While Mexico is a primarily Spanish-speaking and Catholic country due to the influence of the Spanish Conquistadors, there are certain regions of the country that put up greater resistance to the foreign invaders, managing to keep their indigenous language and culture alive. The state of Oaxaca is an example of such a region, particularly in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which borders the Pacific Ocean to the south of Mexico, not far from Central America. The indigenous Zapotec culture remains strong here, in a region far off the tourist trinket-laden path of Cancun and Puerto Vallarta. In indigenous culture, concepts of gender and sexuality are often far more fluid than in the rigid doctrine of Roman Catholicism, a fact which is illustrated perhaps best by the cultural phenomenon of the muxe.
The muxe (pronounced MOO-shay), also known as the third sex, are men raised as women in the Zapotec region of Mexico, which retains matriarchal roots from its strong indigenous culture. It’s a common practice within families to raise their youngest son as a girl, so that he will grow up to be gay, thus not get married, and stay with his parents to care for them in their old age. Muxes are typically homosexual, and some cross-dress and act as women in their hometowns, working in traditionally female roles such as embroidery, weaving, cooking, and hairdressing. Strikingly, compared to the rest of Catholic and conservative Mexico (outside of large cities such as Mexico City and Guadalajara) Zapotec culture not only accepts its muxes as part of the community, but embraces and celebrates them.
The biggest celebration of muxe culture occurs once a year on the penultimate Saturday of November and is known as la Vela de las Auténticas, Intrépidas Buscadoras del Peligro, or the Festival of the Authentic, Intrepid Seekers of Danger. Quite the name, no? Velas are community festivals scattered throughout the year in Oaxaca’s Isthmus de Tehuantepec, with muxes holding their own velas, including their biggest one, the aforementioned Vela de las Auténticas, Intrépidas Buscadoras del Peligro. This particular vela involves a beauty pageant, dancing, live music, and general community merriment and celebration.
And so, our curiosity piqued by the uniqueness of this far-flung cultural event in the Oaxacan countryside, two friends and I embarked on a bus from Mexico City in late November en route to Juchitan, the home of the vela of the muxes. One long journey later, my friends and I finally stepped foot in hot, dusty Juchitan, which upon first glance looked like any other typical Mexican small city. People riding in the back of pickup trucks, sprawling markets, dodgy food-stands, the occasional donkey. In the evening, we freshened up and did our best to adhere to the suggested dress code for the evening: women in black, men in white. Not having packed for the occasion, I did the best I could with a light blue polo shirt.
We arrived outside of the venue and paid our entrance fee to access the vela. Women (and presumably muxes) got in free, while men paid 130 pesos and received a gigantic case of beer, which they then hauled over as their contribution to the party to their host of choice. The vela was held in an outdoor concert venue, with a stage and chairs and tables lining the sides of the space. Eventually the muxe master of ceremonies took the stage and began a small speech about the muxe community in the region and the importance of acceptance and tolerance, alongside the winner of the previous year’s pageant. Then began the beauty pageant segment of the night, in search of Juchitán’s next muxe queen. Muxe after muxe, each one more extravagantly dressed than the last, sashayed down the floor in front of the stage, surrounded by an enthusiastic and cheering crowd, before one lucky muxe snatched first place and was crowned. The pageant was held to the tune of Shania Twain’s “Man, I Feel Like a Woman”… on loop. It was cute, the first ten times.
After the coronation, the chairs were cleared, a live band came out and the dancing began, bringing together men, women, and muxes, both young and old, local and tourist. When every man enters the party with a case of twenty-four beers morning, it’s no surprise that the party should go on until the wee hours of the morning.
The local people were very kind to us, happy to see tourists from so far away take an interest in their culture. Our host table at the vela had prepared a variety of typical dishes (iguana is a local specialty) to keep us well-fed throughout the night, and were proud to have us at their table. In addition to many colorful local muxes, we also met a few fellow travelers from different parts of Mexico and beyond who had also come to witness this cultural phenomenon, which encapsulates tolerant attitudes so different than the rest of Mexico and Latin America.
The next day, we bused it to the seaport of Salinas Cruz, where we took a cab to a wide, beautiful, nearly empty beach called Playa Azul, a welcome repose after the taxing festivities of the previous night’s unforgettable vela and a refreshing recharge before heading back to the chaos and frenzy of Mexico City.
Mexico is a very surprising place, as I discovered living there for one year. Who knew you could find snowy mountaintops just one hour outside of Mexico City? Or that there are blonde and blue-eyed Mexicans? The muxe culture of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec just goes to show that whenever you think you may finally be starting to understand Mexico, it will throw something at you that will teach you to remember to always expect the unexpected when it comes to this paradoxical, surreal, and beautiful country.
WHERE: Juchitan, in the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Direct bus service from Mexico City.
WHEN: Once a year on the penultimate Saturday of November.
HOT TIP: If coming by bus from another Mexican city, book in advance! The Monday following the vela is usually a national holiday to commemorate el Día de la Revolución, or Revolution Day, and as such the long weekend is a popular one for escaping the city and buses fill up quickly.
Here are a couple great articles about the muxes and their festival:
And here is a link to my friend’s blog with her perspective on our trip: