The Third Gender
By JULIE PECHEUR
Photo by Julie Pecheur
In the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca, some children are born neither boys nor girls.They are muxe.
Under the still fiery rays of the late afternoon sun, two dozen ox-carts decorated with flowers, palms, and multicolored banners parade down the center of Juchitï¿½n. The convite, the traditional procession announcing a special mass, brings together the whole neighborhood. In one cart, sit erect dignified old men
in white shirts and straw hats; in another, motionless boys in blue shiny costumes with their palms joined in prayer; and in a third one, little made-up girls in regional embroidered dresses throw plastic cups and plates as gifts to the enthusiastic crowd.
As the procession moves forward, standing on the upper part of another cart, two children energetically ward off the branches of the surrounding trees to protect the cartï¿½s adornments. They are about 12 years old, with narrow bodies and loose hair down to their round naked shoulders. One wears a pair of blue jeans and a short white top that reveals a flat belly and no waist. They both look like boys, but they could be mistaken for girls. Here in Juchitï¿½n, on the pacific
coast of the Tehuantepec Isthmus, Mexicoï¿½s narrowest land near Guatemala, they are neither girls nor boys. They are muxe (pronounced Mooshey).
In striking opposition to Mexicoï¿½s dominant mestizo culture, which is racially mixed and where machismo prevails, the population of Juchitï¿½n is predominantly
Zapotec and does not condemn or reject effeminate male homosexuals. On the contrary. Here muxe (the word comes from the Zapotec adaptation of the Spanish word for woman, mujer) are generally regarded as part and parcel of society, a third element or gender, combining the assets of both the female and male, and sometimes equipped with special intellectual and artistic gifts.
No one knows how many muxe live in this city of 80,000. Around the shaded plaza at the center of town near the market, one often spots them: slightly
effeminate older men, young transvestites (vestidas), and men dressed in shirt and trousers but wearing make-up (pintadas). The majority of the muxe live in
the two popular neighborhoods where most fishermen and peasants reside. Those in the upper classes however, still tend to stay en closet, in the closet.
ï¿½In Juchitï¿½n, nearly all families have a great-uncle, a son, or a bother who is a muxe,ï¿½ says Adolfina Pineda Esteva, a 47 year-old primary school teacher
whose younger brother, now known as Amï¿½rica, is a muxe. ï¿½Not all parents accept them, but they are not rejected,ï¿½ she explains while her husband Andrï¿½s nods in agreement. ï¿½They have their space in the society. They teach dance, sew, head beauty salons, make adornmentsï¿½ Muxe are very active and creative.ï¿½
ï¿½Here one is born a muxe. One does not become one,ï¿½ says Ulises Toledo Santiago, a thirty-year-old muxe, echoing the general opinion. Ulises, who dresses as a man but whose face expressions and voice are somewhat
effeminate, has a license in law and works for the city family planning agency. In an article published in 1995, anthropologist Beverly Chiï¿½as confirms that: ï¿½The idea of choosing gender or of sexual orientationï¿½the two of which are not distinguished by the Isthmus Zapotecsï¿½is as ludicrous as suggesting that one can choose oneï¿½s skin color.ï¿½
Much to the annoyance of the 16th century Spanish conquerors, male homosexuality was widespread and tolerated in many North American indigenous societies, such as the Isthmus Zapotecs and the Yucatan Mayas. The Spaniards highly valued ï¿½manlinessï¿½ and ï¿½assertiveï¿½ behavior and placed a stigma on
ï¿½submissiveï¿½ attitudes. Their chronicles never failed to mention the Indiansï¿½ ï¿½corruptï¿½ behavior, which they labeled as ï¿½sodomyï¿½ after the biblical town of Sodom, destroyed by God because of the sinful mores of its inhabitants. While systematically destroying all statues and frescoes representing male-male sexual
encounters, the Spaniards found in the nativesï¿½ different approach to sexuality yet another theological justification to annihilate their culture and convert them to Catholicism.
