~ This crónica was originally published on the blog Periodismo Narrativo en Latinoamérica on September 22, 2008 ~
Amaranta was seven years old when she tired of understanding the reasons for her malaise: she was sick of doing what she did not want to do. Amaranta, at the time, was called Jorge and her parents dressed her as a boy. Her school friends played with pistols and her siblings scored goals. Amaranta ran away at every opportunity. She played at chef and with dolls and thought that boys banded together like animals. Slowly, Amaranta was discovering that she was not one of them. But everybody kept calling her Jorge. Her body did not fit her sensations, her feelings: Amaranta cried, sometimes, or she made her dolls cry. Still she did not know her name.
It’s five at daybreak and the sun is barely up but the streets of the market are filled with imposing ladies: eighty, maybe 100 kilos of flesh on their short bodies. The ladies are spherical like globes, have knock-knees, coppery skin, large black eyes, flattened faces. They wear wide petticoats and embroidered vests; behind them are small men pushing carts laden with fruit and vegetables. The ladies shout orders in a language that I do not understand: they are attracting them to their stalls. The small men sweat under the burden of the products and the shouting.
The market springs to life: the sun illuminates pyramid-like piles of pineapples, watermelons, much mango, ignored bananas, tomatoes, avocados, wild herbs, guayabas and papayas, mountains of chilies, three-dollar watches, tortillas, more tortillas, dead chickens, live ones, eggs, the head from a cow no longer needing it, skinny dogs, rats the size of dogs, writhing iguanas, cuts of deer, an endless quantity of flowers, tee shirts bearing Che Guevara’s face, tons of pirated CDs, curly octopi, smooth catfish, dying crabs, very little swordfish and clouds of flies. Several types of music mixing in the atmosphere and the chatter of parrots.
–What are you going to take home with you, blanco?
And the toothless woman begins to shout, “the güero’s going to take me home, the güero’s going to take me home,” roaring with laughter. The Juchitán market has more than two thousand stalls and at almost every one there are women: they have to be able to scare flies, chat in Zapotec, hawk their wares, fan themselves and roar with mirth at the same time, all the time. The market is the center of Juchitán’s economic life and because of that, among other things, many say it is a matriarchy.
–Why do we say that it is a matriarchy here? Because women prevail, they always have the last word. Around here, my friend, mother is the one who gives orders and after her the wife.
A sexagenarian would tell me later over beer in a bar that in Juchitán’s traditional economy men go out to work in the fields or to fish and the women turn those products into something sellable. Women manage the money, the house, the organization of parties and the education of children. But politics, culture and basic decisions are still the preserve of men.
–That thing about the matriarchy is an invention of researchers that come for a few days. That first image stays with them. Here, they say, the man is a good-for-nothing lay about and his wife supports him.
Father Francisco Herrero or Paco the Priest is the curate for the church of San Vicente Ferrer, Juchitán’s patron saint.
–But the man gets up early because at midday the sun is really bright and won’t let him out. So, when anthropologists see the men sleeping they say, “Oh, it’s a matriarchal society.” No, this is a very commercial society and the woman is the one who sells things, all day; but the men work at night, in the early morning.
–But then they wouldn’t ever cross paths…
–Yes, but you don’t need a timetable for that. I know the intimate, secret lives of families and I can tell you that matriarchy has never existed in the family either.
It doesn’t exist but the role of women is much better defined than in the rest of Mexico.
–Here we are valued because of everything we do. It is worth something to have children, to manage a home, to earn our money: we feel the support from the community and that allows us to live with a lot of happiness and security.
That’s what Marta says, a woman from Juchitán. And you can see it in the bearing of these women: proud, powerful, chin held high, the man – if there is a man – a step behind.
Juchitán is a dry, difficult place. They say that when God ordered St. Vincent to make a town for the Zapotec, the saint came to earth and found an enchanted location with water and green, fertile land. But he said no: here the men are going to be lazy. So he kept on looking and he found the place where Juchitán sits now: this is the type of place that is going to make its children brave, hard working, spirited, St. Vincent said, and he built it here.
Juchitán is now neither a large nor small city, not rich nor poor, nor beautiful or ugly, in the Tehuantepec Isthmus in southern Mexico: the place where the continent narrows, and between the Pacific and the Atlantic only two hundred kilometers of land remain. The Isthmus has always been a place to pass through and to trade: an open space where assorted outsiders settled upon a base of Zapotec culture. And its centuries-long economic tradition has allowed it to maintain its traditional economy: most of Juchitán’s population lives from production or trade, not from a factory salary. The presence of big businesses and the global market is much less than in the rest of the country.
