Testimonies of identity from the muxe of Juchitán, Mexico.
BY NAOMY MENDEZ ROMERO, JORGE TONCHE, NESTOR PABLO VILLEGAS ESTEVA, HENRY GERÓNIMO LÓPEZ AND MICHEL DEL TORO
June 4, 2018
Much has been said about what it is to be muxe in mainsteam media.
Various documentaries have attempted to place ‘muxe’ into a defined box. While voices of muxe are at times reflected in articles, ultimately these voices are interpreted through the context and lens of an outsider.
In recognition of the unique context, history and very personal experience and identity of being muxe, we at Queer Here believe that what it is to be muxe can only be defined through the unfiltered words and photographs of muxe themselves.
These are the testimonies of five self-identifying muxe from the indigenous Zapotec community of Juchitán, Oaxaca, Mexico.
NAOMY MENDEZ ROMERO
I, Naomy Mendez Romero, am a muxe gunna. I also identify as a trans woman.
A muxe is a person from the indigenous Zapotec community of Juchitán who embodies or identifies with a combination of both masculine and feminine strengths and sensibilities. There are several terms used in the Zapotec language of Juchitán, diidxazá, which define how a person might express their muxe identity.
Muxe ‘gunna’ is a term for muxe person assigned male at birth, who identifies as feminine of centre, they may take on more traditional feminine sensibilities and dress.
Muxe ‘nguiu’ is a term for muxe typically assigned male at birth, who presents as feminine of centre and but still embodies some traditionally masculine sensibilities.
‘Ti’ muxe is a term used to describe a person who identifies with both their masculine and feminine sensibilities. Ti muxe may prefer at times to take on feminine presentation in their dress and perhaps use the she/her pronouns, while at other times may prefer he/him pronouns and traditional male prescribed attire.
The majority of individuals in the muxe community come from a big family of three to seven children. In Zapotec culture, it is traditional that the youngest born child of the family ’huini’, if male sex must adopt a muxe identity. The huini would be considered a muxe gunna, and would take on what was is the female responsibility of taking care of their parents. They would support their family through female gendered labor roles - such as seamstress, craftswoman, hair stylist, bar-woman, prostitute, etc. The terms ‘gunna’, ‘nguiu’ and ‘ti’ are used to define muxe identity in diidxazá language and Zapotec culture, but muxe identity is much more than this, it is very personal and diverse.
For these muxe ‘gunna’, like myself it is not an option for us to be a lawyer, engineer or a teacher, or to pursue any formal career path outside of what is considered ‘women’s work’. Muxe gunna have less possibilities for work since we live as a woman, this is also because the community force you not to finish your studies, most muxe only finish high school.
Since I can remember I have been discriminated for being different, for being a muxe. At school the students called us ‘puto’, ‘joto’, ‘mampo’ and ‘maricon’. They used these anti-gay slurs just because I gathered with women, was feminine or because I didn’t like playing with the boys or doing things that a heterosexual man was expected to do. The set of social rules at school were only for man and woman, it does not exist a third gender.
Before I was able to travel to Mexico City to change my identity, before I was known as Naomy Mendez Romero, I suffered discrimination. When people referred to me by my masculine (birth) name and I did not feel like I identified with it. Today I am happy because I identify myself as a she/her.
Despite the challenges being muxe, I have earned some achievements. I am currently establishing a civil society association, which focusses on school based awareness raising of equality and diversity.
The diidxazá Zapotec word ‘muxe’ is recorded in anthropological archives within the House of Culture in Juchitán as translating literally as ‘effeminate-fear’. The patriarchy of Juchitán is machista, this is not a paradise as they commonly say. Acceptance or tolerance of muxe in the community is very much based on our abilities and usefulness.
Muxe gunna suffer of discrimination in the velas (town festivals). During the velas the muxe gunna are responsible for making the festival decorations, regional costumes, food preparation and styling the ‘istmeño’ traditional hairstyle for participants - at the end, a muxe gunna is not allowed to join the festival dressed as a woman. Muxe are only permitted to be a part of the festival if we adopt masculine dress such as wearing slacks and guayabera.
There are only three places where the muxe community is included. There is ‘muxe’ specific bathroom for us in clubs and bars ‘Bar Jardin', ‘La Jaula’ and ‘Bar Mezcalito’. In these few places our community of diversity is not excluded and we are accepted how we are.
All the muxe community want to have the same rights as anyone else, we want to be accepted not at 60 percent but at 100 percent.
NESTOR PABLO 'PABLITO' VILLEGAS ESTEVA
My name is Nestor Pablo Villegas Esteva, I am the second out of five children from my parents.
