The muxe, Mexico’s ‘third gender,’ part of global LGBTQ+ movement

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Stylists apply eyeliner, powder and other touches to the face of the soon-to-be-enthroned Queen Elvis as she holds forth about the singular nature of her community — the muxe — in this remote slice of southern Mexico.

The muxe (pronounced MOO-shay) are Zapotec people who view themselves as neither man nor woman, but instead a distinct “third gender.” Identified as male at birth, they embody female characteristics — in presentation, behavior and professions — which once earned them contempt and scorn. Today, though prejudices persist, in general they are accepted — even admired — on their home turf.

Elvis Guerra, 30, the queen in waiting, explains that the muxe stand in solidarity with burgeoning gender rights movements worldwide, pronouncing themselves trailblazers of cultural preservation and inclusion in a rural bastion of Catholicism.

“We share the same fight as the LGBTQ community,” said Guerra, who is also a published poet, lawyer and head of a company producing fabrics with Indigenous motifs.

She sat patiently as ardent beauticians prepared her for her formal investiture, a highlight of the three-day festival — or vela — that celebrates muxe culture here every November.

“In fact, I think it should be written LGBTQM,” she said. “With an M at the end for muxe.”

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Mexico’s legacy of machismo and Roman Catholicism has fostered hostility to homosexuality and alternatives to conventional gender norms. That has begun to change, slowly, in recent decades. Mexico City now holds an annual Gay Pride parade that is among the world’s largest. Last year, same-sex marriage finally became legal in every Mexican state.

But the November slaying of Jesús Ociel Baena, a nonbinary magistrate and prominent LGBTQ+ activist in the central state of Aguascalientes, was a reminder of continuing intolerance and crime against gay, transgender and nonbinary people.

A muxe procession along a street

A muxe procession during the annual festival in November.

(Samuel López Amezquita / For The Times)

Police called the killing a murder-suicide, not a hate crime, saying the judge’s partner fatally stabbed the victim before killing himself. But the magistrate’s family and advocates have voiced skepticism, citing threats against the activist and Mexico’s long history of ignoring or covering up crimes targeting individuals because of their gender or sexual orientation.

Muxe representatives condemned the magistrate’s killing while demanding that police reinvigorate the stalled inquiry into the 2019 homicide of a beloved muxe leader, Óscar Cazorla, who was stabbed to death in his home here in Juchitán, in Oaxaca state on the isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Cazorla was a pivotal figure who, a generation ago, helped pull the community out of the closet. Known for wearing guayabera with neon-bright flower prints and a cascading array of gold jewelry, he was at the forefront of the battle to end discrimination and allow the muxe to stage their galas with participants in female dress.

“How many more deaths of LGBTQ people — both the well-known and the anonymous — have to occur to wake up the collective conscience, the anger, the rage?” asked Felina Santiago Valdivieso, president of a muxe association. Speaking to an audience of thousands at the Nov. 18 coronation ball for the new queen, she added: “All of us, we all run a risk simply for being who we are.”

Muxe had long been prevented from wearing women’s clothing in formal parades and were often denied educational opportunities and jobs. But beginning in the mid-1970s, the muxe launched what they view as a liberation movement, including public protests and appeals to police and politicians. At the same time, left-wing movements were sweeping the isthmus — a part of Mexico with a long and proud history of rebellion and cultural independence, providing an opening for the muxe to throw their support behind political reform.

“We were persecuted,” said Edgar Cacique Ruiz, 55, a muxe who was a close associate of Cazorla. “It was only through constant battles and activism that our way of dressing was accepted, and that our sisters can now dress like women.”

Said Guerra: “To have sexual freedom, you first need political freedom.”

The muxe say they managed to maintain their essential character despite centuries of hostility and repression

The muxe say they managed to maintain their essential character — often clandestinely — despite centuries of hostility and repression from Spanish and Mexican authorities.

(Samuel López Amezquita / For The Times)

The muxe view the annual festivities as much more than a big party: The vela, they say, is essential to asserting their identity and winning wider acceptance — a signature happening garnering government and business support, drawing big crowds and generating considerable income. Its success underscores the muxe ascension from outcasts to their current status as a vital thread in the economic and social fabric of a place where the Zapotec language is still prevalent.

