Found in March 2007 Marie Claire Magazine
In one part of Mexico, mothers are encouraging their boys to become girls.At the festival of the Virgin of Juguila in Juchitan, a small Mexican city near the Guatemalan border, men sit quietly on the sidelines of a makeshift dance hall, swilling Corona from bottles, cowboy hats pulled low over their eyes, while women arrange chairs in a semicircle, dressed in traditional Zapotec galawear—long, swirling skirts and velvet tops embroidered with multicolored flowers—red roses pinned to their straight black hair. And when the four-piece salsa band starts to play, they dance not with their men, but with each other.At the fringes of the semicircle, a group of younger women in their 20s and 30s linger. They are dressed in utterly modern clothes: clingy polyester cocktail dresses, three inch heels, and glittery eye shadow. One has tossed a scarf around her neck that trails down her back. Another is clad in an ice-blue camisole and tight capris.They are strikingly different from their older counterparts with the long gray braids, who wear petticoats beneath their full, ankle-length skirts. The biggest difference, though, isn’t the clothes. It’s the fact that these glamorous, slightly tawdry women are actually men. Muxes, they’re called in the Zapotec language, which literally means “gay men” but translates culturally as a third gender, with few similarities to gay men in America. Muxes dress and wear makeup like women. They shave their legs and tweeze their eyebrows into high, thin arches. They are respected in their community for excelling at “women’s work”—designing festival gowns, embroidering blouses, and making the elaborate decorations that adorn parade floats.But perhaps most distinctively, muxes in this Mexican village seem to have little interest in romantic liaisons with other men. Of the 500 to 800 muxes estimated to live in Juchitan, locals say only three live with lovers. They are classic mama’s boys, who pledge to live with and care for their mothers until the day they die.“I will stay with my mother always,” Estrella Vazquez Guerra, 25, tells me when I meet “her” on the front porch of her family’s turquoise one-room house, where she sits embroidering a blouse. Estrella, a member of the third gender, is tall and thin, with long limbs, high cheekbones and an aquiline nose. Though she claims to have a boyfriend—“not serious, of course”—she would never consider living with him, she says. Her mother, a squat woman in her mid 40s with warm brown eyes and a gold-capped smile, beams across the porch at her daughter/son.Whether there are more muxes in Juchitan, which has a population of 67,000, than in other small Mexican cities is arguable and hard to prove. At the very least, muxes in Juchitan are more accepted than muxes in other parts of Mexico, with its notoriously macho attitudes and male-dominated politics. One reason is that muxes here play an integral role in perpetuating the 400-year-old traditions of the region, seamlessly blending Catholicism with local Zapotec culture in their artistic endeavors.Every three or four days, there is a fiesta in Juchitan. Most celebrate saints or the day on which an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared to an indigenous nonbeliever. This nonstop partying means the muxes’ design and decoration businesses are in high demand.“Muxes work harder than men, and we’re more curious and entrepreneurial than women,” says Estrella. “We are known for our artistic talent. People seek us out—they like to have their dresses made by muxes.”To kick off a fiesta, some neighborhoods hold an event called a regada, a sort of parade to build excitement through the town. The day before the party for the Virgin of Juquila, two floats glide through the streets of Juchitan carrying young girls and boys who toss packets of instant noodles, bright plastic balls, and laundry detergent to spectators on the side of the road. The floats are mounted on trucks, which have been decorated with papier-mâché flowers and painted wooden panels, all created by muxes. In the center of the float, coordinating the seat assignments and the gift-throwing, is a muxe in full fiesta regalia.But muxes do more than fulfill a cultural role; their jobs also tend to be more lucrative than the work of either men or women. Men in Juchitan generally work as fishermen or campesinos (peasant farmers), earning 1000 pesos (about $92) a month. Women, by making tortillas or tamales to sell at the market, earn slightly more. But a muxe can make as much as 3000 pesos a month selling dresses and decorations.It’s not that other women—or men, for that matter—couldn’t dabble in the same profession. But over the years, the muxes have come to dominate the design industry. Such salaries make them an economic boon to their families. “People see how we earn good money making dresses,” says Estrella, “and if they only have sons, five or six boys, sometimes they ask one—couldn’t you be a muxe? We want you to do what the muxes do for a living.”