Photo by Laboratorio Enmovimiento.
Local legend on the isthmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, has it that God entrusted a 14th century Valencian saint with a difficult task: to distribute sacred muxes (pronounced moo-shes) throughout the country from a sack on his back. But when the saint, named Vicente Ferrer, passed through the town of Juchitán de Zaragoza, the muxes — a third gender assigned male at birth but who live as women — eagerly tore through the sack and scattered, settling in the region as locals. Today about 3,000 muxes live in Juchitán and are celebrated every November at the Vigil of the Authentic Intrepid Searchers of Danger.
Muxes have inhabited the ambiguous space between genders since precolonial Zapotec times, revered within their culture for bringing luck to families and bearing artistic and intellectual gifts. Many dress in traditional huipil tunics with ribbons and flowers braided into their hair and make a living embroidering textiles while taking care of their elders, but others work in government or in the sex industry.
Muxes identify anywhere from female to transgender to neither or both. Some undergo physical transitions to appear more feminine while others reject Western notions of gender performance altogether. They have relationships with men or with women. In Juchitán, locals generally respect the plurality of muxe identity and as many as 15 muxes can be found living on a single street.
A hallmark of Zapotec culture is the vela, a multi-day vigil and elaborate celebration that includes at least one mass, several days of partying, non-stop dancing, feasting and a parade. But the four day-long Vela de las Auténticas Intrépidas Buscadoras del Peligro puts its own twist on the vigil, adding a runway-like pageant show and culminating in the coronation of a muxe queen. Entry into the festivities, which draws 5,000 people annually, can be bought with a case of beer.
While most locals value their place in Juchitán, many will shun muxes if they engage in relationships with men, or if they choose to undergo cosmetic surgery or prostitute themselves. Some take offense to muxes who come to crash the party, accusing the modern-day muxes from Mexico City and other parts of the country where traditional wear is considered out of fashion. But this does not stop young transgirls from around Mexico who, rejected from their families, flock to Juchitán for acceptance within the community. In the documentary, Juchitán: Queer Paradise, one muxe describes the name of their vigil as representing the spirit of being muxe: “Being intrepid means being bold, rebellious, fearing nothing. Most muxes are intrepid.”