Still, Guerra said, the battle doesn’t end “until we have equality, respect in the community, and every muxe child is permitted to go to school dressed like a girl.”

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Across the globe, there are examples of other Indigenous communities like the muxe who don’t fit into the standard binary gender matrix. Among them are the hijras of South Asia, the kathoeys of Southeast Asia and the fa’afafine of Polynesia. Like the muxe, members of these groups say their gender identities date back centuries.

Many Mesoamerican cultures, including the Zapotec civilization that dominated this region for centuries, were more accepting of gender diversity than the Spanish who first arrived in the 16th century, researchers say. Spanish conquistadors expressed outrage about same-sex relations among Indigenous peoples, burning idols extolling homosexuality and even executing practitioners, according to colonial-era chronicles.

“The Spanish saw everything through a colonial, Catholic lens,” said Lynn Stephen, an anthropologist at the University of Oregon who has studied the muxe. “All across Mexico and Latin America there is evidence of the Spanish being very upset about anyone who didn’t conform to what we would now call heterosexual, monogamous, married Catholic life.”

The muxe say they managed to maintain their essential character — often clandestinely — despite centuries of hostility and repression from Spanish and Mexican authorities. “We are muxes, a gender identity … in a society that remains totally machista,” said Guerra. “We are also protecting our Zapotec Indigenous culture and language.”

The origins of the term muxe remains somewhat opaque, but it is often thought to be linked to mujer, the Spanish word for “woman.” Individual muxe select their own pronouns.

The muxe population numbers in the thousands, experts estimate, but there is no census. Many gay and trans people in Mexico City and elsewhere call themselves muxes — though community leaders here, concerned about cultural appropriation, say only Zapotec people from the isthmus can qualify.

Inspired by muxe tradition, Mexican immigrants in Southern California organized an annual gala — Vela Muxe Los Angeles — and coronation of a queen between 2013 and 2019. The pandemic ended the event.

Muxes march arm in arm at a parade

Muxes Alexis and Mística march arm in arm alongside a street parade in Juchitán de Zaragoza in November.

(Mirja Vogel / For De Los)

“Even though I am not muxe from the isthmus, for me the word implies respect and tolerance,” said Lía Maritza Sánchez, 51, an L.A. County restaurant worker who is a native of Oaxaca and was named queen of the 2014 muxe ball in L.A. “I proudly call myself muxe,” said Sánchez.

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The saying goes that almost every family here on the isthmus includes a person who identifies as muxe. While not all parents initially embrace muxe offspring — fathers often object — many come to view them as a blessing. A traditional muxe role is to look after aging mothers and fathers as other siblings leave home.

“Our life commitment is to take care of our parents until the last days of their lives,” Santiago explained. “It is a commitment of love. From the heart, not an obligation.”

Santiago was born 57 years ago and named Angel, a common name given to boys in Spanish-speaking countries. But “from the time I reached the age of reason, I knew I was a muxe,” Santiago said. “And my brothers and sisters and all my family knew. It’s a collective discovery. It’s natural. Here, someone is born muxe, just like someone else is born a woman or born a man.”

For the festival, Santiago donned an elaborately embroidered garment featuring yellow, black and red geometrical designs with a lacy white hem. The Tehuana dress — originating among Zapotec women on the isthmus — was famously adopted by Frida Kahlo.

For the muxe, wearing female attire and makeup are both matters of aesthetic choice and a societal shout-out of pride. But the look is only the most visible aspect of a complex, multifaceted community. Many muxe prefer men’s clothing, occasionally adding mascara or nail polish. Others dress up only for formal occasions.

Santiago runs a beauty salon here, indicative of how many muxe now own their own businesses, often tied to fashion, food or design. More recently, as acceptance of the muxe has grown, they’ve moved into education, law and politics, among other professions.

Rubitch Díaz Martínez heads a preschool. “I am accepted by the parents, the students, my colleagues at work — they all accept who I am,” she explained. “I am a muxe, and we are part of society, part of the broader community.”

“Whether one is trans, gay, [or] muxe, one has to fight from one’s own trench,” said Díaz Martínez, 39, who was wearing a flower-print outfit with red and yellow blossoms in her headband during the November festivities. “I’ve suffered discrimination, but I’ve fought. I had to leave the closet and be accepted.”

