As the December sun sets over the terracotta tiled roofs of Juchitán de Zaragoza – a rural town of about 90,000 in the southwest Mexican state of Oaxaca – the streets are empty in silent anticipation. Many of the men who live here have just come back from working at the oil refinery; many women have returned from selling crafts at the marketplace. One man, age thirty, takes off his schoolteacher clothes and showers. When he has dried himself off, he puts on a corset and wig and applies dramatic makeup to contour his face.

“This outfit took me two hours to prepare, with my makeup and clothes and my wig, and my waist-trainer,” he says.

Across town, through the blanched walls of the church and past the bustling marketplace, an older man layers golden necklaces over his starched white button-down, while his maid hands him a pair of black slacks. Elsewhere, a woman pulls on tight pleather shorts and puts pasties on her exposed breasts, preparing for a performance. Skin is tucked, squished and exposed in tight dresses of glittering fabric, or completely covered in indigenous embroidered gowns. Inside the plaster walls of each home, the town’s residents begin to prepare for another night of partying – not for a patron saint or holiday, but to celebrate the third gender, neither entirely male nor entirely female, that is prominent in this small town on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

A six-hour drive from the state capital, Juchitán is a colonial town that predates the Spanish conquest. Home to the indigenous culture of the Zapotec, a third gender known as muxe (MOO-shey) – said to derive from “mujer,” the word for “woman” in Spanish – has long flourished here. The muxe gender encompasses a range of identities that are between the male-female binary. While a muxe would have different labels to choose from in the U.S. – “trans woman,” “gay man,” “genderqueer” – “muxe” spans all identities between male and female here. The term is unique to the Zapotec.

Soon, rhythmic snare drums roll into the dusty streets as a parade begins. Two single-file lines of schoolkids with instruments march in synch as they pave the way for a young muxe and her entourage of four suited men. Dressed in a sequined white gown, hair up in curls and with a trailing red velvet cape, she regally leads the crowd of townspeople to the Vela Santa Cruz del Cielo – the Festival of the Holy Cross in Heaven. It’s a mixture of old-school beauty pageantry, benefit concert, and drag ball. The evening begins with the entrance of Jennifer Pireña, the muxe crowned “queen” of the vela, with a fanfare from her hired marching band. The street then clears for Jesusa Hernandez Noriega, the “Queen of Queens,” a title given to an older muxe who parades with her posse toward the stage.

Juchitán’s parties, or velas, are town-wide events in which all residents are invited. There are velas for saint days, marriages and national holidays – and for muxes. “It’s diversity,” one older muxe says about the spirit of muxe festivals. “It’s part of every color of the rainbow, the hair, the makeup, the dresses.”

The parade leads to a street blocked by a beer truck, where burly men unload cartons upon cartons of Dos Equis to men wishing to join the festivities. In Juchitán you don’t need a ticket or cash to enter any party, just a twelve-pack of cervezas.

Jennifer Pireña enters the closed-off block where the vela will be held. Behind her are the hundreds of twelve-packs of beer that serve as both ticket and beverage for guests of the festival. The organizers of _velas_ pair up with local brewery branches and get a discount on bulk beer purchases.
Jennifer Pireña enters the closed-off block where the vela will be held. Behind her are the hundreds of twelve-packs of beer that serve as both ticket and beverage for guests of the festival. The organizers of “velas” pair up with local brewery branches and get a discount on bulk beer purchases.

Past the truck, the streets have turned into an amphitheater, chairs parting in the middle to create a parade route leading to the stage where queens will be crowned and tears of joy shed. “It’s expensive, but when you have an applause and everyone cheers for you on stage it’s completely worth it,” said Amerika Pineda, 38, founder of this festival.

Stemming from pre-Columbian societies that had “mixed-genders” outside of male and female, the muxes are analogous to other “two-spirit” identities in indigenous populations of North America. Muxes traditionally have the freedom to dress in women’s clothing, wear cosmetics and grow their hair long. They can be seen wearing the traditional Tehuana costume of the region, a two-part gown made up of a huipil – a shirt with colorful embroidery – and a long skirt that usually matches the top. Called muxes vestidas – “dressed muxes” – they participate in more traditional female gender roles, such as working as seamstresses, than do muxes pintadas – “painted muxes” – who dress in men’s clothes, but still pluck their eyebrows and wear cosmetics.

“Tehuanas” (women from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec) wear a two-part indigenous costume for everyday and formalwear. It’s made up of an embroidered “huipil” (tunic) and a matching skirt, with a starched white lace petticoat at the bottom. The gown is complimented by a floral headband tied into one’s braids or a resplendent headdress made of starched white lace like the petticoat. Golden necklaces made of coins are the finishing touch to the outfits.
“Tehuanas” (women from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec) wear a two-part indigenous costume for everyday and formalwear. It’s made up of an embroidered “huipil” (tunic) and a matching skirt, with a starched white lace petticoat at the bottom. The gown is complimented by a floral headband tied into one’s braids or a resplendent headdress made of starched white lace like the petticoat. Golden necklaces made of coins are the finishing touch to the outfits.

When asked why a third gender is accepted in Juchitán, the townspeople invariably point to “the matriarchy” of Oaxacan households – women handle the finances of the family, since they’re the ones who work as vendors in the marketplace, giving them more of an equal standing with men than elsewhere in the countryside. Many mothers would sooner force an unaccepting husband to leave the house than kick out a muxe son. “Like they say in the Isthmus, it’s a blessing to have a gay son,” says Alex Vasquez Santiago, 38, a muxe originally from Juchitan who now lives in the resort city of Huatulco. He comes back for the velas every year.

* * *

The day before the vela in Juchitán, a stout man named Oscar Carzola sits on the sidewalk facing a large party venue. He wipes his brow and looks up at the large block letters reading “Salon Cazorla” – the name of his forty-year-old muxe-owned and operated establishment. Wearing a black button-down shirt and slacks, Cazorla, 65, is also the founder of the largest muxe celebration in Oaxaca, but appears in sharp contrast to the elaborately dressed patrons of the vela.

“The fact that one gets dressed or doesn’t get dressed has nothing to do with being a muxe,” he explains. “Being a muxe is being effeminate. It’s to do womanly things. It’s a fantasy.” In the mid-1970s, Cazorla and his gay friends hosted clandestine parties in their own homes until he opened Salon Cazorla, giving the muxes in town a permanent venue. This friend group, dubbed Las Auténticas Intrépidas Buscadoras del Peligro – The Authentic Intrepid Seekers of Danger – began hosting a yearly event, and Cazorla became the “mother of the muxes.”

“We’re the ‘intrepid seekers of danger’ because we were shameless in asking men out, and had to run when it turned out they were not interested!” Cazorla says.

Jesusa Hernandez Noriega, the “Queen of Queens,” arrives on the stage, followed by her posse, all wearing the traditional Tehuana gown.
Jesusa Hernandez Noriega, the “Queen of Queens,” arrives on the stage, followed by her posse, all wearing the traditional Tehuana gown.

He says it wasn’t until his group was established that muxes began to be more open about wearing women’s clothing. “I was never a dressed muxe,” he says. “The style was tank tops and a face with makeup.” Cazorla says he would don women’s necklaces at parties and show them off around town.

Forty years later, muxes vary widely in appearance. Some can be seen in conservative Tehuana gowns, others in jeans and blouses, or skintight dresses with platform heels and voluminous hair.

Queens of velas past, and “ambassador” queens from nearby towns strut down the runway and are celebrated on stage.

Cazorla counts his parents’ acceptance as his inspiration for advocating openness. “They treated me normally,” Cazorla says. “I’ve known I was gay since I could first reason. I didn’t put a name to it until I was fourteen.” He credits his group of friends and other town residents for making Juchitán accepting of gay men. “We fought, and continue to fight back to have our rights and be accepted. No one can assault someone who’s gay because they know they’ll have to deal with us,” Cazorla says.

Cazorla’s living room is a museum of his years as the unofficial leader of the muxes. Shelves are lined with trinkets from the international guests who flock to the Vela de Las Intrépidas, interspersed with photos of him and other muxes. He puts on a guayabera – a short-sleeved dress shirt, the male traditional costume – but unlike typical monochromatic guayaberas, his are generously embroidered with large flowers like the Tehuana gowns – neither a man nor woman’s garment.

* * *

Twenty-four hours before the vela, a man checks his appearance in his side-view mirror while driving past the local church and out of town. Ruben Diaz Martinez, thirty, drives two hours outside of Juchitán to teach his class of pre-kindergarten students. The next evening, he swaps his professional clothes for a shimmery black dress and wig and transforms into “Rubitch, First of Her Name, Queen of the 2015 Vela de Las Intrépidas.”

“I’m a man by day, and a woman by night,” she says during the vela the next day. Standing six feet tall in heels, she holds on to whichever shoulder will prevent her from falling to the ground. Rubitch represents a “professional muxe,” one who holds a “white-collar” job, since traditionally, muxes have worked in the marketplace as artisans, seamstresses and food vendors.

“I’m not always dressed like this,” Rubitch explains, gesturing at her dress. Her job as a preschool teacher requires her to hide her identity as a muxe. “I don’t want to confuse my kids.” This means cutting her long hair, and resorting to wigs when she chooses to dress up.

Although Cazorla’s advocacy group has helped muxes gain more of a role in public life, there are still limitations on gender expression in professional fields.

“The muxes that are able to live their lives as women in society are much more ‘muxe’ than I am. That’s the goal,” Rubitch says. “You have no idea how much pressure my corset is putting on my body!”

At the vela, Rubitch gleams as she parades with the rest of the queens, each taking their minute in the spotlight as they strut to and from the stage. “Muxe experiences vary, we all go through different walks of life. I came out when I was nine years old, and everyone accepted me except for my father. I moved out when I was nine because he used to abuse me. Luckily I was able to stay at my aunt’s house.” Rubitch now lives with her siblings, but plans to build a house for herself in the coming year.

A local woman sits by the crates of beer used as currency in the velas of Juchitán.
A local woman sits by the crates of beer used as currency in the velas of Juchitán.

State and local politicians have the ceremonial role of crowning muxes as queens. Accompanied by his bodyguard, Gerardo Garcia Henestroza, an elected official of neighboring Salina Cruz, imposes a stoic first impression. He’s been invited to crown muxe queens on several occasions and works with them throughout the year to provide outreach programs to the community. Queens are required to make appearances at public events, put on talks about healthy sexual habits, HIV/AIDS prevention, and how to tackle homophobia.

But “muxe as a third gender is not recognized, nor are same-sex marriages allowed in the state of Oaxaca,” Henestroza says. Mexico City and more cosmopolitan cities have given LGBTQ individuals more rights and protections in the past decade, but conservative political parties, constituents and beliefs have more power here in the Isthmus. At the velas, muxes are bestowed glittering crowns and sashes by sharply dressed politicians, but even they can show their conservatism. “When crowning them, I have to remember not to let them kiss me on the cheek, since I’m a man, so I shake their hands instead. They try to flirt with us, but we have to remember they’re men,” Henestroza says.

Velas in Juchitán are town-wide events. Buying a case of beer gets you in, and anyone, regardless of age, can come and enjoy live music, performances, and dancing.

Muxe sexuality relies on traditional notions of gender roles here. Typically, muxes have romantic and sexual relationships with heterosexual men, functioning as women in a strictly heterosexual society. There’s no stigma against straight men having relations with muxes, since they embody the “passive” role of women in machismo views of romantic and sexual relationships.

They’re also accepted by the church. A day after the vela, matronly silhouettes will drift into the church for Mass, starched white petticoats dusting the floor of the cathedral. Muxes and women are both considered “daughters of God” while wearing the Tehuana gown as a strict uniform. It’s the only way muxes can enter the church. Rev. Antonio Mendoza, 48, a bright-eyed, short pastor, walks around the colonnade of the cultural center adjacent to the church. As a member of the clergy in Juchitán, he must balance his Christian beliefs with the presence of a third gender in town and as friends.

