Intimate portraits of Mexican multiplexes of the third genre

Estrella has long, wavy, jet-back hair. She tries to tame it with a thick-toothed comb in the backyard of her house, among chickens, ha...


Estrella has long, wavy, jet-back hair. She tries to tame it with a thick-toothed comb in the backyard of her house, among chickens, hammocks and looms. All around her, relatives come and go.

It’s November 2015, and Estrella is getting ready for the annual festival called La Vela de las Auténticas Intrepidas Buscadoras del Peligro, or the Festival of the Authentic and Intrepid Seekers of Danger. There, alongside a community of fellow muxes – people born male but adopting roles and identities associated with women – she will compete to be crowned queen of the ceremony.

Estrella and her family live near the town of Juchitán de Zaragoza, on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in the state of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. As Zapotecs, an indigenous people of Mexico, they are part of a community that has long accepted – and celebrated – muxes (pronounced MOO-shays), which are widely considered a third gender.

Many (but not all) muxes assume roles within Zapotec society that are traditionally associated with women; they cook, embroider clothes, work as hairdressers, do housework, take care of children and elderly parents. Estrella is one of them: alongside other interests, she designs the elaborate embroidery of traditional Zapotec dresses, full of flowers and other natural elements that flood with color every celebration or festivity on the isthmus.

“At the age of 5, my mother started to notice how I handled household affairs,” says Estrella. “I washed the dishes, the clothes; I always wanted to help him. But my dad wouldn’t let me do it, so I did it in secret.

Whenever her father left the house, she would put on her sisters’ clothes and dance around the room, she said – but, when he returned, “the dream was over and the spell was broken.”

According to sociologists, the concept of a different or third gender existed in several Indigenous societies in North America, most notably among the Crow, Apache, and several other Native American groups.

Anthropologists have also noted the acceptance of gender fluidity in pre-Columbian Mexico, citing accounts of cross-dressing among Aztec priests, as well as Mayan gods who were simultaneously male and female.

Despite centuries of colonization and Christianization, which shattered many of these attitudes, some tolerance for gender nonconformity has survived within the cultures of the indigenous communities of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

I first discovered Mexican muxes after working on a series of gender identity projects in Cuba and Brazil. My first visit to Juchitán, in 2014, coincided with a series of festivities, during which apparently everyone I met – young, old, men, women, muxes – danced, ate and drank to celebrate. The days were long and intense, full of joy and euphoria. It was there, surrounded by festivities, that I made my first encounters with muxes.

When boys express their softness, some Zapotec mothers begin to train them in traditional female roles. Likewise, many mothers do not disown young men who are interested in the work traditionally assigned to women.

In particular, it is traditionally forbidden for muxe children to leave the parental home to found their own family or to live independently with their partners. Even here, tolerance and acceptance, it seems, have their limits.

Aiming to help her mother, who was in debt, Estrella decided to drop out of school at a young age and support the education of her siblings. She helps her mother at the market. When she is not giving dance lessons at school, she gives private lessons in preparation for quinceaneras, 15th anniversary celebrations that serve as rites of passage for girls in many Latin American countries. She also designs and embroiders dresses and takes care of household chores.

But the day I spend with her at the end of November 2015, she is not working. 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 which have been crowned queens at previous festivals.

That night, Estrella is visibly nervous. Her voice is shaking and she is afraid that her legs will fail her. She wants to be perfect, she says, and shine like a star, if only for a few minutes.

She chooses a modern dress, opting to expose one of her shoulders. She lets down her hair.

Thousands of people gather for the Vela, from Oaxaca and beyond. Costumed celebrants dance to live music the night away, drink beer, and eat traditional Juchitán food.

Fortunately, Estrella is surrounded by her friends. But what matters most to her is that her mother joined her at Vela – as she does, she tells me, at every party she attends.

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