This story was originally published in July 2015.
In the Istmo de Tehuantepec region of Oaxaca, Mexico, lies the district of Juchitán. This was the land of the ancient Zapotec civilization, whose language and culture still thrives here. One of the many distinguishing characteristics of Juchitán is its population of muxes (pronounced moo-shays), which means "woman" in Zapotecan dialect.
But they are not women. Most crudely put, they are people who are born biologically male and dress as women—but they consider themselves neither cross-dressers nor transgender. Instead, they are treated as "the third gender," and they identify neither as men nor as women.
Because of that understanding, muxes often do not face the same levels of discrimination that gay men or trans women do here. Many engage in work that is traditionally reserved for women, but others do men's work, too.
It was in Las Velas—Oaxacan parties where people dance, eat, and drink—that muxes found their place, dressing up in traditional kehuana costume. Since the 1970s, they have held their own vela called The Authentic Intrepid Danger Seekers—a sign that society and the government believe in the sexual diversity of Oaxaca.
In order to learn more about muxe culture, I traveled to Juchitán and met several muxes who prepared traditional dishes for me from the area while explaining their backgrounds and their experiences.
Victoria López Ramírez, better known as La Toya, is 32 years old. She lives with her mother María and her sisters, and makes her living by doing hair and makeup for women and other muxes. "I sell clothes, I teach Zumba classes, and I make flower arrangements for birthdays and weddings," she tells me with a smile. Ever since she was young, she knew that she was attracted to men. "I wanted to be a muxe when I was 12 years old. I didn't understand it myself, and my family didn't take it very well at first, but then they didn't have any other option than to accept it."
La Toya speaks of Juchitán with reservations. "In this city, even if they let us be free, people shouldn't think that this is a paradise … There are homosexuals who are muxes that come to Juchitan to take refuge, because somehow we are accepted here—but there is still a long way to go. We need to stop being treated as a tourist attraction."
The dish that La Toya prepares for me is usually eaten at breakfast: deer stew with green chili, garlic, and tomatoes. Deer meat is very tough, so she cooks it for at least three hours in water with garlic and oil. Then she adds tomatoes, achiote (a red paste that is used as a seasoning), and chili to taste.
I ask her if it is true that some families actually push their kids to become muxes. "I don't know about that," she answers. "What is sure is that nobody can teach you to be gay. You can't assimilate into something that is natural. There are families that want their kids to be 'machos,' but you can't fight the natural instinct of the person. That is why many come to Juchitán—to be what they truly are."
Gala is now 22 years old, but she began dressing in women's clothing when she was only 4. "That was what allowed me to come out of the closet, because before that I wouldn't dare," she tells me. "I was always a homosexual and I believed that my family would reject me. When I decided to be a muxe, it was easier and not so traumatic, it was a joy, and now everyone looks at me with admiration; to assume homosexuality as a muxe is more socially accepted."
Gala works and waits tables with her aunt in a booming botanero (a type of bar) where they serve little plates of food along with beers, tequila, and mezcal.
She prepares a shrimp salad, one that they usually sell to customers at the bar. She cooks the shrimp with onions, lemon, and tomato, before adding a bit of cilantro on top. They are eaten with baked tortillas called totopos.
Her other dish, served as a botana (appetizer), is a thick, meat-based broth that's traditional to Juchitán. It's made with yellow corn flour, tomato, epazote, onions, and beef.
"We are not men or women," Gala says resolutely. "We are a third gender. Men are men and women are women—and muxes are muxes. Is that simple."
Felina Santiago is 48 years old and lives with her niece and her dad, whom she supports with her income as a hairdresser. She asks me not to call her by her birth name, but adds, "Part of our identity as muxes is to keep our real names and to defend our identity while we immerse ourselves in the customs of Juchitán; what makes the difference is how you live, instead of where you live and how we relate to each other. This is where I am Felina Santiago."
Muxes do not necessarily need to be dressed as women, but they assume their role as muxes in society. "It's a way of being," Felina tells me. "Whereas you are a man or a woman, we have the best of both worlds. We are obviously homosexuals, but our behavior is different. We have intercourse with heterosexual men—which I always say are closeted gays—and we would never have a muxe as a partner. Ever."
I asked Felina about a rumor that, in the not-so-distant past, many men in Juchitán would pay to lose their virginity to a muxe. She rolls her eyes and tells me, "Muxes have always been open to sexual encounters but never for money … Many men in this town had their first sexual encounter with a muxe, way before they ever did it with their official girlfriend. But no one is going to admit that."
Felina cooks me a braised fish, a very simple dish. She tells me that you use any of the fishes from the area, but in this case it's a black sea bass. She stuffs it with diced onions, tomatoes, and cilantro. She then ties up the fish with a string and places it in a traditional oven called a comiscal, or "mud pot," for 45 minutes.
In one of the rooms of Felina's house is a flower- and candle-covered altar with the Virgen de Guadalupe and a picture of Felina's mother, who passed away a few years back. "My mother was the most important thing to me; she supported me in everything," she says. "Fathers always want to fix you, but mothers are always more understanding. In the end, everyone ends up accepting our condition. They have no choice."
Mística Sánchez Gómez is 37 years old. She makes her living by selling multi-flavored jellies around town every morning. I find her on a Sunday in the cemetery hawking her jellies, which she sells out of in a matter of minutes. "This is what I do every day," she tells me. "Other than this, I cook for anyone who asks me to."
Mística prepares me a traditional breakfast dish of tomato and iguana. She first kills the animal and lets it bleed out slowly. She then places it over a fire, which softens the skin and allows her to remove the scales. Once it's clean, she places it in a pot of water with tomato, achiote, and chilies. (The legs and the tail are the tastiest and most sought-after parts of the animal.) Mística also cooks the iguana's eggs, which are boiled for at least 30 minutes.
"I have been doing a woman's job ever since I can remember," she says. "I wash clothes, I sell my jellies, and also sell cheese. I have respected my birth sex and I would never think about getting a sex-change surgery. I am muxe and I am integrated, and I have a respected place in society. I feel proud."