“Generally speaking we love and accept muxes, but what we don’t accept is their lifestyle, their sexuality,” Mendoza says, clutching his messenger bag. He speaks highly of the muxes he knows. “They’re very hardworking people,” Mendoza observes, “but some go to the extreme, and that’s when we don’t agree with their actions.” He cites muxes in revealing clothing, going to queer parties, and having gender reassignment surgery as examples of “extreme.”

* * *

The final act of the vela features Amerika Pineda the founder of Baila Conmigo – Dance With Me – the organization managing the vela. Two young men dressed in underwear, paint and LED body stickers hype up the crowd as a final muxe performer, wearing colorful pasties, short-shorts, and glowing lights on her chest, joins them on stage. They perform an interpretive dance to Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” and end the show with fireworks.

At one a.m. the vela switches from drag show to a large dance party where men, women and muxes blend in the free-for-all dance floor. Men dance with men, flocking around their favorite muxes. Young gay men cruise for sex by walking around and pinching wrists. Residents on the block watch the party from their windows and balconies.

Late in the evening, two bodies dart in the shadows, reaching the metal gate of a stately house. Whispers join the sound of keys jingling, as a muxe wearing shorts and pasties opens the gate and lets her male companion sneak into the driveway. They scurry to a room; giggles and whispers are interrupted by shushes; her parents are already asleep in the room next door.

Jesus Hernandez Noriega, dressed in the traditional Tehuana gown of the region, is crowned the “Queen of Queens” at the Vela de la Santa Cruz del Cielo and waltzes with her posse.

The next day Pineda recounts the thrill of ending the vela with her performance, and of bringing a man home to her parents’ place to round out the evening. “He accidently fell off the loft balcony because it was dark and we were trying to sneak around and not make too much noise!” she says, pointing to an alcove above the sitting room. “I told him we should have just stayed down here in the hammocks near the door, but the poor fool insisted.”

After sneaking her clumsy friend out of the gate, Pineda dons a relaxed pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt. Her long, natural hair is up in a no-nonsense ponytail, and flicks to-and-fro as she swings on a hammock.

“I knew I was a muxe when I was thirteen years old, when I liked to dress up in women’s clothing. While my dad didn’t accept me at first, my mom did completely, and sent me to a school that taught sewing and clothing design,” Pineda says. This led her to work in a baby clothes factory for a decade, and now as a seamstress’ assistant. She’s come back to Juchitán to take care of her parents.

“Out of all my siblings, I’m the only one who doesn’t have a family, who didn’t marry and have kids, so they told me it was my obligation to take care of my parents now that they’re older. Since I have more time than they do,” Pineda says with a sigh.

Pineda goes back to the cosmopolitan capital of Mexico every ten days, where she’s able to party in nightclubs catering to the LGBTQ minority. “I live two different lives,” Pineda says. “In Mexico City, there’s an Amerika full of life, and dreams, full of hope. I participate more in gay events. But here not so much. My parents are putting a strain on me.” She swings slowly from her hammock, looking with a stern face. “The myth that Juchitán is accepting is a lie,” she says. She crosses her arms over her breasts, implants from her gender reassignment surgery, which she got to please a former partner. Pineda identifies as a trans woman, saying “muxe, trans, gay – it’s all the same thing,” but complains that her inability to pass as a man makes life difficult in Juchitán.

A muxe poses for photos during the Parade of Queens.
A muxe poses for photos during the Parade of Queens.

“I can’t enter a woman’s bathroom in Juchitán, since they know I’m a muxe. They force me to go to the men’s room, where I’m also out of place.” Muxe identity is allowed in Juchitán as long as it’s adhering to male or female roles at any one time, but to identify as transgender and to have surgery is not accepted.

Oscar Cazorla, the salon owner, declares, “muxes are not transgender. Transgender people sell themselves; most of them are prostitutes.”

Amerika Pineda looks down at her chest. “I did all these changes to my body to please those straight men. I did it for them, not for myself. Now I wonder if it was worth it.”

Straight men can have relations with muxes because they are seen as placeholders for future girlfriends and wives; because muxes are considered passive and womanly, straight men don’t have their heterosexuality threatened. Equally, women are not threatened by muxes because muxes cannot bear children, and are still considered male under their birth certificates, so they can’t marry men.