Although I am thirty three years of age, I am still known by the diminutive name of my father given to me as a child, “Pablito”. Since I was a child I showed artistic abilities that are not normally seen as appropriate pursuits for men. I think that it was perhaps this early interest in the arts which made my homosexuality visible to my family and the community around me.
My family were afraid that I would be their ‘muxe’ son. They were scared of me identifying as muxe because of the misconceptions around muxes susceptibility to fall prey to vices. They were also afraid and ashamed for me because muxe are well known to be the targets of bullying and acts of aggression in the community.
Although my family suspected I was muxe throughout my adolescence, it was my grandmother, Severa, who first confronted me about my identity - I was twenty three years old. She told me that she believed I was muxe and explained to me what this meant and what challenges I would have to confront. My grandmother was a great support during this time, later as I grew to explore my identity she gave me much guidance and motivation. To me there became no other option but to be muxe.
When the time came to open up to my parents about my muxe identity and sexuality, I wrote them letters. For me it was important to write to them because it helped to liberate me of the fear of holding onto my feelings, which I was afraid I might do if I spoke to them face-to-face. Now my parents know about me and my sexual preferences, but we never talk about it. For my parents it is embarrassing to talk about sexuality, even more so embarrassing is to talk about homosexuality.
I used to have a lot of fears and questions about who I really was, how I could accept myself and value myself, and how do I know what I want in life. As I grew older I came to terms with my muxe and homosexual identity and I became less worried about these things. While in my adolescence it was difficult for me to come to terms with my muxe identity and homosexuality, today I embrace it. I now know that the problem is not mine, it is for those who are ignorant and do not accept me. I believe this experience and my struggles have helped me to be a better person, to not only be at peace with myself but also with my surroundings.
On the 7th of September 2017, Mexico was hit with a devastating earthquake, my town of Juchitán was the most effected, with many people dying. Through the gift of my voice and my work as a comedian and impersonator, I have been able to contribute and volunteer in relief efforts to aid the people in my town - this has also helped me not to focus on negative or painful things.
Independently of been muxe, I always wanted my family to be proud of me as an admired and respected person in my community, I truly believe it is important to be involved in altruistic activities and through good work and actions I strive to do this. I have had the opportunity to know many beautiful places and extraordinary people thanks to my job. I am able to support my family through the income that I make from my work as an impersonator, teaching dance and making handcrafts. I thank god that I have had a life that has seen me accomplish many of my dreams.
My life may have been complicated because of my identity, but the love of my family and friends has always motivated me to keep moving forward. Despite my disappointments and challenges I believe in love, I hope one day to be able to have a long-term relationship with someone. I still want to have my own family, I know it won’t be easy as a muxe in this town, but I’m willing to try my hardest to make this a reality.
HENRY GERÓNIMO LÓPEZ
The disadvantages that a muxe can experience from from society are not easy to overcome.
My name is Henry Gerónimo López, I am 19 years old, and I am from a town named Santo Domingo Zanatepec, Oaxaca.
When I was 8 years old I found out that I liked men. I began to notice this in myself because I played with dolls, dressed as a woman and wore my mom’s shoes. As time passed, at around the age 12 or 13 years I told my parents about my preferences and my muxe identity. At the beginning there were problems in my family because of this. My mom is a person that has always supported me and she only ever asked that I respect myself, but for my father it was different. It was difficult for him to immediately accept me as my preferences and muxe identity. Thank god over time he accepted me, he said, “you are my son and we love you the way you are, just take care of yourself”.
Being muxe is something beautiful to me. I identify myself as a woman, I like going to events dressed as a woman and doing the things that women do - this is my identity and it’s why I love being a muxe. However, it is difficult for society to accept muxe, especially if you wish to continue studying like me. Continuing studies is not something that is not encouraged for muxe who are expected to drop out of school and take on female household roles.
We muxe exist in this world in a way that does not please people. Myself as a muxe girl, I’ve had a lot of problems that at times can take my good mood away. The discrimination that a muxe can live includes bullying and it is something that makes you feel very bad.To let it not hurt me I always take with me the advice that I get from people that love me, that the only thing in this life that matters is that your family accepts you how you are, not society. I try and tell myself, “I can be better than everybody, if I remember that those people that don’t like me one day will realize that people with different gender or sexual preferences are not bad people.”
I would like to live in a town where there is support for muxe, there is no support here right now for us. Some of us really need support, especially education around gender and sexual orientation so we can have in mind what our identity is. I whope to be a part of supporting and defending the muxe community from human rights violations and violence, because those cases are still happening and are very important to address.
I have more female friends than male friends, I think muxe will always be surrounded with women because of how we identify. I love being muxe because from that identity I feel like I know myself, my likes, my problems, my happiness, everything I know about myself comes from my muxe identity.
