In Oaxaca’s Istmo de Tehuantepec region, the traditional indigenous division of three genders is seen as a natural way of being.
My Note: We are not along.
“Which form should I use when I talk to you: feminine or masculine?” I asked Lukas Avendaño, who I had seen in trousers earlier in the day but now was wearing a traditional black skirt with colourful embroidered flowers called an enagua. We were speaking in Spanish, with its gendered nouns and pronouns. “I prefer you’d just call me sweetheart,” Avendaño giggled.
Here, in the Istmo de Tehuantepec region in Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca, there are three genders: female, male and muxes. This third classification has been acknowledged and celebrated since pre-Hispanic times, and it’s hard to imagine life without muxes here. But in this region where most people speak the indigenous Zapotec language, my question doesn’t make much sense.
“In Zapotec, as in English, there are no grammatical genders. There is only one form for all people. Muxes have never been forced to wonder: are they more man or woman?” Avendaño explained.
“We’re the third sex,” added Felina, who, unlike Avendaño, decided to change his given male name, Ángel, and goes only by this moniker. “There’s men and women and there’s something in between, and that’s who I am.”
I was at Vela de Las Intrepidas (Vigil of the Intrepids), the annual celebration of muxes that takes place each November in Juchitán de Zaragoza, a small town on the Istmo de Tehuantepec. Observing the different muxes, I couldn’t see much in common between their styles. There were muxes who, like the local tehuanas (women from the Istmo de Tehuantepec), wore the same richly embroidered outfits that inspired Frida Kahlo’s unique look. Others seemed to prefer Western-style dresses or drag queen apparel. And there were some wearing men’s clothes, showing their status with just simple makeup and nail polish.
|A lot of muxes work preparing |
the traditional fiestas that are a big part
of the local economy (Credit: Zofia Radzikowska)
“It’s hard to describe who a muxe is. Basically, we can say that a muxe is any person who was born a man but doesn’t act masculine,” Avendaño said.
“What we know, ‘under Western eyes’, as ‘male-to-female transvestite’, ‘male-to-female transsexual’, ‘effeminate gay’ or ‘masculine gay’ seems to be included within the category of ‘muxe’ as long as there is also a strong component of ethnic identity,” writes anthropologist Pablo Céspedes Vargas in his article Muxes at work: between community belonging and heteronormativity in the workplace. Avendaño similarly emphasised that ‘muxe’ is a Zapotec term and it can’t be understood without knowing more about their culture.
For the Mexican and international gay community, Juchitán has become a queer paradise and a symbol of tolerance. Even though some locals still discriminate against muxes, and the muxe community as a whole has less opportunity to study and gain employment, the traditional indigenous division of three genders as a natural and traditional way of being has inspired the LGBT scene around the world – and muxes are becoming aware of it.