In his view, new generations will inevitably leave the muxe classification and assume a woman’s full identity.
In spite of the muxe concept facing inevitable meaning modifications in the following years, Guerrero alleges Juchitán will “always be one step ahead” of the rest of the country when it comes to sexuality and gender. “We are already many generations ahead,” he claims.
So what can the global LGBTQ community learn from this alleged fast-paced “progressiveness” of Juchitán’s muxes? Guerrero believes they can first and foremost grasp how not to look at themselves as a minority.
“They can statistically be a minority, but not socially,” Guerrero says pointing out muxe dynamics in Juchitán. “When a community assumes itself as a minority it’s already at a disadvantage; socially, politically and culturally speaking, basically in all aspects of life.”
“Other [LGBTQ] community members can learn to carry themselves naturally, neither as extraordinary beings nor as [bichos raros] weirdos,” he concludes.
He adds those muxes that leave Juchitán to travel and migrate will influence others way more than what others influence them. “Muxes are extremely proud of their social roles; too proud to let too much foreign culture and views in.”
But this cultural protectionism that some juchitecos boast does not necessarily apply to everyone.
Take Sebastián López, a high school juchiteca lesbian (called nguiu’ in Zapotec dialect) undergoing testosterone injections in an effort to become a man. Sebastián has befriended many transgender people in other parts of Mexico and the world through social networks like Facebook and has taken to YouTube to video blog about his transformation. Sebastián says he’s used the Internet to conduct research on his case, learning how people outside Juchitán classify his sexuality and gender and the options he has to turn his physique into that of a male.
“My mom didn't know I was getting testosterone injections but then my voice started to change and at first she thought I was getting a cold or something. After three months my period stopped; that was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Sebastián says half-joking.
Although he’s aware of the side effects such as mood swings and potentially developing cancer, Sebastián claims he’d never been so happy with what he sees in the mirror. “I started to grow a small mustache... I really want a full grown beard like other transexuals,” he says.
Sebastián explains his abuelita is paying for his injections without his grandfather knowing. “I want to lose my breasts and enter college with my new name.” He looks forward to leaving Juchitán.
Many believe the new world order of interconnectivity and immigration will inevitably create an intersection between the muxe culture and the American LGBTQ community in due time. Some within the community argue this is already happening.
Miriam López, a main organizer of the annual muxe party in L.A., says she’s witnessing a growing trend of local Mexican-Americans who are not from Oaxaca yet they are calling themselves muxes to describe their gender and sexuality. López says these muxes are actively participating in the annual gay pride parades of Los Angeles and Long Beach. “The LGBTQ community here is getting to know the word muxe and learning about their presence,” she says. “They are starting to become a subgroup within the larger collective.”
The deeper cultural aspects of muxes will remain in Juchitán but perhaps, driven by the global forces of immigration and Internet connectivity, the concept of muxes and their unique take on sex and gender will form part of the broader LGBTQ community outside southern Mexico. Perhaps the muxe word will be exported so that other people, not necessarily born and raised in Juchitán, can adopt a term that describes what they are and allows them to present themselves to the rest of the world. Hopefully, it will also encourage others both inside and outside the LGBTQ community, in the words of muxe Shaula Zoe, to “live and let live.”
Text and video by:
Rafa Fernandez de Castro
Video Editing by: