Sitting in the church of San Vincente Ferrer in the dusty Mexican city of Juchitán, I watched a woman in tight jeans, a red crop top, and ornate gold earrings make her way to receive Holy Communion. It was only when she swallowed the wafer Padre Francisco placed in her mouth that I noticed her Adam's apple bobbing and knew for certain what the priest had known all along: This woman is a man.
Actually, she's a muxe (pronounced "moo-she"), the local name given to men who dress like women, or dress like men but have male lovers and hold traditionally female jobs—weaver, party planner, hairdresser. Susana Trilling, who runs a cooking school in Oaxaca city, five hours from Juchitán, first told me about the muxes in her kitchen. "On the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, especially in Juchitán, every family considers it a blessing to have one gay son," she said. "These sons do handicrafts and sell embroideries in the market with the women, while the men work in the fields, so it's a monetary boon to the family. And while daughters marry and leave home, a muxe cares for his parents in their old age."
I tried to find more information in Oaxaca's bookstores, but none of the clerks even knew the word muxe. Finally I happened to meet Vittorio D'Onofri, an Italian photographer who has been shooting the muxes for years. D'Onofri explained that in a culture where female virginity is prized, muxes also serve as a sexual outlet for men before marriage, often dating men who go on to marry women. "I know couples where the husband used to have a muxe boyfriend and the wife goes to the muxe for tips," he told me.
D'Onofri photographs the muxes during their annual November festival, La Vela de las Auténticas Intrépidas Buscadoras del Peligro, or Festival of the Authentic, Intrepid Danger-Seekers. Life in Tehuantepec revolves around velas, weekend festivals in honor of a saint or family clan. I knew I had to attend the festival of the Intrépidas, and when I made the journey back to Oaxaca last year, I thought I knew what to expect. But still I was surprised to see a priest offer Communion to a transvestite. I shouldn't have been. Not in Juchitán.
Juchitán has had this culture for two thousand years; respect for these people is a sacred duty," Padre Francisco said during his sermon. "The Church sometimes doesn't want to talk about homosexuality. But this is our church, our town." As he continued, it became clear that Padre Francisco saw the muxes not only as a point of difference for Juchitán, but also as a point of pride. "Juchitán is a city with its problems like any other. But we should serve as an example of tolerance." He ended with a cheer: "Viva Juchitán! Viva San Vincente Ferrer!"
San Vincente Ferrer, Juchitán's patron saint, figures in one legend about the muxes tradition. "They say that God gave San Vincente Ferrer a bag full of homosexuals to distribute throughout Mexico, one in each town," explained Layla López, a professor from Oaxaca and a native of Juchitán I'd hired to help me talk to muxes who spoke only Zapotec, the region's most popular indigenous language. "But when he got to Juchitán, the muxes became too exuberant—they all burst out of the bag here." Juchitán's muxes were certainly exuberant after the Saturday morning mass, the start of the vela. Streaming outside, they lined up behind a standard-bearer holding a sequined flag that depicted a figure half man (in a sombrero) and half woman (in the local traje, an embroidered skirt and top). Behind him were the mothers of the muxes, muxes in traditional dress, muxes in spandex tops and miniskirts (one of them holding a Chihuahua in a pink jockey's cap), and muxes dressed as men.
The spectacle seemed to delight—but not surprise—the Juchitecos. For the most part, Juchitán is a nondescript town: crowded streets lined with modern two-story buildings housing restaurants and cluttered storefronts. But the market, in the colonial center of town, is entirely different—a vibrant, cacophonous, colorful, mainly female world, where women (and muxes) with silk ribbons woven through graying braids call out both insults and invitations to passers-by, hawking food, from live iguanas to fried grasshoppers; flowers to decorate altars, graves, and houses; and elaborately embroidered clothing.
Juchitán's market is, in fact, one of the best places in Mexico to experience the mingling of traditional ethnic groups. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec is part of Oaxaca, a state with 16 different ethnic groups that speak 18 different languages; muxe is a Zapotec word. The isthmus's isolation has helped indigenous cultures survive, and it's debatable whether the muxe tradition could have endured in another part of the country. The same is true for the culture of the Tehuantepec women, who are so admired for their strength that non-Tejuanas, such as Frida Kahlo, have often adopted their style of dress.
The day of the post-mass parade, many muxes wore the local traje. But not the person at the center of it all, Oscar Cazorlas, who created the society of the Intrépidas and the vela almost 30 years ago. A jeweler, Oscar wore heavy gold chains and Aztec-style pendants over a white guayabera and black pants. "I don't dress as a woman," he told me. "I dress much more expensively."
Before the vela, I'd caught up with Oscar and several of "the girls," as he calls them, at the house he shares with his 80-year-old mother. Among them were Armando, Oscar's cousin, and a teacher originally from Puebla who was dressed as a man but answered to the female name of Camelia.
"The Intrépidas accepted me, with all their enthusiasm," said Camelia, who was queen of the vela in 2003. "That's why I moved here." With the zeal of a convert, Camelia instructed me: "This is what you should write. 'In a little corner of Oaxaca, on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a gay movement started.'" He waved his hand with a flourish.
The others laughed at his dramatic delivery. But as they showed me photos of muxes at a political rally with the governor, and at another for Amaranta, a one-armed transvestite who ran for Congress and lost by a narrow margin, it became clear that the muxes' visibility was slowly growing.
"Muxes are respected here because it's a matriarchal society," Camelia continued.