“Straight men have sexual relations with muxes in order not to get their girlfriends pregnant,” Pineda says with a furrowed brow. “They look for a muxe, a gay boy, to satisfy themselves. They do it to keep their money, their jobs, and to reduce the costs of having a girlfriend or wife.”

“When I was first dating, all my boyfriends were heterosexual men,” Pineda explains. “Eventually, those relationships would end with them telling me that I can’t provide a traditional family – being a wife, having kids.” She says that muxes, as vulnerable young people, willingly accept these short-term relationships just to have the experience of a traditional, socially accepted relationship.

In Juchitán, queer relationships are perceived in a heteronormative way; sexual orientation and gender are conflated. Sex can only be between a “man” and a “woman,” forcing muxes to take on the latter role in sexual relations. Sex between two muxes “wouldn’t work, since both would be passive,” Cazorla explains. “Who would do the penetrating?”

Jennifer Pireña ends her debut as queen and crams into her “carriage.” one of Juchitán’s many motorcycle taxis that provide quick and cheap transportation throughout the town and nearby towns. Her reign as queen will last a year until the next vela, which she will help organize and host. Meanwhile, she’ll implement LGBT-themed community outreach throughout town, working with local government officials.
Jennifer Pireña ends her debut as queen and crams into her “carriage.” One of Juchitán’s many motorcycle taxis that provide quick and cheap transportation throughout the town and nearby towns. Her reign as queen will last a year until the next vela, which she will help organize and host. Meanwhile, she’ll implement LGBT-themed community outreach throughout town, working with local government officials.

Cazorla, as a non-dressing muxe, recounts his parents’ acceptance of his orientation but not his relationships. “Back then my parents were not accepting of me having a partner,” he says, “so I had to stay with my grandparents for a bit.” The relationship ended, and his partner went off and had children in three separate marriages. Similarly, Rubitch – the thirty-year-old muxe and kindergarten teacher – is currently in a relationship with a straight man, but says she would not raise a child with a man because of the social stigma of having two fathers.

“It’s always a blessing for families to have a muxe,” Henestroza, the elected official, says, using a phrase often heard here, “because it means extra wealth for their family, since muxes don’t get married or have kids, so they stay in their households and work in the market selling crafts.”

According to Henestroza, it’s this financial benefit that prevents same-sex union laws from passing in the towns of the isthmus. “A cohabitation law would allow muxes to get married, which means they could leave their homes and families, reducing the family’s wealth,” he says. “We’re accepted in Juchitán because we’re the ones who work in the marketplace and decorate, but despite all that, we’re not actually accepted, we’re tolerated,” Rubitch says dryly.

* * *

As the sun rises over the last few partiers standing at the vela, the cleanup begins. Chairs are folded and put back into storage, the leftover cartons of beer are driven back to the breweries and the stage is disassembled. Men take the weekend to rest or go back to work at the oil refinery, while women go back to their marketplace jobs or to their homes. Muxes go back to their homes and rest, reminisce or start planning their outfits for the next vela.

Velas serve as a way for muxes to build community; they are a byproduct of social groups advocating for muxe recognition. Organizations like Las Intrépidas and Baila Conmigo have paved the way for younger generations to feel welcome in Juchitán. “The velas are growing in popularity and number, and they’re starting to spread around the state,” Cazorla says, pleasantly tired from forty years of hosting velas.

“This new generation has muxes who are doctors, engineers and lawyers – people who are fulfilled and successful, and who can dress and wear women’s clothing. In today’s world you can do it all – be dressed, wear heels and still have a career,” Amerika Pineda says with a smile. “The younger muxes want to realize themselves as women, self-actualize. They’re rebellious and fighting for it.”

Pineda is choosing to focus on herself for now and not worry about relationships. “Being a muxe closes you off from a lot of doors, a lot of opportunities, but it leaves room for others to open,” she says. “That’s why I believe in destiny, and that it’ll guide me on the right path.”

Kevin Milian

Kevin Milian is a multimedia journalist covering the intersection of race/ethnicity and LGBT identities. He likes to create a 360° story using thrilling copy, stunning visuals and data. He has a background in communication and archaeology from Cornell University, and is a recent graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.