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In some ways, the railroad has done what Spanish invaders could not. A hub for the national rail system, Ixtepec is a town of Spanish and tacos, not Zapotec and tamales. Ixtepecanos, many of whom came from somewhere else, operate the railroad, work at the military base, or sell to those who do. Juchitecos trade and farm for a living, tracing their roots in the city back hundreds of years.
“A gay man dressed as a woman is stared at, everyone criticizing.” Octavio says of Ixtepec. “Many women will accept you in pants, but if they see you wearing a dress, they pull out the daggers. Women’s way of thinking in Juchitán is very different than here in Ixtepec. Juchitán is more open. If they see you dressed as a woman, instead of criticizing you, they say, ‘Ay, what a cutie, how pretty!’” He believes Juchitán hasn’t turned away from the muxes because it hasn’t turned away from traditional Zapotec culture.
The railroad and the military define both Ixtepec and Octavio’s family. His father worked thirty-eight years checking parcels on the trains that clatter by, just two blocks from their home. His grandmother ran a railside food stand in the evenings, selling dinner to passengers. Octavio often thinks of opening a food stall; like his grandmother, he’s an excellent cook.
Octavio told me all this as I sat on the carved wooden chair in his bedroom that first afternoon. He would tell me one of his dreams, then tell me why it would remain only a dream. In the case of the food stall, he didn’t think he could start one because, “My father would come by, really drunk, and scare away all the customers.”
Octavio stood—it was time to cook the midday meal. He and his mother shared housework; he usually cooked while his mother was away at work. He told me to sit at the kitchen table, declined my offer to help, and washed the fresh fish his mother had purchased that morning. He rubbed it with salt then placed it in a frying pan with some water. “I hardly ever cook with oil,” he said, waving off the idea with a swipe of his spatula. He worried about gaining weight. Every morning he rode his bike for miles, up and down the streets of Ixtepec.
The sound of sobbing suddenly burst into our conversation. His mother, Doris, had come home and turned on the afternoon soap operas. Octavio grimaced; he only watched the news and an occasional morning cartoon. Doris eased herself stiffly into a kitchen chair and cleared enough space on the table to rest her elbows. She was thick around the middle, with strong arms and a tired face. She wore a sleeveless cotton tunic embroidered in yellow and a long skirt, the traditional working clothes of an isthmus Zapotec woman, and a string of pearls—something I’d never before seen in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Octavio set a plate of fish and glass of limeade before each of us. We scooped the salty, tender fish onto baked corn totopos. Doris and I chatted about the best places to buy embroidered tunics (fishing village markets), how I liked living in the isthmus (quite well), how I tolerated the heat (not quite so well), and how to keep termites from eating the wood furniture (rub it with used motor oil). After the meal, Doris took food upstairs to her husband. He hadn’t wanted to come to the kitchen and eat; I hadn’t even realized he was home.
After that meal, on many more visits to Octavio’s home, I felt the father’s presence in the home like a specter, realizing his silence wasn’t resignation toward his muxe son, but rejection. The few times I encountered him in the living room, kitchen, or courtyard, he grunted a buen día and avoided my eyes. I was never quite sure how much of his withdrawal was emotional and how much was physical; alcoholism and heart disease made his days, at best, uncomfortable. Still, the fact remained that I was there to talk to his son about being a muxe, and he wanted to talk his son into being something else. In spite of that desperate wish, Zapotecs generally believe that muxes are born, not made. There’s no nature versus nurture debate; almost every discussion of muxes begins, “Cuando nace un muxe”—when a muxe is born.
Fifteen years earlier, at the age of nineteen, Octavio had left Ixtepec to go to college in the state capital, Oaxaca City. College at nineteen, first boyfriend at sixteen, first Vela de las Intrépidas at fifteen. During his first year of college, when he returned from Oaxaca City to attend the annual vela, Octavio wore women’s clothes to the fiesta for the first time. He loved Oaxaca City and his life there. He nearly finished a degree in hotel management, but never took the required final exam, though he worked for several years keeping books at the four-star San Felipe Hotel.
