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This Southern Mexico Community Has Challenged the Gender Binary for Generations

This Southern Mexico Community Has Challenged the Gender Binary for Generations

Dressed in traditional Zapotec attire, muxes in Juchitán, Mexico, partake in a parade for the annual "Vela de las Intrépidas" in 2016.
Photo by Jeoffrey Guillemard/Haytham-Rea/Redux

Muxes, a group long recognized within the indigenous Zapotec people of Mexico, are often referred to as a third gender.

By Harmeet Kaur

(CNN) -- In the town of Juchitán de Zaragoza, located on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico's southern state of Oaxaca, one variation of a local legend goes something like this.

San Vicente Ferrer, the patron saint of Juchitán, was carrying three bags of seeds meant to be distributed around the world. The first contained male seeds, the second contained female seeds and a third bag contained a mixture of the two. But as San Vicente was passing through Juchitán, the third bag ruptured -- and from it sprang the town's famed community of muxes.

Muxes, a group long recognized within the indigenous Zapotec people of Mexico, are often referred to as a third gender. Embodying characteristics of both men and women, their existence challenges the gender binary that is so deeply entrenched in Western society.

"We are people of two spirits," Felina Santiago says in the Oaxaca episode of "Eva Longoria: Searching for Mexico." "We are the duality, neither man nor woman. You are neither less nor more."

Indigenous communities in Mexico have recognized a third gender since before Spanish colonization and its ensuing influence of Catholicism, with anthropologists pointing to Aztec priests who wore clothing associated with another gender and Mayan gods who were both male and female. Today, the muxes of Juchitán are just one of several communities around the world who don't fit into the gender binary, such as hijras in India, bakla in the Philippines and fa'afafine in Samoa.

"Their way of life represents a form of resistance against the Western colonizing forces that have historically imposed their beliefs and behaviors on indigenous peoples," Jacobo Ramírez, whose research with Ana María Munar has explored muxes and gender in indigenous communities, wrote in an email to CNN.

Muxes are generally assigned male at birth but tend to present in typically feminine ways through their behaviors, clothing and occupations. Many are skilled in embroidery or other artisan crafts, or work as merchants in the markets that drive the region's economy. Often, they are caretakers for elderly relatives and community members, said Ramírez, an associate professor in Latin American business development at the Copenhagen Business School.

Still, there isn't any one way to be muxe. There are muxes who are teachers, lawyers and social justice activists. Many muxes wear feminine attire in their daily lives, but some continue to wear masculine clothing at work or in other settings, donning more feminine clothing only for certain occasions. But muxes aren't defined by their appearance.

"What is muxiedad for muxes?" the poet Elvis Guerra muses in the HBO Max documentary "Muxes." "A way of living. This is how we were born."

(CNN and HBO Max share parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.)

Being muxe is a distinct identity

It might be tempting to equate muxes to transgender people or classify them as part of the wider LGBTQ+ umbrella. But according to muxes and experts who have studied their communities, those labels impose a Western lens and don't quite capture the nuances of being muxe.

Muxes consider their identities to be distinct -- generally, they don't identify as women and they don't all experience gender dysphoria. (The definition of a muxe is evolving among a younger generation that is more open to hormone therapy.)

"I've always said if I was born again, I'd choose to be me," Kristhal Aquino, a muxe activist, says in the "Muxes" documentary. "I am a muxe at heart."

Though most muxes are attracted to men, many muxes would not label themselves gay either, sociologist Alfredo Mirandé writes in his book "Behind the Mask: Gender Hybridity in a Zapotec Community."

Rather, muxes are "more of a social and gender category than a sexual classification, and one firmly anchored in indigenous Zapotec conceptions of gender and sexuality," Mirandé wrote in the 2015 article "Hombres Mujeres: An Indigenous Third Gender." Indeed, muxes are proud of their Zapotec heritage, Ramírez said. Many muxes play a key role in preserving Zapotec culture, upholding culinary traditions and other rituals.

Given these roles, Ramírez said muxes enjoy a level of respect and acceptance in Zapotec society. Some people consider having a muxe in the family a blessing, because of how muxes have traditionally been expected to live at home and care for their elderly parents in adulthood. Even the Zapotec language is accommodating -- it has no grammatical gender, only one form for all people.

Muxes still face barriers

Despite the general acceptance that muxes experience in Zapotec society, Juchitán and the broader Isthmus of Tehuantepec is far from a queer paradise.

Though women have considerable autonomy in Zapotec households and generally tend to be sensitive to children who they recognize as muxe, a culture of machismo and patriarchy persists, according to Ramírez. As a result, some muxes experience rejection and exclusion at home.

In the documentary "Muxes," Kristhal recounted how their father ordered them to leave home after seeing photos of them in a dress and of them kissing a man. But Kristhal said their grandmother and mother wouldn't allow it, and instead sent their father packing.

"I felt my mom was being really courageous as a woman," Kristhal says in the film. "She said her kids were more important than a man."

Muxes also encounter physical violence and discrimination in education and in the workplace, as well as legal and public health barriers. But though programs and initiatives in recent years have sought to protect muxe rights and make the community safer, there is work to be done.

"There are still significant levels of discrimination and prejudice towards muxes in some parts of the country, and they continue to face significant challenges in terms of achieving full equality and acceptance," Ramírez said. "Despite these obstacles, muxes have maintained their rights and identities, and they continue to be an important and valued part of Mexican culture."

Muxes are creating space for themselves

Outside Juchitán, the muxes are perhaps most well known for the festival they put on each November: "La Vela de Las Auténticas Intrépidas Buscadoras del Peligro," or "The Vigil of the Authentic, Intrepid Danger-Seekers."

Founded by muxes in 1976 in response to the persecution they faced, the three-day celebration draws thousands of visitors from Juchitán and beyond. The festivities feature a parade of colorful floats, a Catholic mass and dancing. There's also a catwalk show that culminates in the crowning of a queen. Everyone dresses for the occasion -- some wear the traditional embroidered blouses known as huipiles, while others opt for glittery dresses and high heels.

"Vela de las Intrépidas," as it's also called, is a way for muxes to assert themselves in a space that's their own. And with muxes and non-muxes alike partaking in the fun, it stands as a notable example of the wider community embracing the muxes.

What started as an independent act of resistance has since turned into a widely attended community celebration. But for all the joy and revelry it brings, there's pain and heartbreak just underneath the surface.

In 2019, Óscar Cazorla, a muxe activist who helped found "Vela de las Intrépidas," was killed at home. The circumstances around the killing are still unclear.

"This struggle was meant to tell people, 'This is me, I'm a human as well and I also have rights. I want the same recognition as everyone else,'" Felina Santiago, who has served as president of the organization behind the festival, said in the film "Muxes." "They were brave enough to come out and not to hide."

Today, the muxes' struggle for recognition continues. As Rafa Fernández de Castro reported for Fusion in 2015, there's also debate within the community about what it means to be muxe -- whether the identity is inherent at birth or shaped by society, whether muxes must have Zapotec origins, whether undergoing gender reassignment therapies changes the calculus. There's also the question of how an increasingly globalized world might affect muxe identity.

Still, as LGBTQ communities continue to come under attack in the US and around the world, the muxes' integration into broader Zapotec society might be instructive.

"The muxes are a great example of how cultural diversity and nonconforming gender identities can coexist and thrive in different societies," Ramírez said. "They are a reminder that there is no single way to express gender identity, and that gender norms are socially constructed and can be challenged and transformed over time."

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