–We don’t live here to work. We work here to live, nothing else.
An old matron in the market talks to me. Outside, Juchitán is a centuries old town with no preserved traces of its history. It has grown in jolts. In less than twenty years, Juchitán has gone from a dusty village town to a chaotic tropical city. Now there are 100,000 residents in a checkerboard of asphalted streets, low houses, orange flamboyant trees, red bougainvillea, pastel-colored walls, rough-looking jeeps and horse-drawn carts. There is poverty but not misery, and a certain know-how about how to live in a hot place. Some businesses have guards armed with Winchester shotguns; many do not.
Juchitán is an unruly town: it revolted quickly against the Spanish, stared down Maximilian’s French troops and Porfirio Díaz’s soldiers. Here, in 1981, the Student Farmer Worker Coalition of the Isthmus – the COCEI – won some municipal elections and became the first city in Mexico ruled by the indigenous and farmer Left. At that time, Juchitán became famous.
Amaranta continued to play with dolls, at dressing up, lunch parties, until she found she liked some games more than others. She was eight or nine years old when hide and seek became her favorite pastime: the neighbors’ children liked hiding with her and there behind a wall or a bush they touched and rubbed each other. Amaranta was a little fearful but she was drawn to these new pleasures:
–That’s how I grew up until eleven or twelve years old. At thirteen I had made my decision. Luckily I had the support of my father and mother.
Later she says a lot more. That day was her mother’s birthday and Amaranta attended the party wearing earrings and a floral dress, like a little lady. Some faked improbable surprise. Her mother gave her a hug; her father, a schoolteacher, told her that he respected her decision but the only thing he asked of her was not to end up a drunk in a bar:
–Jorge, son, please think about your siblings, about the family. I ask only that you respect our values. And live the rest as you see fit.
Amaranta had openly become, at last, a “muxe.” But she still did not know her name.
Muxe is a Zapotec word that says homosexual but wants to say a lot more than homosexual. The muxe of Juchitán have always enjoyed social acceptance, something that comes from indigenous culture. And they “dress” – as women – and walk the streets like other women, without anybody pointing at them. But more than anything else according to the tradition the transvestite muxes are home girls. If transvestites in the West often become hyper-sexed women, the muxes are hyper-homebodies.
–The muxe of Juchitán characterize ourselves by being hardworking people, strongly tied to our family, and more than anyone else to mother. We go along with the idea of working for the wellbeing of our parents. We are the ones who stay at home with the parents when they are old because brothers and sisters marry and make their lives apart. But for us, since we do not marry, we always stay behind. That’s why mothers do not mind having a muxe son. And we have always taken to sewing, embroidering, cooking cleaning, making decorations for parties: all women’s work.
Felina says that sometimes they call her Ángel. Felina is 33 years old and she has a shop – “Styling and Creations by Felina” – where she cuts hair and sells clothes. The shop has green walls, nude mannequins, seats to wait on, a little table with gossip magazines, a television permanently tuned to a soap opera and a computer connected to the internet; Felina has a short skirt with a long slash, her more or less shaven legs, crimson nails. Her story is similar to others: an early discovery, an ambiguous spell and, around twelve or thirteen, the realization that her body was wrong for her. Juchitec tradition insists that a muxe is not made – she is born – and that going against destiny is not possible.
–The muxes only get together with other men, not with another person who is the same as we are. In other places you would see the couple as a pair of homosexuals. But here the muxes only look for other men to partner with.
–You see yourselves more like women?
— Yes we feel more like women. But I don’t want to take the place of either the man or the woman. I feel fine how I am, different: in between, neither here nor there, and I take on the responsibility given me for being different.
When she turned fourteen, Amaranta called herself Nayeli – Zapotec for “I love you”—and got her parents to send her to study English and theater in Veracruz. That’s where she read her first book of “literature”: it was called One Hundred Years of Solitude and one character touched her: it was, of course, Amaranta Buendía.
–That’s when I decided upon that for my name, and I began to think about how to build her identity, what her life would be like, my life. Traditionally the muxes in Juchitán work around the house. I asked myself – without criticizing any of that – why I had to fulfill those roles.