“I have changed a lot since then,” he said, after we’d cleared away the lunch dishes from our meal with Doris. He tried to reach across the gap between his life then and now. “I work as a prostitute,” he told me. I wasn’t surprised to hear that, only for him to say it on the first afternoon I spent at his house. His accounting job had surprised me more; Zapotec families are less likely to send a daughter to college than a son, but even less likely to send a muxe. Typical muxe professions: baker, florist, cake decorator, barmaid, cook, dressmaker, market vendor, hair stylist, prostitute. General family expectation of muxes: they never leave their parents, keeping house while their parents work, then nursing them in old age.
One night in Oaxaca City, while Octavio was walking home from his job at the San Felipe Hotel, a man in a flashy car slowed to a stop next to him. He asked Octavio if he knew where to find a particular bar and Octavio got into the car to direct him to the club. When the man suggested Octavio spend the night with him, for pay, Octavio was taken aback: not quite offended, but not open to the idea, either. The man offered him a sniff of white powder, pouring it into his open palm. Octavio thanked him, then turned to the open car window and tossed it out.
“What are you doing?” the man had demanded.
“You gave it to me. That means I can do whatever I want with it.”
Before Octavio got out of the car, the man told him about his bar up north, gave Octavio a business card that said Mariposa Negra and offered him a job as a waitress-dancer-prostitute.
Octavio turned the idea over in his mind. His relationship with his father had reached low ebb. Why not go as far away as possible? He took the long bus ride north to Guanajuato, a city in central Mexico, and started working at the Mariposa Negra—the Black Butterfly. A bartender, Flaquito, became Octavio’s boyfriend. One night, Beth Sua and Flaquito enjoyed a rare evening off from their club by dancing and drinking at another one. As they walked home that night, Flaquito was stabbed. “I’m so cold, I don’t want to die!” Flaquito had gasped.
“Don’t worry!” Octavio remembers replying.
Beth Sua had wrapped her own jacket around Flaquito and hugged him. “The ambulance is on its way. Just hold on!” Beth Sua’s boyfriend was still alive when the ambulance showed up twenty minutes later, but not by the time they arrived at the hospital. The knife had punctured Flaquito’s lung.
When Octavio recounted this story to me, his voice stayed calm, but tears slid down his face. His fingers trembled as he wiped them away. When I’d knocked on Octavio’s front door that day, I’d imagined that he would tell me about his childhood, about the first time he’d gone to the Vela de las Intrépidas, about muxe life in Ixtepec. I’d not imagined tears and stories of trauma. For six months, I visited Octavio every few weeks. His story and its telling became the bond between us.
After Flaquito’s death, Octavio returned to Oaxaca City, depressed and seeking solitude. Not long after that, his parents called him. His mother was sick; they needed his help. Octavio is the fifth of seven children, but as the only muxe, he was the one summoned. He told his mother and father that he would come home to Ixtepec on one condition: “I would be free to do what I wanted, and I would respect their home.”
So Octavio swept and cooked and did the laundry, and never brought men home. “As for women, I have a ton of friends who come visit.” I became one of them, following Octavio around as he did his chores, ran errands, and flirted with friends; following Beth Sua as she walked to work at the bar in the evenings, fixed her eye makeup, and carried cold Coronas to sullen men.
His parents’ departure from Zapotec tradition both helped and hurt Octavio. He was able to attend college, but once he returned home, his life cleaved in two. He was Octavio at home, Beth Sua once he stepped across the threshold. One night, a boyfriend came to see him at his parents’ home. Octavio stood outside talking to him, since his parents would not let him invite men inside. The boyfriend became angry, slamming Octavio against the front gate, punching his chest and face. When Octavio recounted the story to me, he did not mention any fear of his boyfriend’s rage, only fear that his father would hear it.
Even after his mother’s health improved, he stayed on in Ixtepec. He hoped one day to return to Oaxaca City and finally complete his college degree. He dreamed of life beyond Calle Hidalgo in Ixtepec, but lived up to traditional Zapotec expectations.
