Estrella has long, wavy, backward-facing hair. She tries to tame it with a thick-toothed comb in the back yard of her house between chickens, hammocks and looms. Relatives come and go around them.
It’s November 2015 and Estrella is preparing for the annual festival called La Vela de las Auténticas Intrépidas Buscadoras del Peligro, or the festival of the authentic and intrepid seekers of danger. There she, along with a community of other muxes – people born male but assuming roles and identities associated with women – will fight to crown the ceremony.
Estrella and her family live near the town of Juchitán de Zaragoza on the isthmus of Tehuantepec in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. As Zapotecs, an indigenous people of Mexico, they are part of a community that has long accepted and celebrated the Muxes (pronounced MOO-shays), which are generally considered to be the third gender.
Many (though not all) muxes have roles within Zapotec society that have traditionally been associated with women; They cook, embroider items of clothing, work as hairdressers, do the household chores, look after children and older relatives. Estrella is one of them: In addition to other interests, she designs the elaborate embroidery of traditional Zapotec dresses full of flowers and other natural elements that flood every celebration or festivity on the isthmus with color.
“When I was 5, my mother started noticing how I was handling household affairs,” explains Estrella. “I washed the dishes, the clothes; I always wanted to help her. But my father wouldn’t let me, and so I did it secretly. “
Whenever her father left the house, she would put on her sisters’ clothes and dance around the room, she says – but when he returned, “the dream was over and the spell was broken”.
According to sociologists, the concept of an opposite or third gender existed in several indigenous societies in North America, including the Crow people, the Apaches, and several other Native American groups.
Anthropologists have also noted the acceptance of gender fluidity in pre-Columbian Mexico by citing reports of cross-dressing among Aztec priests as well as Mayan gods who were male and female at the same time.
Despite centuries of colonization and Christianization that wiped out many of these attitudes, the cultures of the indigenous communities of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec have retained a certain tolerance of gender-specific deviations.
I first found out about Mexico’s muxes after working on a number of gender identity projects in Cuba and Brazil. My first visit to Juchitán in 2014 coincided with a series of celebrations where it seems everyone I met – young, old, men, women, muxes – danced, ate and drank in celebration. The days were long and intense, full of joy and euphoria. It was there, surrounded by conviviality, that I made my first acquaintance with the muxes.
When boys express femininity, some Zapotec mothers will begin training them in traditional female roles. Similarly, many mothers do not reject young men who show an interest in traditionally female assigned work.
In particular, muxe children are traditionally forbidden from leaving their parents’ home to start their own family or to live independently with their partners. Here, too, tolerance and acceptance seem to have their limits.
To help her debt-ridden mother, Estrella decided to drop out of school at a young age and support her siblings’ education. She helps her mother in the market. When she is not giving dance lessons at school, she gives private lessons to prepare for quinceañeras, 15th birthday celebrations which serve as rites of passage for girls in many Latin American countries. She also designs and sews clothes and takes care of the household.
But on the day I spend with her at the end of November 2015, she doesn’t work. It’s Vela day and she spends her time preparing for the celebration. She plans to wear her best clothes and parade with the other muxes, some of whom have been crowned queens at previous festivals.
That night, Estrella is visibly nervous. Her voice is trembling and she is afraid that her legs will fail. She wants to look perfect, she says, and shine like a star – if only for a few minutes.
She chooses a modern dress and chooses to expose one of her shoulders. She lets her hair fall.
Thousands of people gather for the Vela, from Oaxaca and beyond. Costumed parties dance to live music all night, drink beer, and eat traditional Juchitán food.
Estrella is happily surrounded by her friends. But the most important thing for her is that her mother went to the Vela with her – how she does it, she tells me, at all the parties she goes to.