MEET THE MUXES
PHOTOS BY MOLLY MATALON
In rural Mexico, a small community identifies as neither male nor female. These are their images. This is their story.
The wedding reception was dying down when Nadxielii got up from her table and strode across the empty dance floor toward the bride and groom. Naxhi, as she’s called, received her wedding favor, a ceramic vase, from the newlyweds, and she gracefully balanced it on her head and began to dance. Naxhi is a muxe, a member of a community of people often described as a third gender.
The city of Juchitán de Zaragoza in Oaxaca, Mexico, is relatively small, home to fewer than 100,000 people. And yet here—and across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec—a unique sexual and gender identity is widely accepted. Biologically, muxes are born male but are drawn to the roles females hold in society, which they eventually adopt. Muxes might use the label while also describing themselves as gay men, transgender women, cross-dressers, or men inspired by femininity. The word serves as an identity that encompasses myriad sexualities and gender expressions. What makes the identity singular is that it is rooted in Zapotec tradition. Muxes often dress traditionally and speak the Zapotec language to help safeguard their indigenous way of life.
The muxes we met were proud of their home but made it clear that they weren’t living in a paradise. They told us some have been attacked or murdered. One muxe said that, to avoid her father’s wrath, she started hiding a bag of women’s clothing at the corner of her street at the age of 12. Most families eventually come to accept their muxe children, but it’s not uncommon for muxes to face jeers on the streets. Some still can’t dress as themselves at their workplaces.
But the muxes we spoke to said that the community is living through an era of change. Their role in Juchitán and across the isthmus—and, in some ways, their collective identity—is shifting. They are establishing a new balance for their lives, becoming teachers, fashion designers, and activists, even as they remain caretakers of tradition.
On September 7 last year, an 8.2 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Oaxaca. Shocks ripped through the isthmus, damaging thousands of structures in Juchitán, including many muxes’ houses. Often speaking to us from beneath tarps or surrounded by the ruins of their homes, they said many of their lives had been reprioritized. One muxe told us, “I was saving up for an operation, but I’d rather have a house.” Celebrations had been canceled or downsized and festivals postponed, a sort of self-imposed mourning period for the city. The wedding Naxhi attended was one of the first big events held since the earthquake, the first night to let loose in a long time. At some point, after everyone got their wedding favors, the dance floor filled up and Naxhi, still dancing, became part of the crowd. —Allison Keeley