The people of the Isthmus however have always fiercely defended their identity against conquering powers, whether Aztec, Spanish, or later French. Nowadays in
the region, contrary to the national mestizo pattern where men prevail in every strata of the society, women have more outlets for social participation and
enjoy the resulting powers. Typically, Juchitecan men work the fields and go fishing, participate in politics, and shape intellectual and artistic life. Women, on the other hand, do the housework, but also organize the fiestas and take part in various important commercial activities. In Juchitï¿½n for instance, they control the vital daily market, reigning over piles of mangos and dried fish, their full-size bodies wrapped in long black skirts and huipiles, the short dark traditional blouses embroidered with large bright flowers.
Juchitecan women thus enjoy unusual financial autonomy and prestige, which has led many observers, chiefly foreigners, to mistakenly define Juchitï¿½n as a
matriarchal society, a designation which overlooks the male equally crucial, and sometimes domineering, roles. Nevertheless, women and female activities are
not considered secondary, which may partly explain why muxe, who assume effeminate manners and participate in both female and male economic activities, are usually not discriminated against.
When a son prefers dolls to pistols, female cousins to male ones, and dresses to trousers, many mothers rejoice, even if the majority of fathers merely resign
themselves. For women, raising a muxe implies that strong arms will take care of their house while they go out to work and that someone will look after them
as they grow older. (Men have a tendency to prefer younger women and leave the household, even in Juchitï¿½n.) ï¿½Parents with a muxe know that he will
always take care of them because he will never get married and leave the house,ï¿½ says Ulises, who lives with his mother. ï¿½Our society is very tolerant because the muxe work hard and support their families.ï¿½
Traditionally, muxe are expected to cook, clean, look after the children, take care of the elders, and bring home an additional income. In recent years, muxe, like women, have started to gain access to higher education and careers such as lawyers and doctors.
Moreover, they play a key role in preparing the countless fiestas, essential to the identity of the community. This is not a light task: Juchitï¿½n celebrates at least 20 in-town velas, the round of parties in honor of patron saints or particular events. During virtually the entire month of May, for instance, the streets are filled with parades, music, and flowers. Then, there are 20 or so obligatory national holidays, about 30 unmissable velas in neighborhood communities, plus the frequent weddings, birthdays, graduations. For all these celebrations, muxe design, embroider and sew traditional female outfits, make garlands and paper chains, fix hairstyles and make-up, and set family and church altars.
Less visible however, is the sexual role the muxe play in the Juchitecan society. Although classical heterosexual rigid classifications hardly hold when it comes to homosexual preferences, it is generally true that muxe donï¿½t have sexual relations with other muxe. They see themselves as women and want men. And the men they sleep with, called mayate, are not considered homosexuals because they play the ï¿½activeï¿½ part. ï¿½Because a womanï¿½s virginity before marriage is still very important in our society, many young boys are initiated by the muxe,ï¿½ says Yudith Lï¿½pez Saynes, the director of Gunaxhii Guendanabani, an association dedicated to AIDS prevention. ï¿½It is widely accepted, but with AIDS now, people are more cautious.ï¿½ Andrï¿½s Lï¿½pez, a thirty-year old pintada nurse who heads a medical service, explains laughing, ï¿½You go in the street and the boys play tough with their friends, but then they flirt with you.ï¿½ His friend Felina
Santiago Vadivieso, a 36-year-old fake blond muxe who heads a beauty salon, confirms that younger boys keep on asking her advice on how to please their
girlfriends. She prefers older men however, although she canï¿½t kiss them or hold their hands in the street. ï¿½A lot of Juchitecan men marry women from other towns like Puebla. They are very conservative and more homophobic,ï¿½ she explains, before adding in a laugh: ï¿½But their sons get caught in the local movement, and their husbands never leave it!ï¿½
For almost thirty years, muxe have had their own velas in Juchitï¿½n. Ulises for instance, organizes his clubï¿½s December 28th vela, baile con migo, or Dance With Me. The first muxe vela, the vela de las autï¿½nticas intrepidas buscadoras del peligro, or the vela of the Authentic Intrepids in Search of Danger, took place in
1976. The organizer, Oscar Cazorla Pineda, a fifty-four-year old muxe, is the owner of a famous dance hall in the center of Juchitï¿½n and the leader of the Intrepidas club. With large features and figure but feminine movements, he is also a successful and respected businessmuxe, who sells the traditional and
ubiquitous gold jewelry, which he himself puts on to party.
Each year in November, after a special catholic mass held in its honor, the Intrepidsï¿½ vela gathers all the cityï¿½s muxe along with fifteen hundred men,
womenï¿½grandparents and young adultsï¿½and children. The blast, which now gets national attention, requires a full year of preparation and costs around $10,000
dollars. Oscar and the Intrepidas cover some of the expenses, but most are now paid by others, including the townï¿½s elected officials. In fact, the Intrepidas are partisans of the PRI, the political party in power in Juchitï¿½n, and they regularly participate in political meetings and demonstrations. Conversely, during the vela, it is the city officeholder who crowns the Intrepid beauty queen.
Nowadays during fiestas, many muxe wear traditional womenï¿½s dresses or drag queen outfits. An increasing number, and virtually the entire new generation, also dress like women in every day life. To Filiberto Cruz, who, at 89 is the oldest Intrepid, this new tendency is rather shocking. In his time, nobody would do it,
although he confesses with a shy smile that he himself would sometimes wear gold buttons and discreet bracelets.
This new transvestite tendency has created dilemma and friction in the society as well. In schools, for instance, some teachers, often from other parts of the
country, do not tolerate the new trend and children, as mischievous as anywhere else, make fun of it. Many Juchitecan women also twitch at the sight of their
traditional dresses on muxe.
ï¿½This transvestite process is rather new,ï¿½ says Amaranta Gï¿½mez Regalado, a 26 year-old beautiful muxe who wears traditional huipiles and became famous last
year when she ran for congressional in the Oaxaca state elections. ï¿½It started about twenty years ago and I think it has to do with the advent of marketing
and television.ï¿½ In her low caressing voice, she says she understands the debate about traditional clothing, but states, ï¿½It is part of our culture, and I consider
myself a vehicle of that culture too.ï¿½
Vicki Santiago Luï¿½s, a twenty-year-old muxe who was born Jorge and came to Oaxaca because she found Juchitï¿½n intolerant towards gays, decided to wear
womenï¿½s clothing when she was 13, against the advise of a muxe her age who thought it could be dangerous. She received the support of her mom, grandfather, and a couple of girlfriends who helped her define her styleï¿½western and sexy. But to these days, her grandmother has refused to accept it. Next December nonetheless, Vicki will wear to the vela club baile con migo the regional dress her uncle bought for her to receive the 2004 beauty queen crown. ï¿½I am so happy to be the queen,ï¿½ she confesses with a soft, but rasping voice, her ecstatic eyes twinkling. ï¿½I have admired the transvestite muxe since I was a very little boy.ï¿½
ï¿½The new generation is only interested in dressing up like women and looking beautiful. They donï¿½t think at all about their future,ï¿½ argues Felina who herself
wears a knee-long blue jeans skirt. ï¿½We follow the examples of the older muxe: we work and take care of our parents. My motivation is my parents. I live alone
and it is my duty to help them.ï¿½
The new generation’s attitude is not limited to clothing. A few muxe have also started considering using hormones, breast implants or aesthetic surgery to narrow their noses. Only one so far is said to be thinking about getting an operation to remove his genitals.
For Amaranta, who was able to travel around the world as an anti-AIDS activist and is considering furthering her education in social studies, muxe ought to create different roles for themselves within the Juchitecan society. ï¿½When I was 13 or 14, it was impossible for a muxe to enter politics, to write articles, to be an
activist, an opinion maker. We had to embroider and create adornments,ï¿½ she says. ï¿½Now the muxe who wants to should be able to open up intellectual spaces for herself.ï¿½ With her charming ironic smile she adds: ï¿½It has not been easy for me. My mom wanted me to learn a traditional muxe job. Between two conferences she would tell me, ï¿½at least bake a cake or something.ï¿½ï¿½ When asked if marriage is part of the agenda, the vast majority of muxe seem perplexed, as if they had never thought of it. ï¿½People get married, and then they
divorce,ï¿½ says Felina. ï¿½I donï¿½t want that. I want my relationships to last the time they should last and thatï¿½s it. And I want to enjoy all the men I want.ï¿½
ï¿½In Juchitï¿½n marriage is not a necessity,ï¿½ says Ulises. ï¿½It is an issue that you find in other societies, where homosexuals are discriminated against. Here we donï¿½t need a political movement or the creation of special space in society. We already