“I wouldn’t be living if it weren’t for my son Felicza,” says 45-year-old Antonia Regalado Jimenez. “She is my greatest supporter. I’m lucky to have her.” Jimenez’s husband is a campesino, and Felicza makes dresses and party decorations. Like most muxes, she also helps her mother with the household chores. Felicza’s five siblings are all married and live on their own, but she remains with her mother.Given the economic advantages and social prominence a muxe in the family brings, it is not unreasonable to assume that mothers encourage this transgender behavior in their children. But it’s not something most are comfortable admitting. “Other women say to me, ‘You are so lucky to have a muxe. I wish I had one,’” says 40-year-old Antonia Guerra Aquina. Two of Aquina’s eight children, including Vidal Aquina Guerra (in Mexican families, children take their mother’s maiden name as their last), are muxes. “Sometimes, neighbors will ask my advice: ‘What do you do in order to have a muxe?’” Aquina shrugs and smiles smugly. “I tell them it runs in the family.”Like many others in this town, Aquina says being a muxe is genetically predetermined. But when you listen to her describe her muxe children’s early tendencies—playing with girls instead of boys, playing with dolls instead of trucks, putting on their sisters’ skirts and swaying their hips to music—the language is nearly identical to that used by other muxe mothers. So similar, in fact, that it sounds canned, rehearsed—it’s been the party line for generations—when in fact the mothers are subconsciously molding their sons into daughters.Indeed, other locals believe that muxes are made, not born; that their feminine tendencies are nurtured by their mothers in the hopes of elevating their family’s status. “It’s an economic thing,” says Rosario Fuentes Morales, a local business owner. “It’s no coincidence that one finds more muxes in poor families. People know that a muxe will give them a better life, that they will always be cared for.”Felicza herself believes that her muxe lifestyle is a product of her mother’s encouragement. When she first began exhibiting feminine tendencies at age 4, her mother supported them. “She treated me like my sisters,” says Felicza. “She saw that I was drawn to dolls and that I had taken an interest in her skirts. She asked me if I wanted her to make me a huipile,” which is a traditional embroidered blouse.Then, too, in a town in which women are generally more respected than men, it’s possible that female role models simply have a stronger pull. “The women rule Juchitan,” says Silvia Dehesa, 36, a restaurant manager in the town. “We are much harder working. The men drink too much and sleep half the day and everyone knows it.”The very fact that muxes are so visible in the culture of Juchitan might also help elicit those tendencies in young boys. Estrella Vasquez Guerra was 10 when she met Felicza, who, at age 17, knew the attention and admiration her muxe status drew and spent weekends parading around with her muxe friends, proudly displaying red lips, gold earrings and fake eyelashes. Estrella used to go to Felicza’s house to watch them apply makeup, awestruck by their beauty. “I used to say, ‘Why don’t you try on some makeup, too?’” Felicza recalls. “I could see how much she wanted to experiment.”But Estrella was too frightened. Her father, an alcoholic with violent tendencies, had caught her dancing in her mother’s skirt when she was 8 and beat her with an electrical cord. When her mother tried to defend her son, Estrella’s father beat her as well. “It was very sad,” Estrella says softly as she recalls the story, picking at a tortilla on her plastic dinner plate. “I felt responsible.” It’s a common theme among muxes: Mothers and other community members celebrate these third-gender breadwinners, but their fathers, dismayed that their sons are veering toward femininity in a culture in which men are expected to hunt and drink and fight, try to beat the muxe out of them. The mothers step in to protect their sons, and a powerful mother-muxe bond begins to develop.With the threat of her father’s temper always looming over her, Estrella repressed her desire to act on her feminine urges publicly until she was 20, although at home, she was still very much fulfilling the muxe role as her mother’s helper. It took Felicza’s encouragement for her to make the decision to “show herself to the world,” as she puts it. “I could see that she was suffering,” says Felicza, “and I told her that she