Just before one a.m. this morning, I felt the warm breeze off the Laguna Superior kiss my face as I lifted it skyward to bask in the moment. I was standing smack in the middle of El Salon Guixhi in Juchitan, groovin' to the funky Latin sounds of Grupo Kautivador from nearby Oaxaca City with near 2000 revelers at the 34th annual Vela Muxe sponsored by Las Autenticas Intrepidas Buscadoras Del Peligro (The Authentic Intrepid Searchers of Danger).
Las Autenticas are the Muxes of Juchitan, a town of 70,000 situated just inland from Laguna Superior, on the west coast of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. The Muxes are the splendid queens of the Isthmus, whereby tradition they have been seen as a third gender since before the Spanish ever set foot in Mexico. Perhaps it's not surprising that transgender and gay lifestyles are accepted in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a traditionally matriarchial society.
The Muxe celebrations are called Velas, and this was the big one, where this year's queen would be crowned. As I looked around the grounds (an outdoor venue with three stages), I was delighted and amazed with what I saw—the Muxes of Juchitan in their traditional dress, other Muxes in gowns, party dresses, and priceless princess/hooker outfits, and the people of Juchitan: gorgeous women of all ages, dressed to the nines, likewise the men in their stylish white guayabera shirts and dark pants, others in jeans and sneakers.
And I saw dancing! The third band was insane, with staccato bass grooves piling up behind Cuban inspired funky piano, a little guitar spilling over the top, all held into place with thick baritone sax hooks and polyrhythmic super tight drums. Two young women in pencil skirts and spike heels spun each other around in salsa perfection a hairsbreadth away. A group of four exuberant teen girls in traditional dress (huipil vest with embroidered tropical flowers on black velvet, flowing flowered skirt, garland of flowers in the hair) danced, holding hands and pirouetting in time.
The Muxes themselves are distinctive in surprising ways. They were split between traditional outfits and party dresses, but held certain qualities in common. Most were not wearing wigs, but had grown their hair long and wore it largely in traditional braids (although local women and Muxes both use clip-on braids). Their makeup had a natural look, more like good skincare than heavy drag makeup. The eyes were the exception, with many featuring two-tone, heavily applied sparkle eye shadow, running right up to the eyebrow.
Very few wore pantyhose or stockings, underlining the difference between trannies here and there. As someone familiar with various drag and crossdresser scenes in the San Francisco Bay Area and Portland, Oregon, I'll tell you that queens in those scenes love their wig hats, makeup and stockings, hell, all that fem gear is a big part of the fun. But these girls were different. Sure, they were out to look their best at all times, but that's a clue. Many of these girls are girls all the time. Have been all or most of their lives. With acceptance into the culture, they've largely dispensed with some of the more arcane regalia of super fem, i.e. nylons and wigs. Sheer nylons are not de riguer as they once were on certain occasions, and why should that be different in Juchitan?
I can tell you this, one thing the Muxes share with their crossdresser, drag queen and trans counterparts in the states is a love of high heels in all their sassy strutting glory. Big shoes of every imaginable sort and detailing were on proud display as the Muxes sashayed about the venue.
Earlier that evening, the crowd had parted for the red carpet entrance of last year's coronated queen, Darina I, vamping her way towards the stage surrounded by synchronized male dancers in sparkly devil eye masks. A few ceremonial speeches from her and her court of stunning queens, and the too-loud sound system thumped out “I Will Survive” while the truly fabulous contestants for this year's crown each made their entry, wave after wave of giddy crowd support greeting the parade of blinding red dresses. The muxes moved with a surety, grace, sass and self-confidence that comes from living in the heart of acceptance. Did I mention this was only the largest of three major Muxe Velas happening last night? Can you imagine a small city in the United States hosting such a cavalcade celebration of transgender and gay lives? Hats off to the many great gay pride events of course, but the centuries-old acceptance of these other modes is unprecedented.
So there I was, a full head or more taller than 99% of the crowd, I have to admit to a pinch of self-consciousness. To say I was a point of interest is an understatement. There was a smattering of white faces in the crowd, including one or two blond girls in huipils, but honey I was the only white queen there at about 6'5” in my heels, and I did feel a smashing in my red sparkly minidress with a local purple flower accessory in my wig hat. Self-consciousness not withstanding, I too was moved to dance a turn or three. The magic Latin funk grabbed me and shook me just a little. I wished my wife was still at the Vela—I'd dropped her and my two kids off at the hotel an hour earlier—I wanted to dance with my sweetie.
Meanwhile, I was maybe a bit envious of the fantastic beauties who walked the red carpet that night—dishing and dolling their was down the runway, this year's contestants fantastic in their blazing red ensembles! But I did revel in the same attention that made me self conscious. Sure I got some outright sniggering from doofy teenage boys, but I exchanged smiles with a number of lovely Muxes, saying high to my sisters across the cultural divide. The women (the ones born that way) of Juchitan were beaming their welcome, all dancing eyes and hilarity at my outrageous, near preposterous super tall white girl thang, smiling at me, talking me up and repeatedly snapping my picture. I caught a couple of journalist types grabbing shots of me too, with their big important looking cameras.
At the band break, when space opened up on the dance ground, I found myself inadvertently skipping down what was left of the red carpet, and was caught off guard by the flash from the camera of a white journalist gal grabbing my moment for posterity, or at least for a moment's consideration for her story. By and large, I felt a sincere welcome from Juchitan, maybe there was a bit of surprise at the middle-aged white amazon in their midst, but I was accepted with good grace as one of their own, as one Oaxacan woman in a huipil, assured me, “You are an Autentica”.