A topless figure stands wrapping an arm around another, painting on eyeshadow, tenderly filling in a lid in the cradled head, arm carefully curved in concentration. The act is tender, iconic, a moment of intimacy between two friends doing one another’s makeup. The two people on camera live as muxe, a “third gender” for people assigned male at birth, which is born out of the indigenous Zapotec culture of the town of Juchitan, in Oaxaca, Mexico. After watching a film about this culture at Werner Herzog’s Rogue film school, filmmaker Ivan Olita decided to travel to the region to create a film documenting Juchitan and the lives of its muxe. “This is something I always had embedded in me, since I feel it’s a much more progressive way of seeing the world,” says Olita, on why he chose to create his nine-minute short MUXES, now available to watch online.
The film shows a beautifully stylized snapshot of the lives of 16 muxe individuals in Oaxaca, amidst their communities, friendships, jobs, and lifestyles. A soundtrack that spans from traditional flutes and drums to a bumping pulse of a bassline swirls you through the poetic, impressionistic film: an ode to how muxe live their lives, whether at the gym in vest tops and leggings, dancing in slinky spandex, or floating through the marketplace in the heavily floral embroidered dresses characteristic of this area. From the bright town square where you can almost feel the heat beating down on the back of your neck, to a cozied-up couple's moment in front of the TV, the film is visually gorgeous: that tender combination of dramatic and intimate.
“Muxe in Juchitan belong to this third gender,” says Olita, who is planning to extend his short film into a feature about people with non-binary gender identities across the world. “They feel that they’re in-between, but many people that elsewhere would be considered gay also consider themselves muxe.” Muxe mostly tend to regard themselves as men with some female attributes, whether they choose to dress femme or not: “The idea is that the classifications of 'gay,' and so on, that we have—they don’t really apply there. If you feel that you don’t fit in what’s conventional for the genders, then you’re a muxe.”
For someone used to the distinctions in most Western societies such as male, female, trans, and gay, and particularly how these classification systems center on femme-presenting people who are assigned male at birth, the structure in Juchitan is certainly something entirely different. For example, while many muxe are attracted to men, the idea of homosexuality is seen as a Western innovation. “For them, [the word gay] has connotations of something very flashy, whereas, if you’re just a muxe, then that’s it. In Juchitan, gender is not defined by sexual preferences, but how you feel. They just don’t start from there.” There are also younger muxe who are finding that the non-indigenous gender system (whether they prefer to consider themselves trans or gay) works better for them: “As we look at them as a source of inspiration for gender equality, they are also starting to look at our understanding of sexuality.”
The traditional basis of the muxe culture means that they are afforded much more widespread acceptance than gender-nonconforming people in other cultures. In fact, the third gender is so much a part of Juchitan culture that it comes with its own societal expectations: “It’s a social role—almost like being a priest. It starts from a physiological need, but also people see them as a necessary part of the wellbeing of society.”
Muxe are expected to work in roles that are often assigned to women: “In Juchitan, if you need a wedding dress, you’d go to a muxe, 99% of the time—not a woman, not a man—because they’re the ones considered the most creative in the village.” Considering how rural the town is, women are very much a part of public life in Juchitan, running food businesses and market stalls: “They work a lot!” Olita says. In the film MUXES, women and muxe are shown working together in cantinas, market stalls—in this society, they are valued as a vital part of the team that keeps things together. In fact, a voiceover in the film explains that muxe are expected to be more hardworking because of this “feminine” side. This, combined with the fact that muxe are expected to look after their family as they grow older, means that they are seen as contributing an important role in the town’s prosperity.
Olita’s film ends with the voice of a language scholar of ancient Zapotec, explaining that in this language, there is no word for “him” or “her," suggesting that it was the intervention of Spanish colonial powers that created this dichotomy within society. We are left wondering just how differently we could all perceive gender, outside the monolithic system we have all learned. Well, almost all of us—apart from Juchitan residents, that is.