The second time I met Octavio de Gyvez Gallegos, he greeted me wearing only a bath towel. We stood facing each other for a moment, me on the barren street of his hometown, him in the open-air entryway of his family’s house. He tugged carefully on the towel, tucking it under his armpits. He laughed and apologized; he’d just stepped out of the shower. Wet curls fell around his shoulders as he released one hand from the towel and pulled me over the threshold, giving me a quick kiss on the cheek.
The first time I met Octavio, he had introduced himself as Beth Sua. In a room filled with beautiful belles, Beth Sua had snatched my attention: smooth chin up, large eyes sweeping the room, narrow shoulders back in a strapless, floor-length gown that bloomed out at the waist.
That first evening, Beth Sua had approached me, a foreigner with a camera, at my first southern Mexican drag ball. It wasn’t just a party in drag, but an indigenous tradition, an annual celebration of the muxes in the city of Juchitán, Oaxaca. “La Vela de las Intrépidas Buscadoras del Peligro”—“The Fiesta of Intrepid Women in Search of Danger”—drew men and women from all around Juchitán, as well as the rest of Mexico, even the world. Beth Sua leaned over, touched my arm gently, and smiled an almost impossibly wide smile. “Will you send me your photos? All the ones I appear in?”
I said yes.
She gave me her address and floated away.
A few hours before the Vela de las Intrépidas, Octavio had opened the left side of a carved wood wardrobe in his bedroom. He had selected the black evening gown from the many dresses that hung there. Most days, he chose carefully pressed pants and brightly colored shirts from the wardrobe’s right side. Every time Octavio pulled a dress from the left side of his wardrobe, he hoped that his father would not find out. The night that I met Beth Sua, Octavio had carried the dress, high heels, makeup, and hairpins out of his father’s house in a duffel bag. He prepared for the party at a friend’s house in Juchitán—far from the eyes of his family’s neighbors and friends.
At the time I attended that vela, I had been living for more than a year in Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec—the thin sliver of land that connects the Yucatan peninsula to the rest of the country—writing about the people who lived there. Before I moved to Mexico’s isthmus, I had heard about the muxes (pronounced moo-shehs), gay men in traditional Zapotec culture, the men some other Native cultures might call two-spirit people or a third gender. With nearly 100,000 residents, Juchitán is well-known as a city where Zapotec is spoken even in government offices, a city the Spaniards never truly conquered, a city where women command economic power and muxes command respect. My introduction to Juchitán, three years before I ever saw the city, was through the book Juchitán de las mujeres, by one of Mexico's best known authors, Elena Poniatowska:
Juchitán is not like any other town. It has the destiny of its Indian wisdom. Everything is different; women like to walk embracing each other, and here they come to the marches, overpowering …. They are the ones who participate in the demonstrations and beat policemen. You should see them arrive like walking towers, their windows open ….
I had thought Poniatowska exaggerated. Then I saw Beth Sua at the Vela de las Intrépidas, a walking tower. It’s not only Juchitán’s women, but also muxes who overpower, their windows open. Octavio’s beauty was powerful yet delicate, smooth yet edgy, both yin and yang, and above all, utterly confident.
Juchitán’s velas, festivals that stretch across days, or even whole weeks, awash in beer and mescal, confetti and loud music, celebrate the city’s patron saint, the plum harvest, fishermen, potters, taxi drivers, market vendors, muxes. Most velas require everyone’s best attire: voluptuous flowers embroidered on dark velvet blouses and long skirts for women, crisp white shirts and pants for men. At some velas, you will be turned away at the door if you show up too poorly dressed, at others, the dress code nudges more toward come-as-you-can.
The Vela de las Intrépidas falls on a Saturday in mid-November. By the time I showed up at eleven in the evening, the intrepid women had marched deep into their annual celebration. Gold and yellow banners arched above our heads, hiding stained acoustic tiles. Thirty-one ceiling fans spun, to no avail. Balloons filled with small pools of confetti bobbed lazily. Occasionally, the heat or a long fingernail released a whirl of confetti with a sharp pop. Under the balloons and fans, orange flowers sewn on midnight-blue velvet and glinting silver hearts on sky-blue chiffon flashed by me on the dance floor. A dancer lifted her arms overhead and a hairy belly peeked out between the twist of white sash and black blouse.
A young man walked by, regal in purple satin fully embroidered in gold and black. A thick braid of turquoise fabric, heavy with yellow flowers, hung far back on his head. His light skin and long face made me think perhaps he was not a muxe, not Zapotec, not from the isthmus. He (or she, pronouns are fluid among the muxes) sat down and folded the skirt’s white flounce into curls of starchy stiffness, piling it on his lap like folds of fresh pasta. He released one cool hand from his long skirt and extended it toward mine, snapping his head in a pert bow. His name was Juan Luis Enríquez, and yes, he was from the isthmus.
The history of the isthmus reflected in his light brown eyes. For several hundred years, German and Lebanese and Syrian men, along with the Spaniards, had come to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, married Zapotec women, and fathered light-skinned, Zapotec-speaking babies. For the past few decades, isthmus muxes have fused elements from global queer communities to longstanding isthmus tradition.
I was horribly underdressed, as usual, in a sleeveless blue dress that fell to my knees. I knew what was considered appropriate vela attire, even owned one of those embroidered tunics, but I was still too much the foreigner to don velvet on a ninety-degree night, and then dance. Some of the other women present dressed down a bit, as well—they loaned their very best fiesta attire to a muxe nephew or cousin, then came in their second best.
Styrofoam plates filled with spaghetti in bland tomato sauce, boiled shrimp with garlic, fried pork tacos, and baked corn tortillas passed hand to hand. Nearly every guest held a Coronita, a half-size bottle of Corona beer. Hosts replaced the guests’ bottles almost before they were drained as empties piled up on the floor. Admission to the party was a case of Coronitas, purchased at the door (women and muxes got in free). All the food came from the vela society that raised money all year for this one night.
I snaked my way toward the back of the room, slipping on spilled beer and forgotten plates of food. Other people’s sweat covered my arms as I slid past tightly pressed dancers. I was the only woman in the bathroom, though it was packed. Muxes checked their makeup, hitched up lazy stockings and falling headbands, coaxed the curl back into tresses relaxed by dance hall steam.
Two bands bookended the long, narrow dance floor; cumbia rumbled in every gut. Men in dresses danced with men in plain white-cotton pants and shirts. For every man in embroidered velvet, there was another in spaghetti straps, the attire nearly equal parts traditional Zapotec and metro drag. Both bands rolled out local dance tunes in blaring brass as more sweat rolled off each bared shoulder. Dancers fanned themselves with Styrofoam plates slimy with gravy and salsa; bottles tipped and fell, clinking and crunching beneath our feet; the crowd grew thicker, less balanced. Revelers retired to the bathroom for more drastic overhauls: pantyhose rolled off, dresses changed, stilettos abandoned—risking broken glass over broken ankles.
A blithe falling apart happens at nearly every Mexican party. In the United States, we tend to avoid such messy endings. We pick up subtle clues as the evening rolls toward closure. Almost as a body, we rise and head for the door, a rare act of groupthink. In Mexico, although collectivism is more the norm, each person decides for herself when the party is over. Some wait out the whole thing, letting the fiesta fall down around them, one balloon at a time.
At the Vela de las Intrépidas I did the Mexican thing, staying on as the party slowly collapsed into a stupor. I ambled out the door after four in the morning, as the house lights came up, the last beers finally emptied.
Outside in the predawn coolness, dozens of falling stars rained down in the indigo dimness. The young man standing next to me was someone I knew casually, the person who had invited me to the vela. He was straight, and like many of the straight men who had attended, he celebrated the muxes of his hometown by dancing with both women and muxes. We craned our necks up toward the sky. In the space of a minute, several white arcs trailed overhead. For a moment I wondered at the apparent implausibility of it: a drag queen ball in the middle of small-town, indigenous Mexico, capped by an explosion of shooting stars. “What amazing luck, a meteor shower,” I said quietly. The young man turned to me. “This always happens when I look at the sky in Juchitán.”