Amaranta moves her hand without stopping and she talks in a loose torrent, choosing words:
–So I thought that I wanted to be on people’s lips, in the public eye, and I began to work in a drag show called New Les Femmes.
Over a couple of years the four “New Les Femmes” crisscrossed the country imitating actresses and singers. Amaranta took it all very seriously: she studied every gesture, every movement and she was very good doing Paloma San Basilio and Rocío Durcal. It was a life and she enjoyed it – and she could have done it many years more.
In Juchitán you do not see foreigners: there is no tourism nor reason for it. It’s impossibly hot, but at this time a ceaseless wind blows: air running between the two oceans. The wind is refreshing but it makes clothes stick to bodies, raises sand and makes the birds squawk more. The wind keeps the people of Juchitec alert.
–What are you looking for here?
In a street in the town center there is a shop with a poster: Neurotics Anonymous. Inside, six men and women are meeting to tell their stories; later on that man would explain to me what they did to stop suffering, “because humans suffer jealousy, anger, rage, pride, lust.” Afterwards that man – forty years old, Pedro Infante type – told me the story of a man who came for many months, so as to get over a muxe:
–The poor man was already married and he wanted to start a family but he was missing the muxe so he saw her. His wife found out and it infuriated her. And of course not being able to stop seeing her was also very painful for him.
He knew that he had to stop seeing her but he couldn’t. She had bewitched him.
Soon enough I cottoned on that he was that man.
–And did he get better?
I asked him, keeping up his fiction.
–No, I do not think he ever got better. The thing is that they have got something, my friend, they have got something.
That’s what he told me, through a sad smile. Felina had told me that one of the muxes’ traditional “social functions” was the sexual initiation of young Juchitec men. A girlfriend’s virginity was of fundamental value here and the Juchitec men respect their girlfriends more if they don’t sleep with them. The services of a muxe are the best available resource.
The New Les Femmes had said they would meet, after three months of vacations, in a town in Chiapas where they had closed on a good deal. Amaranta arrived the day after the appointment and waited and waited. The next day she started to make calls: that’s when she found out that two of her friends had died of AIDS and the third had been brought low with the illness. Until that moment Amaranta had never paid much attention to HIV. She did not even take care of herself.
–How was it possible that things could have changed so drastically, so soon? They were so alive. They had so much in front of them. I am not going to say that I feel guilty, rather that I feel an enormous moral commitment to do something.
It was her road to Damascus. Paralyzed by fear, Amaranta took stock. When they told her that she was in the clear, she contacted a group that had been working on the Isthmus for two years on AIDS issues: Gunaxhii Guendanabani—Ama la Vida was a small organization run by Juchitec women who accepted her as one of them. Amaranta organized her friends in prevention campaigns. The muxes were very important in convincing other youth of the need for safe sex.
–The issue of HIV opened a Pandora’s box, everything appeared: sexual choices, self-esteem, cultural context, social interaction, health, the economy, human rights, even politics.
Amaranta specialized in this issue. She obtained grants, worked in Juchitán, in the rest of Mexico and in Central American countries. She gave courses, workshops, studied, organized talks, marches, plays. Afterwards Amaranta joined a new political party, México Posible, something that grew out of the coming together of feminist, ecologist, indigenista and human rights groups. She was a true militant.
In the cantina there is a Tehuano fandango and there are only men. Outside the heat is criminal: here inside, beers. Papagayos painted on the walls, drinking Coronas and in the corner a big television where in another world a terrible shot repeats. Under the palm leaf roof there is a fan slowly spinning.
–Come in, güero, have a beer.
A table with five fortysomething men is filled with empty bottles. I sit with them. After a while I ask them about the muxes, several guffaw.
–No, what for? Everybody here has his chick.
–Your chicks, dude.
Another corrects him. A third looks on through eyes pulled into a squint from the beer.
–Let’s see which of you hasn’t fucked a muxe. Let’s see who’s the faggot who’s never fucked a muxe.
He dares them, there are knowing smiles.
–To the muxes!
Shouts one, and they all toast… we all toast.
The invitation was printed on a sheet of regular paper: “Mr. Antonio Sánchez Aquino and Gimena Gómez Castillo have the honor of inviting you and your family to the 25th birthday of Miss María Rosa Mística that will take place on.” The party was last week; yesterday, when I saw her in the street selling the cheeses she makes with her mother, Miss María Rosa Mística looked like, and I say this with all due respect, a tubby ugly man — very wide, stuffed into an endless skirt. He tells me that he cannot talk right now but maybe tomorrow.