I’ve always said that a muxe is someone that you can have as a friend because she will make you smile. I love about being muxe, it is something beautiful that I would never regret about myself. Although being a muxe is not that easy, I believe that if you love yourself we can win the world over. In this world we all are the same, nobody is less than anybody and nobody is more than anybody.
Be and let be, live and let others live. Let us defend our rights, and let us learn to respect each other.
I identify as muxe through my interpretation of the Zapotec meaning of the word. For me the term ‘muxe’ today is applied to people who have sexual preferences outside of heterosexuality, it also a term inclusive of biologically born men who like to dress in the typical costumes of the Zapotec women. What it means to be ‘muxe’ has been defined and labelled by outsiders in innumerable documentaries - they define muxe identity as a transvestism which is accepted and embraced by the indigenous community of Juchitán - but this is not the case.
Traditionally the term ‘muxe’ has evolved over time, originally muxe were men which were recognized for doing handcrafts and work that was important to Zapotec life and culture. At this time, being muxe had nothing had to do with the way a person dressed, behaved or their sexual preference, rather being muxe was about hard work and talent in the arts and with this came social importance and status due related to the quality of work.
Today the muxe term has evolved and become adapted from ideas brought from other culture. The word term muxe represents a fusion of ideologies and attitudes. Now there exists many different types of muxes, a diversity of identities that is captured under this single word 'muxe'. What has common among muse identities, is that we are a people which take great responsibility for promoting, preserving and conserving the indigenous Zapotec culture, language and lineage.
It is a responsibility of all muxe, to continue the customs and traditions of Zapotec culture and we do this through the speaking of our mother-tongue language, costume and traditional dance. We seek to be recognized for our commitment to cultural preservation. We are using and adapting to modernity but we are continuing our traditions, we as muxe should be remembered for this, not to be known as a stereotype or fetish.
It is because of these misconceptions of muxe that our place in Zapotec culture is under threat. I believe that we as muxe must defend our space in society, so that we can continue to contribute to our community, to be included in our Velas (festivals) and other significant cultural events. It is important that muxe are be able to continue our social activism and defense of the Zapotec culture, whilst we move towards embracing a more connected and integrated world. This is why muxe are so important, we are among the custodians of the Zapotec culture.
MICHEL DEL TORO
My mother has been mother and father since my parents divorced in my early childhood.
I am eternally thankful for the beautiful woman that she is - an entrepreneur and a hard worker, she always taught me to work and fight for my dreams.
My mother is my best friend, father and mother. Her arms are always open when I need a hug, her heart knows when I need a friend, her sensible eyes harden when I need a lesson and her strength and unconditional love has guided me through life and given me the things I need to be able to fly.
I stared working since I was 5 years old selling tamales of beans with ‘acuyo’ leaf. I cannot forget the time in my life when my mother Lola (who has since passed) used to make the best tamales of the region. I would help my mother by recording her sales - without knowing how to read I would take with me a notebook and a pencil to write down how many tamales customers wanted. That was the part of my childhood, that I can say was my happiest.
I was able to study and go to school thanks to my mother and my grandparents - they were by my side shoulder to shoulder. My grandparents always took care of me as I got older because my mother worked day and night as a nurse.
As I grew up, little by little I started selling in the market. I’ve always been a merchant, I sold pozol (stew), shoes, jewelry, clothes, food, corn - a little bit of everything, that’s how I was taught.
I have had many occupations, all of them without losing my humility and excitement that characterizes me. After working in various schools across Juchitán as an adult, I finally came to own a restaurant where my mother and I are both owners. My mother and I both dreamed of owning our own restaurant one day and now we have done it, thanks to our work, perseverance and effort but above all the creator.
I came out as Michel later in life. Although tried to stay grounded, I suffered discrimination, it was painful and at times I found myself crying in a state of sadness and depression. I reached the point of suicide but my mother helped me and I was able to came out of the mud of sadness.
Today I feel fulfilled as a person, and as a muxe. I’m muxe and proudly ‘Teca’ (a country woman). Thanks to my grandmother Luisa Del Toro through my veins runs the Zapotec blood, I know I have follow the traditions of the culture, as a muxe.
Since I came to identify as a muxe I have participated in many of the muxe velas (festivals). In 2015 I was captain of the muxe vela for the city of Agua Dulce in Veracruz, and today, I’m the queen of the Festival of Sandunga (a traditional Mexican waltz and the unofficial anthem of the region of Tehuantepec). It has always been my dream to be crowned a vela queen, it is the dream of all muxes.
In my town I am a respected, because I am a hard worker and entrepreneur, it is because of this that I was crowned as the first muxe queen in my towns festival.
This is me, Clarisa Michel Del Toro Escudero.
A note from the Editor: These testimonies have been edited and condensed for clarity with the approval of the authors.