Juchitán is a place where implausible is quotidian, where people welcome apparent strangeness with open arms. Ixtepec, where Octavio lives, is not such a place. A Zapotec community a dozen miles northwest of Juchitán, Ixtepec changed from a sleepy village into a bustling town nearly a century ago, when the railroad first stretched across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
Two months after the Vela de las Intrépidas, I visited Octavio to give him the photos I’d taken of him and to ask him some questions. I was curious about how gay life merged with traditional indigenous life in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
Octavio invited me into his room, offering me the hand-carved chair across from his gleaming mahogany wardrobe. I handed him an eight-by-ten of Beth Sua tossing a kiss to my camera. In a tight T-shirt, blue jeans, and no makeup, Octavio held the photo at arm’s length and looked at Beth Sua: beads of sweat across her unlined brow, lipstick a puckered O, eyes beaming laughter. He pressed the photo to his chest with a look of pride.
Later, he would tell me he’d taken the name Beth Sua from a waitress’ name tag in a diner. She had told him it meant “temple of riches” in Hebrew. Lovely, he had thought.
Octavio turned to his shelves, crowded with books by his favorite authors: Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Leo Tolstoy, Octavio Paz, D.H. Lawrence, Salvador Novo, Elena Poniatowska. He pulled out a tin picture frame, its empty oval gaping. He slipped the photo inside and turned it for me to admire. “Beautiful!” he said, tossing me a wide smile. “Too bad I can’t leave the photo in there.” His smile evaporated. He couldn’t risk his father seeing Beth Sua. He slid the image slowly from the frame and hid it in the darkest corner of his room.
Juchitán’s Casa de Cultura sells postcards made from local, vintage photos: a man holds his work hat; men practice on a battlefield; a woman poses in formal dress; a man carries a water jug; a woman gathers flowers; two young men face each other. In this final image, probably from the 1940s, thin mustaches fuzz two upper lips; black hair gleams, slightly long and perfectly combed; wide-legged pants ride high above their navels. The couple’s eyes lock, tenderly. One holds the other’s hand in both of his own. This photo is not sold as rare evidence of a strange subculture, but as an image of typical life in Juchitán.
Typical life in Ixtepec is a little different. Octavio knows only rudimentary Zapotec, even though his grandmother spoke almost no Spanish and shared a room with him for the last years of her life. Had Octavio grown up in Juchitán, he would probably speak fluent Zapotec. His bilingual parents never bothered to teach it to him because they thought it more important he know how to survive in mestizo culture, as his father had learned to do. Octavio’s father silently detested his son’s long hair, tight jeans, and necklaces, and especially the knowledge that Octavio often wore lipstick and dresses. Octavio silently forged his own path, never challenging his father directly, yet following a lifestyle his father couldn’t accept.
The family living room records Octavio’s lineage: all indigenous Zapotecs. Near the glass-fronted cabinets jammed with tea sets, sherry glasses, and ceramic dolls, photographs commemorate weddings, annual fiestas, and birthdays. In one, a toddler in a baby-blue suit stands next to a three-tiered, baby-blue cake, taller than the boy. It is Octavio on his first birthday, in the early 1970s. In another photo, women pose stiffly in embroidered velvet blouses and skirts. One is Octavio’s mother, with a powerful smile and furious eyes—a startling beauty. People tell Octavio that Beth Sua looks like his mother.
Octavio considers himself a devout Catholic, drawing equal strength from Saint Jerome, patron saint of Ixtepec, and King David. He returns again and again to the Old Testament story of David and Jonathan, son of Saul. He quotes Book II of Samuel, chapter 2, verse 26, David’s lament when he learns Jonathan has been killed: “I grieve for you, brother Jonathan; how dear you were to me! How wonderful was your love for me, sweeter than the love of women.”
Though he believes the Bible sanctions gay life, Octavio also believes homophobia originated with the people who brought Christianity: the Spaniards. He tells the story of Zempoala temple, an indigenous Totonac holy place, three hundred miles northwest of Ixtepec. He says the Spaniards were horrified to find a community of gay priests there when they arrived, and slaughtered them all. Respect for gay men survived in the isthmus because the Zapotecs refused to be conquered.