Juchitán, a sprawling city of 110,000, has many social ills, including endemic poverty and high crime. The isthmus, Mexico’s narrowest point between the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico, is a key smuggling corridor for U.S.-bound illicit drugs and undocumented migrants. But it is still a relatively safe place for the muxe compared with other areas of Mexico, where violence against LGBTQ+ people is not uncommon.

“I could never dress like this in Veracruz, where I live now,” said Ximena Ximénez, 27, who returned to Juchitán for the vela and wore a black, gold and white garment with a matching headpiece. “Here, one feels the liberty to be oneself, to walk in the streets freely. I can cry to the four winds, ‘I am a muxe!’ And no one bothers me.”

Traditionally, muxe do not marry, though it is customary for some to care for children of siblings. Many muxe partner with men, which is seldom talked about publicly. “A muxe cannot divulge the love that she has for a man,” Ximénez said, noting the taboo that still largely precludes discussion of muxes’ sex lives.

The muxe say it is unusual for members of their community here to seek hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgeries. “We don’t have confusion about our identity,” Santiago said.

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On the second day of the festival the muxe file into the spartan confines of St. Vicente Ferrer Church, a makeshift chapel temporarily replacing Juchitán’s 17th century church — still under repair because of extensive damage in a 2017 earthquake that battered the isthmus. (The muxe were widely praised for organizing food handouts and other aid following the earthquake.)

St. Vicente Ferrer is the patron saint of Juchitán, and of the muxe. The legend goes that the saint, born in the 14th century in current-day Spain, carried three bags of seeds — feminine, masculine and a third sack with a combination of the two. Somehow, the mixed bag spilled in Juchitán, and the muxe emerged. The annual Mass here is a signature part of the festivities.

Pope Francis has spoken about inclusion, about not excluding anyone,” says Father Eleazar López, who officiates the muxe Mass and has spent most of his more than 40 years as a priest attending to marginalized Indigenous communities. “The muxe are a very important part of life in Juchitán. They participate in the community. They take care of their parents. They are very valued.”

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Juchitán is a grueling, five-hour drive from Oaxaca City past parched Sierra Madre peaks spiked with maguey, the raw ingredient of mezcal. The regional libation is much in abundance during the three-day blowout of processions, dance parties and general merriment.

Ox-drawn carts and pickups, festooned with balloons, flowers and paper mache, ferry muxe as they toss toys, condoms, plastic bowls and other gifts into the arms of revelers packed along pageant routes. The bowls have a purpose: to scoop up servings of mescal punch from a 55-gallon drum at a downtown park, where celebrants dance as a brass band blares away.

Muxe who dress up for the festival invest a lot of effort — and money — in the enterprise. A different outfit is de rigueur for each of three or four major events. A complete ensemble for the ball alone can cost more than $2,000.

Chiffon, bangles, sequins and all manner of frills and baubles are ubiquitous, and six-inch heels appear to be compulsory. A DJ churns out a steady stream of pop classics, including ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.”

No ticket is needed to enter this year’s ball — set in an outdoor livestock facility — but men are required to bring a case of Victoria beer, which costs about $15.

A meringue band, fireworks, confetti showers and a light show animate the jamboree. But the much-anticipated highlight is the pasarela, or catwalk: Muxe and non-muxe stroll along runway space cut through the pulsating crowd.

Muxe who dress up for the festival invest a lot of effort — and money — in the enterprise.

Muxe who dress up for the festival invest a lot of effort — and money — in the enterprise. A different outfit is de rigueur for each of three or four major events.

(Samuel López Amezquita / For The Times)

Approaching the stage with a glittering entourage, Queen Elvis wears a billowing pink skirt fitted tight over a white petticoat, a sequined wrap, and a cabbage-sized blue bow slung from her waist. The mayor of Juchitán, who assists his elderly mother up the stairs to the stage, is tasked with positioning the hefty, jewel-encrusted crown on the queen’s head.

Then Guerra takes the opportunity to rail against gender violence.

“No more minutes of silence,” Guerra says to the crowd, where cellphones are held high to record the investiture. “No more silence for our heroes — because even today there are still those who use the shield of ignorance to continue assassinating us.”

The muxe, she adds, are long past the stage of accepting just being tolerated. “Tolerance, no: Respect,” the queen insists. “We demand respect. Because we have earned it. And deserve it.”

Special correspondent Cecilia Sánchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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