Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 1.00.39 PMBy Julie Etra

This article is a continuation of the ‘Same Sex Marriage in Mexico’ article written for the Eye last year (February 2014). Please forgive any inaccuracies, as this article is based on a face-to-face interview, several, publications, and research in Spanish conducted on the web.

The word muxe (pronounced MOO-shay) is a Zapotec word based on the Spanish mujer (woman), and is reserved for people born as male but feel themselves to be female. The Muxe are unique to Oaxaca, in particular the southern coastal area known as the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and Juchitan de Zaragoza. They do not really consider themselves as solely gays, transvestites, or cross-dressers but as a third sex. They are a diverse group and not easily defined but most consider themselves as women, or at least women inside, prefer to live socially as a separate category, and are usually attracted to men. Their roots go back to pre-Colombian Mexico, where, according to anthropologists, there are accounts of both Aztecan priests and Mayan gods who were hermaphroditic. Prior to the 1970s they were frequently harassed by police and not necessarily accepted by family members but that has changed dramatically. When a ‘male’ child starts dressing as a girl, as early as age eight, they are accepted as Muxe, but not all of them like to dress as women. Some parents prefer or are at least happy to have a Muxe child, as they will not leave to establish their own families, and are therefore available to take care of them in their old age. They can also financially contribute to the household and are an important component of the local economy through their diverse skills as artists, fashion designers, stylists, seamstresses, attorneys, politicians, etc.

Since the 1970s their annual celebration has taken place in November in Juchitan, and is known as the Vela de las Autenticas Intrepidas Buscadoras de Peligro, roughly translated as the Festival of the Authentic, Intrepid Searchers of Danger. It was founded by Oscar Cazorla, who opened the Salon Cazorla, the events center, in Juchitan. He is considered to be the father of the festival. The pre Vela initiated with the Black Panthers, a group of homosexuals in the town of Comitancillo, (Ndaniiguiaa in Zapotec, or the Place of the Flowers) until the ‘Intrepids’, named by Cazorla, were accepted in Juchitan society. As time passes and as younger generations are involved, the founders object of course to the commercialization and ‘internationalization’ of the events, with copy cat festivals throughout the Isthmus and elsewhere. Old timers, such as Nestor Santiago Hernandez, lament the changes and loss of authenticity and purpose. In Juchitan last year over 3,000 people attended the Vela. Twenty to thirty participated in the parade and as future possible contestants for Queen.

According to local hair stylist Alex Vasquez Santiago, and with a very helpful book he generously loaned me (Las Otras Hijas de San Vicente, or The Other Daughters of San Vicente), the Vela (festival) in Juchitan is a celebration of who they are and not a ‘gay’ party. It takes place over a week, culminating in three days of celebration. This is their particular Vela, and all Velas are dedicated to a specific Saint, in this case San Vicente (Saint Vincent). Also according to Alex, every town in the Isthmus has their own Vela; there are at least 28 and include towns dominated by various ethnic groups such Chontales, Huaves, Zoques, Mixes, Mixtecos and Chinantecos. This mixture of cultures, dance, colors, and food characterize the Velas. In Juchitan there are sub-velas, like Vela Santa Cruz Baila Conmigo (dance with me), a professional organization of Muxe attorneys.

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 1.00.47 PMThe Mayordomos are in charge of organizing the weeklong festivities. During the week there are a variety of workshops and events, all in celebration of the muxe, including artist exhibitions and workshops, sports competitions, and workshops on sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases. A committee selects the Queen, but their selection is not based on talent or beauty but mostly on their ability to self-finance and their economic health, since there is no ‘prize’, just the joy of being selected and to ‘reign’ during three main days of the festivities. This is a dream come true for winners. There are no constraints on age or appearance but the Queen needs support from friends and the community to achieve her dream. According to Marcela Nicolas Gomez, who became Queen at 22, she became the ‘capitana’ before deciding to pursue the coveted title. Marcela paid for her gown, the orchestra and band (two groups play throughout the festival, one of national and one of local origin), the dressing room, her two chaperones, her crown, gloves, shoes, food, gifts, etc. but it is done with great pride. She gets to choose the theme and color of the particular Vela. According to Alex, Day# 1 is the ‘pasarela’ or parade, where the Queen distributes fruit to the crowd from an allegorically decorated float driven by a pair of oxen. Day #2 is Mass (misa) where Muxe are allowed to attend and celebrate their patron Saint, unlike ‘normal’ gay couples who are not allowed to attend Catholic mass, as they are considered aberrant. Mass is followed by the Baile de Gala, the gala dance. The celebrations culminate on Day #3 with the Lavado(a) de Olla. Although this erroneously translates as the washing of the pan, it is actually a celebratory dance party. The enramada, where the party takes place, is decorated with white and red banners, and the village women in attendance dress in traditional clothing symbolizing solidarity and joy for the community. Food, drink, and dance are all part of the celebration that is open to everyone unable to participate in the other dances. As the name implies, it was originally a form of community participation to wash pots (ollas), dishes, and other utensils used at the party. These days those tasks are left for the next day, which is called ‘reheated’ (recalentado).

Alex is hoping to be Queen in 2015. He sews his own dresses, does his own hair, of course, and his own makeup, which he likes to minimize to look more natural. Carefully placed silicon inserts or augmentations enhance his femininity. He says he is not in it for career advancement, political or financial gain, but rather just for the glamour.