Images shot by Mexico City-based photographer Nicola Ókin Frioli show some of the 3,000 Los Muxes men who live in the pueblo. While Mexico holds conservative views when it comes to gender roles, flexibility in this area was common in the country prior to being introduced to Catholicism. And even now, attitudes towards sexuality and gender are open in the state of Oaxaca. Instead of being ridiculed or judged, the homosexual crossdressers in the town of Oaxacaqueno de Juchitan in southern Mexico are revered members of their community.
Wearing traditional floral dresses and with their makeup applied immaculately, Los Muxes, which means homosexuals, are respected people of their community of 160,000 residents.
The homosexuals of Juchitan have gained a place in economical and political activities, normally reserved to men. They are owners of shops, they work in hospitals, they are successful stylists of the typical local dresses and owners of beauty salons.
"A lot of us are in this way because our parents have converted us and treated as female," Felina, a Muxes and salon owner explains: "I'm not a man... I'm not a woman... I'm a Muxes and there is place for everybody in the Vineyard of Lord."
In contrast to Mexico's majority mestizo culture where machismo prevails, the isthmus of Oaxaca has a predominantly Zapotec population, and it is widely reported that there is less hostility toward muxe in the region than homosexual, effeminate males and trans women face elsewhere in the strongly Catholic country. One study estimates that 6 percent of males in an Isthmus Zapotec community in the early 1970s were muxe. Other Zapotec communities have similar "third gender" roles, such as the biza'ah of Teotitlán del Valle.
Muxe may be vestidas (wearing female clothes) or pintadas (wearing male clothes and make-up). It has been suggested that while the three gender system predates Spanish colonization, the phenomenon of muxe dressing as women is fairly recent, beginning in the 1950s and gaining popularity until nearly all of the younger generation of muxe today are vestidas.
Within contemporary Zapotec culture, reports vary as to their social status. Muxe in village communities may not be disparaged and highly respected, while in larger, more Westernised towns they may face some discrimination, especially from men due to homophobic attitudes introduced by Catholicism and European colonization.
Muxe generally belong to the poorer classes of society. Gender variance and same-sex desire in wealthier communities of the region are more likely to follow a more western taxonomy of gay, bisexual and transgender. Such individuals are also more likely to remain in "the closet". Despite this, Muxe have traditionally been considered good luck, worth more than cisgender women and many now have white-collar jobs or are involved in politics.
The Pre-Colombian Zapotec Culture
In an article published in 1995, anthropologist Beverly Chiñas explains that in the Zapotec culture, "the idea of choosing gender or of sexual orientation is as ludicrous as suggesting that one can choose one's skin color." Most people traditionally view their gender as something God has given them (whether man, woman, or muxe), and few muxe desire genital surgery.
They generally do not suffer from gender dysphoria because transphobia is a rare attitude in their culture, people are generally accepting of them and they usually have their gender recognised through their clothing, there is not as much pressure to "pass" as in Western societies.
Lynn Stephen writes: "Muxe men are not referred to as "homosexuals" but constitute a separate category based on gender attributes. People perceive them as having the physical bodies of men but different aesthetic, work, and social skills from most men. They may have some attributes of women or combine those of men and women." If they do choose men as sexual partners, neither are those men (known as mayate) necessarily considered homosexual.
The first thing most people notice about muxes (pronounced MOO-shay) is that they appear to be men dressed as women. Some have had their breasts enhanced, others have nose jobs. But most wear long hair, dresses, and some makeup. The majority of muxes start young, in their teens, and are trained in womanly ways by family and friends, taking their place in a Zapotec cultural tradition that predates the Spanish colonizers. Now their traditional role has become that of caretaker.
“Sons and daughters get married and have families of their own, so the person that staysto care for the parents is the muxe,” explains Pedro Martinez Linares, a well-known muxewho began his training at age 13. “That’s why they are so highly valued.”
Like their Two-Spirit sisters in North America, the muxes are an integral part of Zapotec culture, revered, not reviled. And like other third gender people, muxes are not gay. Some take male lovers, others take wives. And they’re not transgender. They are distinct. Nor do all muxes work solely as women. Many take more “manly” career tracks: one muxe, Amaranta Gómez Regalado, ran for Mexico’s congress in 2003.
