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Mexico’s Third Gender
By Herbert W. Piekow
The first time I went to the Oaxacan town of Juchitán I observed a group of soccer players with their skirts hiked up, playing hard against a team of men in tight shorts. I watched as the men’s team raced across the field when one of the ladies managed to intercept a pass and sent the ball to a teammate who made a goal. When the girls began to call to one another I realized they were men dressed as women.
Later on this trip I heard the legend of San Vincente Ferrer, the patron saint of Juchitán, which says that the good Father Ferrer received a bag full of homosexuals from God. These homosexuals were to be distributed throughout Mexico, one in each town. However, when Father Ferrer stopped to say Mass in Juchitán the muxes became so exuberant that they all burst from the sac.
Each November the city of Juchitán honors the muxes with a special Mass followed by the festival, La Vela de las Auténticas Intrépidas Buscadoras del Peligro, or Festival of the Authentic, Intrepid Danger Seekers. Last November Padre Francisco said in his sermon, “The Church sometimes doesn’t want to talk about homosexuality. But this is our church, our town.” The sermon ended with the grito, “Viva Juchitán! Viva San Vincente Ferrer!” Father Francisco recognizes and accepts that the muxes are a point of difference, but also a point of pride. He offers communion to all, no matter how they dress or how they live their lives.
Muxe (pronounced “moo-she), is a Zapotec word, which means woman. This Zapotecan word is used to describe what many in the State of Oaxaca consider the third sex. Muxe is the name given to men who choose to live their lives as women; most dress as women and many hold traditional female jobs, although some often hold corporate and political jobs.
Although sexual orientation is nothing new to society the respect and honored treatment of the muxe on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is strongly rooted in both the two thousand year old Zapotecan culture and the Catholic Church.
In a society where virginity is prized it is not uncommon for a man to have a muxe boyfriend for sexual purposes and later marry a woman by whom he can have children. And it is not a surprise that his wife go to the muxe for sexual tips. When the muxe and her macho or male love live together as sexual partners, known as mayate, the macho man is not considered a homosexual. In Mexico the space between acceptance and intolerance can be as close as the campo, where gay-bashing is not uncommon, and the city, where same-sex relationships are accepted.
The third sex, as they are sometimes referred to, holds both a social and financial position in the communities of Oaxaca. Often they are owners of small businesses, such as beauty shops, weaving establishments or a variety of tiendas that cater to the needs of their communities.
During my research I read that Juchitán’s market is one of the best places to experience the mingling of muxe with the community. There the muxes, many with silk ribbons in their hair, call out to passers-by to sample their foods, buy flowers and other wares. Perhaps the acceptance of the muxes occurred because of the relative isolation of the isthmus and the acknowledged strength of the local women. Frida Kahlo so admired these women that she often adopted their style of dress.
Oaxaca is famous for its indigenous people, black pottery, cuisine and the muxes. The town of Juchitán is the center of muxe acceptance; it is in the southern part of the Isthmus in the middle of the south of Mexico. The muxes in Juchitán cultivate and promote the aesthetics of everyday life in the town and countryside.
They are the ones who decide on the fashions, they take charge of decorating for parties with paper cut-outs, they are also experts at cooking regional foods and candies and even teach many of the dances. When a Oaxacan woman wants to look good she consults a muxe friend for advice on dress, hair style and make-up; in fact most hair salons in Juchitán are owned by muxes. When it’s time for a party they are the go-to people.
Each November the muxes celebrate with a special Mass followed by two days and nights of festivities. For “The Party of the Authentic Intrepid Ones who Search for Danger,” like most adolescents, they are taken to the festival on the arm of an older brother or father. On the first night the participants dress provocatively showing off their curves and legs. They spend the night drinking and dancing to sandunga and salsa music until someone is crowned queen.
On the second night of the party, which is called “Cleaning of the Pot,” the muxe dress modestly, “like our mothers and grandmothers,” as one said. Again the party lasts most of the night until the beer gets warm and these “women-spirits who live in men’s bodies” stumble home to their mothers’ houses.
Most people of Oaxaca believe their gender is something God has given them, whether man, woman or muxe. In Juchitán the belief is that boys are born facing up and girls are born facing down. Therefore when a boy is born facing down his mother feels blessed that she will be taken care of throughout her life by her muxe child. Traditionally women marry and move with their spouses, and although sons often take care of aging parents, it is the muxe who often provide financial and emotional support throughout their mother’s lives.
Every family considers it a blessing to have a muxe. It could be they are accepted because Oaxaca is a matriarchal society; whatever the reason, tolerance and acceptance are virtues that slowly spread and foster a loving and complete society.