In much of Mexico, the word puto means both “male prostitute” and “fag,” so much are the two labels conflated. In the isthmus, puto refers only to the profession. There is a saying: hay que ser puto, no mudo—have to be a puto, but not mute. Earn a living however you must, but be who you are. I came to see Octavio as an unconventional person living a conventional life. He was the muxe son who cared for aging parents, cooked, cleaned, and worked as a prostitute—even as he disdained television in favor of Poniatowska and Tolstoy, in a town where most never read a book. Octavio cast a calculating eye on his work, reminding me that he earned as much in one hour with a client as he did in a full day keeping books at the San Felipe Hotel.
Octavio worked at a bar called El Sabor de la Noche—“Flavor of the Night”—a few nights each week. He went when he felt like it, when he wanted some money. When he felt bored, he might go to see friends, but not to work. Nights started early at El Sabor. By seven on a Thursday evening—the first one I spent at El Sabor—the women had come to work, the men to drink, and Octavio, to socialize.
El Sabor was a long, dark walk down the railroad tracks from the center of town. Piñatas, a few potted plants, and Christmas decorations—in late January—dangled from the rafters of the bar’s thatched roof. Green-and-white polka-dot walls separated the bar from the back rooms. Unlike most small-town Mexican bars, there was no smell of beer or urine, no broken furniture, no garbage filling the corners. That’s how Shayla kept things. After twelve years as a barkeep, she still rented. “All these years and I still haven’t earned enough,” she would say, both surprise and wistfulness lacing her voice.
Shayla is not Zapotec, but mestiza, with tightly curled brown hair, an elegant walk, and hairy legs. She moved to Ixtepec from Veracruz to attend school, liked the town, and stayed. She attended the Vela de las Intrépidas every year—once she had been elected vela queen. The vela organizers had asked her to be the mayordoma, the sponsor of the celebration, the following year. She was considering it, but wasn’t sure she could come up with the required donation of 3,000 pesos—$300.
The evening picked up and Hechicera, “the Sorceress,” joined us. Like Octavio, Hechicera was a muxe who sometimes worked at El Sabor and sometimes went just to hang out. Long black hair fell nearly to her waist, her gestures were naturally graceful, her body soft and round. Hechicera sang along with the jukebox. Shayla whistled for the women to take beers or bowls of peanuts to the customers. A young soldier approached our table, wanting to know if Hechicera was a woman. “Psychologically, not biologically,” Octavio replied, his voice laced with condescension. He fiddled with his lipstick case and kept his eyes on the table, refusing to meet the man’s beer-dulled gaze.
One of the women who worked at El Sabor came over to tell Shayla she wasn’t feeling well. She had recently had an abortion—which is both illegal and common in Mexico—and her stomach had hurt ever since. Shayla took her arm gently, telling her in a soft voice she could leave. Still, the woman stayed the whole evening. She and another woman joined two men at a table, then all four disappeared into El Sabor’s back rooms.
The women’s attitude toward their work fell somewhere between boredom and resignation. Hechicera and Beth Sua were more animated, their conversation shifting from gossip to love and back. Beth Sua told me about the customers’ wives. Hechicera talked about leaving her boyfriend. Should she do it? Sometimes, Hechicera tried to convince him to find “a real woman,” but he was in love with her.
By eight o’clock El Sabor buzzed. Shayla joined the waitstaff, shuttling between the bar and the tables with plates of calamari with cabbage and cilantro salsa, cucumber and fresh coconut drizzled with lime and chili sauce. Beth Sua prepared for the evening: black eyeliner on her lids and brows, then mascara, then something to highlight the mole at the edge of her lip. She fetched paper napkins from the bar to blend her makeup, offering a few to a soldier at the next table. She bent to lightly kiss the man’s balding head. Later, Beth Sua danced with him. Almost too drunk to walk, the man planted himself on the dance floor and Beth Sua twirled around him. He was one of those Octavio referred to as an “occasional boyfriend.” They had known each other for twenty years; Octavio knew his wife. Men go to El Sabor for sex with women, or muxes, or both. Most would not call themselves gay.
By quarter of eleven, half the crowd had gone home. Octavio wondered aloud whether his mother was worried about him.
“That we’re lost?” I joked.