–How does twelve in bar Jardín sound to you?
–She said, but give me your cellphone number “in case I don’t make it.” And now I am calling her because she is already an hour late; no, yes, I’m coming right now. I assumed that she was putting me on – a possible feminine ploy. Later, Mística arrives with Pilar – “ a neighbor” – and tells me that they are coming from the viewing of a cousin that died from AIDS last night.
–Poor Raúl, it made her ashamed, she didn’t want to tell anybody that she had it, she didn’t want her mother to find out. Yes, here everybody loved her. But she believed that they were going to reject her and she said that it was a virus she got from a dog, a headache. She hid the test results. And she let herself die out of shame.
Mística makes this comment, sad, changed: now she is a tall Zapotec queen, immense. Paco the Priest had told me that the Greek notion of beauty had not made it here: that the women had to be beautiful because they branched out, were bawdy, drinkers and dancers. “The fatter she comes the more beautiful she is,” he told me that is what they say. If so Mística must be some sort of Angelina Jolie: an oversize body, high heels, a broad petticoat and a fire red huipil with gold braid. The lipstick had given her unlikely lips, a heart in flames.
–I am sick too. But I am not going to let myself die, right? I am fighting, cocksure. Now I take care of myself a lot and I take care of the people I have relations with: people are not to blame because I became sick. I am not vengeful like that. Right now I am going out with a kid of sixteen; I like young guys a lot, really. I feel good with him but I also feel bad because he is too young for me.
Her neighbor wants to talk. Pilar is a muxe adapted to modern culture: a few years ago she went to live in Mexico City and got a job in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant.
–And I also work nights, so when I leave I don’t feel tired so if I need some cash I go to Insurgentes, around the Zona Rosa and I look for men. I like that. I really feel like a woman, more than a woman. That’s the only thing I don’t have.
She talks and presses her hand between her legs. Pilar wears tight pants and a low blouse showing the birth of her burgeoning breasts.
–You have enough, they might say.
–In good humor they call her Mística,
–Yes, something is lacking, and there’s too much. I thought about having the operation but I can’t. It’s like forty thousand pesos. That’s a lot of money.
Forty thousand pesos are about four thousand dollars and Pilar charges two hundred or three hundred pesos for each trick. Mística is sweating and pats herself dry without ruining her makeup. Mística does not like the idea of working like a prostitute.
–No, I am very afraid of it. It makes me afraid to fall head over heels in love with somebody. I am afraid of violent men. I entertain myself at parties and doing the conga. When I go out drinking I hook up a lot.
Traditionally, the muxe of Juchitán do not prostitute themselves: they do not need to because the marginalization does not exist that blocks other escape routes. But some have begun to do it.
–I don’t want an operation, either. I am happy just as I am. I have more freedom than a woman. I can do what I want. And I also have my husband who loves me and looks out for me.
That’s what Mística says. Her boyfriend is eighteen years old and is a student: they’ve already been together – she says proudly – for more than six months.
In September 2002, Amaranta had found a man who at last managed to captivate her: he was a refrigeration technician tending to the large hotels in Huatulco, a tourist town on the Pacific, three hours north from here.
–He was a nice boy and he asked me to stay with him, that he was alone and that he needed me, and that we could move in together. It was a relation based on equality, we used to pay equally for everything, that we were doing something together.
Amaranta felt loved and decided that she would reduce her political activities in favor of “building a family.” But one night in October she took a bus towards Oaxaca to attend an event; the bus flipped over and Amaranta’s arm was broken so much it could not be reconstructed. They amputated her arm at the shoulder.
–I don’t know if I believe in fate or not, but I do believe in circumstances, that things happen when they have to happen. It was a defining moment and the accident forced me to ask myself: Amaranta where are you going, where is your life going.
Her boyfriend would not be held back. And Amaranta realized that the things most important to her were her family, her male and female friends and her political party. So she tried to not be brought down by her missing arm. She returned to political activism with more energy and when they invited her to be a candidate for federal representative – the second slot on the national ticket – she accepted without question. She began to tour the country looking for support, speaking in public, ruffling feathers, organizing: she was becoming a popular figure and had a good chance by disparaging traditional politicians with her own novelty as possibly the first trans legislator in the country and – very probably – the world.
The mustachioed priest, Paco, did not agree. The priest wanted to be tolerant and occasionally he is: he says that homosexuality is not natural but that in indigenous society, since it is older, everybody is accepted as they are. But in today’s Juchitán, there are people who do not want to accept homosexuals because they are “westernizing” things.
–What does “westernizing” mean in this case?
–Well, for example, getting involved in politics like Amaranta has been doing. It worries me. I see other interests who are toying with her or him. No: with her. Because here a homosexual is somebody who lives normally and who isn’t interested in change, in being a figure but someone who lives with an indigenous worldview. In the meantime, if they don’t disturb local life they continue being accepted.
–Have you broken with the muxe tradition?
I asked Amaranta this question another day.
–The idea is not to stop making cakes or stop sewing or stop organizing parties. Not at all. The idea is to strengthen public spaces, something we have always done.
Amaranta Gómez Regalado is very much a woman. More than once while chatting with her I forget that the name on her documents says Jorge.
There’s the cawing of crows and static from loudspeakers and nobody knows if they are imitating each other. In the middle of the zócalo – Juchitán’s central plaza – right by the kiosk where bands or the marimba play, a group of skaters challenges each other on wheels. They fail at pirouettes most of the time. A woman heaving a mountain of colorful skirts, petticoats and a shawl crosses the road and almost provokes an accident. People are dressed in rapper pants and San Francisco Giants or New York Yankees caps and one of them tells me that what he most wants in life is to cross the border, but now, what with the war, who knows:
–Won’t they take you for their army and send you to the front?
So I ask him about the muxes and his eyes light up:
–You have come for that?
I cannot tell him no; but neither is it worth explaining to him that it’s not what he thinks. The mango, ripe bananas, dry fruit, maize flower and the gardenias smell. Further on, a colorful banner hung from the trees announces that the “Ministry for National Defense invites you to join the ranks of the Infantry. We offer you lodging, food, health insurance, life insurance”; two skinny soldiers wait for candidates. The shoeshine boys get bored and sweat. A car with a bullhorn passes by on the street reading the news: “Woman giving birth locked up for seven days with her twins for not paying the bill.” Two large women are holding hands and one strokes a small piece of the other’s behind.
–Look at what you’re missing!
She shouts at a thin man who looks at them. To one side, under an awning away from the scorching sun, the “Microphone and Stylists’ Marathon,” is taking place organized by Gunaxhii Guendanabani: a dozen muxe hairdressers and women wield scissors, snipping hair for the cause while a woman reads out advice “for a full, responsible and pleasing sex life.” One fifteen-year old pregnant girl, in a fruit dress, comes closer holding the hand of her imposing mother. Schoolgirls hand out red ribbons and Amaranta greets people. Some women respond encouragingly, interested in her candidacy or in her missing arm. She is wearing an obsidian necklace over a violet batik blouse and a large, flowery skirt, a set face, high forehead and the eyes, more than anything else, the eyes. She looks content, full of energy.
–And what do you think now that you have become a public figure?
–Well, look I still haven’t had time to ask myself. On the one hand, it’s what I always wanted, what I had dreamed and imagined.
–But if you win it’s going to be a lot more difficult to find a boyfriend.
Amaranta pulls the hair out of her face, flirts, grimaces:
–Yes, it’s going to be more complicated. But the problem is deeper: if it’s so difficult for men to be with a woman who is more intelligent than them, well imagine what it’s going to be like with a muxe who is more intelligent than them. Ay, mamacita! That is going to be tough!
She says, and we both laugh out loud.
Amaranta Gómez Regalado and her party, México Posible, were defeated. The election result was a surprise even for analysts who predicted much more than its 244,000 votes from across the country. According to the analysts the principle problem was growing electoral absenteeism and the massive amounts that the three main political parties spent on publicity. Amaranta became a little depressed, tried to hide it and says that she is going to keep moving forward.
Prize-winning author of fiction and non-fiction, Martín Caparrós lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He also reports for El País and writes for its blog, Pamplinas. His most recent novel, published by Anagrama, is called, Comí (I ate). This article was first published under the title of, “Muxes de Juchitán,” at https://cronicasperiodisticas.wordpress.com/2008/09/22/muxes-de-juchitan/.
Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons. The MxJTP has a Facebook page: like it, here.