Despite the popular description, not all muxes dress as women. Those are just the vestidas. There are also pintadas, the less common muxes who wear men’s clothing and makeup. And both come together each year for the muxes’ annual pageant, the four-day long La Vela de las Auténticas Intrépidas Buscadoras del Peligró, which translates to “The Celebration of the Bold Seekers of Danger.”
The vela began nearly four decades ago as a friendly celebration, says Linares. “It all started as a small party, something like a reunion with only six or seven muxes who were already nearing old age,” he says. “Every year they would celebrate the life they shared together... but you know how it goes. One invited friends, then the others invited their friends and it began growing that way.”
The 2013 Mayordomo (left) with Family Members Posing for Photos at
"La Misa" the Mass on the Second Day Celebration
Today over 5,000 people come to where it all began, Juchitán, Oaxaca, for the massive celebration. But now the focus at this “beauty pageant” isn’t on poise, grace, or faces. It’s on wallets. You don’t so much earn the crown as buy it. “To be the mayordomo, you have to have the desire, but above all you have to have the money,” says Linares. The mayordomo honor runs around 60,000 pesos (around $4,400), while the queen’s crown costs about 100,000 pesos ($7,400).
As pecuniary as the modern-day festival’s politics may be, the result of the pagent is loftier: a celebration of a tradition that survived Spanish conquistadores, Catholic crusaders, communist revolutionaries, and the rise of Mexico’s machismo culture. And they even have the local church’s respect; it hosts a Mass during the vela, and many of the muxes attend.
The women of Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec have achieved world renown for their colorful traditional dress, which was famously adopted by the artist Frida Kahlo. Women traditionally dominate the local markets and the economic life of the region, often earning more money than their husbands. This unconventional matriarchal organization has sparked international interest, and is a cause for celebration in Mexico and beyond.
The Market and the Matriarchy:
The cultural and economic center of life throughout the steamy isthmus is the marketplace, and the town of Juchitán de Zaragoza offers the most impressive market in the region. Here, you’ll find stall after stall offering elaborate, locally made jewelry, folk art, and even the local delicacy – iguana tamales.
Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca
Unlike other markets in Mexico, the vendors here are exclusively women. They tend to be outgoing and forthright: smiling, haggling, and occasionally teasing passersby. Most women in Juchitán are of Zapotec indigenous origin and are experienced vendors, having started selling from a very early age.
“Women are public figures here,” the sociologist Marina Meneses told the Los Angeles Times. “Women are the main organizers.”
Gaspar Cabrera, the local priest, said that Juchitán was far ahead of wider Mexican society. “We men do not feel oppressed. This is simply a more egalitarian reality. In this aspect, Zapotec culture is more advanced, and European culture is catching up.”
However, the notion that Tehuantepec is a matriarchy has not gone unchallenged. Outside observers have pointed out that women rarely hold political power in the region. What is not disputed is the profound influence of the economic organization of Tehuantepec. Women are typically in charge of the money in their households and often earn more than their husbands, who tend to work as farmers, fishers, or craft workers. This affords women certain important freedoms. Remaining unmarried or filing for a divorce is possible, as women are economically independent. Many locals argue that this contributes to a general atmosphere of respect and tolerance among men and women in the
Along with the much-debated and celebrated matriarchy of the region, the women of Tehuantepec have had a massive cultural influence in Mexico. The region is noted for its velas, traditional parties where women dress up in extravagant costumes and parade through the streets. The huipiles (blouses) that women wear for these festivities are famous for their vibrant colors and elegant patterns.
Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait with the Dress of Tehuana and the Image of her Husband Diego Rivera in her Forehead
These costumes also famously inspired Frida Kahlo. The flamboyant Mexican artist wears a huipile in many of her self-portraits. She is even featured on the country’s 500-peso bill in traditional Tehuana costume.
The Mexican singer-songwriter Lila Downs has carried the tradition of donning Tehuana clothing into the 21st century. The Grammy award-winning artist pays homage to both the Tehuanas and Kahlo with her traditional costumes, and has even recorded a version of “La Zandunga,” the unofficial anthem of the Tehuantepec region.