had to liberate herself.”Muxes often choose to celebrate their third-gender lifestyle with big parties, announcing to their community that they are choosing to accept their futures as domestic helpers and dressmakers. Juchitan hosts two annual parties devoted to muxes: La Vela de las Autenticas Intrepidas Buscadoras del Peligro, or “Festival of the Authentic, Intrepid Danger-Seekers”—a no-holds-barred gathering of cross-dressers that draws people from around the world—and Baila Conmigo, which means “Dance with Me,” a party that is attended by the entire town of Juchitan, from toddlers to rough-soled farmers to octogenarians. At that time, many muxes also swap their male names for female names, usually inspired by famous singers or telenovela stars.But Estrella had lived in secrecy for too long to share the spotlight with the dozens of other muxes coming out at the balls. She was compelled to make a strong, solo statement to the world—and she wanted it to be during a quinceanera, the traditional party Mexican girls have when they turn 15 to mark the threshold of adulthood. Despite the fact that she was five years past the proper age for a quinceanera, Estrella announced to her family that she planned to throw one for herself. She also told them that she was going to wear a dress. “You can’t stop me,” she said to her father, “because I am paying for the party myself.” The day before the event, Estrella’s father told her that he planned to come to the party drunk and raise hell. “I said, ‘If you do that, I will call the police.’”In the end, her father not only showed up, he behaved himself—although in photographs he looks reluctant and surly in his baseball cap, posing beside his glamorous muxe son. Estrella, by contrast, looks exultant in her silvery-blue ball gown, her layered black locks sprayed into an elaborate hairdo worthy of a nighttime soap star from the ‘80s. The next day, at the after-party known as the lavada (or “the washing of the pots and pans”), her father made up for the sobriety of the previous day by drinking himself into oblivion. As promised, Estrella called the police, and her father spent three days in jail. “He hasn’t said a critical word to me about being a muxe since then,” she says.Vidal Aquina Guerra publicly embraced her muxe nature at a much younger age: At 8, she was asking to wear a dress to sell bread at the market with her mother. By age 12, she was wearing miniskirts and heels out on the street. Today, at 17, she stuffs her bra and wears smoky purple eye shadow and fuchsia lipstick, and her laugh is high-pitched and melodious, the studied device of a coquette. She has even injected hormones from time to time, although she says she stopped because they were too expensive--$6 an injection for the cheapest variety. Last year, she took the name Mariana. “Vidal is dead,” she says emphatically when people try to address her now by her former male name.In 2006, Mariana clinched the most prestigious title available on the muxe social scene: She was chosen as the queen of the Baila Conmiga. It’s flattering, yes, but it also means she is expected to spend $500 on a dress and refreshments for the pre-party. Mariana’s family is desperately poor. Her father is an iguana hunter, her mother a tortilla maker, and it is incumbent upon Mariana to supplement her family’s income. The lavish dress seems out of her reach, although she is working long hours as a waitress (“and occasionally a little more,” she says) at Rincon del Brujo (“The Wizard’s Corner”), a gentlemen’s club on the outskirts of town.It’s 10pm at the local ranch, and the fiesta for the festival of the Virgin of Juquila is still in full swing. Locals have been partying hard since the festival’s opening ceremonial prayer at 5am (where sugar cookies and beer were served to all who attended the before-sunrise gathering), but judging by the endless booze flowing and the hips swaying on the dance floor, it’s going to be quite a long night.The older women cluster together, dancing in their traditional costumes, while husbands and sons look on, nursing their cervezas. In another corner, the muxes cut loose to the sounds of the salsa band, shimmering in their tight tops and clunky high heels. For now, the two groups remain separate. But if tonight goes like most festival fiestas, after a few more rounds of drinks when everyone is feeling good, some of the muxes will cross the room to ask a very special person to dance. As fathers and brothers watch stoically from their seats, Estrella, Mariana, Felicza, and several others will pair off with the women who gave birth to them, raised them, and regard them as domestic companions. And as the salsa band slows the tempo to a soft serenade, mother and muxe will share a dance that lasts a lifetime.