“More likely, that we’re lost causes,” he said, giving me an exaggerated wink.

It was too late for me to catch the last bus home; I would have to spend the night at Octavio’s. Around midnight, the women stacked the chairs on the tables. Octavio’s house was dark and silent when we eased open the metal gate. I held my breath, waiting for the family’s dogs to erupt into a racket, as they did each time I knocked on the door. When they stayed quiet, it occurred to me they were accustomed to Octavio returning home at that hour. He and I whispered buenas noches and I fell asleep in the living room hammock.

Seven hours later, the telephone jangled on the shelf near my head. Octavio ran for it, still in his striped, long-sleeved pajamas. He always rushed to answer so his parents wouldn’t hear a man’s voice say, “Beth Sua?” He picked up the receiver, took a breath, paused. “Diga,”—“tell me,” he said, in a formal tone. It was a friend from Oaxaca City, calling about some purses she wanted Octavio to sell in Ixtepec.

Octavio’s mother ran a retail business, but it had no storefront. Doris, or occasionally Octavio, walked around to Ixtepec’s market stalls, restaurants, and homes, showing coral necklaces, gold chains, lacy lingerie, dresses, skirts, ceramic figurines and collectible dolls imported from China and Guatemala. Doris kept some of the collectibles. Octavio preferred the jewelry. Neither liked the clothes.

Shifting his weight from one hip to the other, clamping the receiver between shoulder and jaw, Octavio turned the conversation from business to leisure. He wanted to attend a fiesta in a town three hours away from Ixtepec. He had no money for bus fare, so that evening he would “hacer show trasvesti, y después me voy de prosti.” He would be working at El Sabor that night.

I rolled from the hammock, declined Octavio’s offer of coffee, said I’d see him at El Sabor, and gave him a kiss goodbye. The dogs yelped frantically as I eased open the rusted front door.

That evening, Octavio packed a bag and left home early for Shayla’s. By the time I arrived at El Sabor, shortly after nine, Shayla and Hechicera were dressed to perform: hair smoothed and sprayed, miniskirts perfectly pressed, knee-high boots buffed to high gloss. Beth Sua wore a black gown and five-inch heels.

The thin crowd never grew that night. Many of the regulars had gone back to their villages for the annual fiesta that had prompted Octavio to work. Shortly after eleven, Beth Sua decided it was time for the show. Shayla and Hechicera thought the crowd was too small; they would sit it out. But Beth Sua, focused on the fiesta, wanted to perform. She glided over to the jukebox alone, giving each choice long thought. Her fingers hovered above the console’s buttons and her head tilted to one side; a couple of men hung near her.

At El Sabor, negotiations revolved around the jukebox. Everything else was prescribed: the price of a beer if a man drank it alone, the price if a woman or muxe sat with him, who worked which nights, how long a customer could stay in one of the rooms. Most open questions were settled at the jukebox: what the next song would be, who was willing to dance, how long a muxe would circle the dance floor with a customer for free.

Once Beth Sua had everyone’s attention, she planted a chair in the center of the empty dance floor. She sat on it backwards, one tensed leg on either side of the chair back. She closed her eyes, the music started, and the world fell away from her. Beth Sua lip-synced a bit of the song, then rose from the chair. She spun and dipped and kicked, in muscle-wrenching slow motion, making the chair her dance partner. One hand curled around the back of the chair, she lunged away, extended an elegantly turned arm, circled back, circled out again, and twirled out of her long black skirt. She danced with the skirt, as a bullfighter does with a red cape, then draped it carefully over the chair. She eased off the dance floor, garter clasps flashing, and disappeared into a back room.

Beth Sua had learned to perform during her five months at the Mariposa Negra. In Ixtepec she rarely had the chance; a small audience and the need for some extra cash were excuse enough. Performance over, Beth Sua made her work plans for the evening, then convinced a taxi-driver friend to take me back to the bus station in Juchitán.

I called Octavio a few days later to find out whether he’d enjoyed the fiesta, only to learn that he’d never gone. After I’d left El Sabor, he’d arrived home after three in the morning, the makeup carefully scrubbed from his face and his purse stuffed with pesos. His mother was already up, preparing to leave for the fiesta. Octavio’s late night crashed into Doris’ early morning. A bitter argument broke out—Why did he have to do that for work? What about the dangers? —and Doris left for the fiesta alone.

Only Octavio and his father were home when the bad news arrived: one of Doris’s brothers had died unexpectedly. That awful day began a sort of unraveling of Octavio’s life, one I would learn about much later, after leaving the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and moving back to the United States. A month after my move, I received an email from Octavio. It started with a cartoon image of a red rose, then told of family tragedy. “I’m not doing so well, but I have faith in the power to overcome this soon.” I wouldn’t hear the full story until months later, when I returned to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec for a visit.

On a night in early June, five months after his uncle’s death, Octavio had decided it was too stuffy in his bedroom. He spent the night in the living-room hammock. He awoke to his mother’s voice, raw emotion slicing through the early morning. He thought his parents were fighting. Doris ran down the stairs yelling, “Your father, your father!”

Seconds later, Octavio stood over his father’s slumped body. When he lifted the old man’s head, he gulped air. Relief flooded over Octavio; his father was still alive. On the way to the clinic in the taxi, he could see his father fading. “He’s dying,” Octavio said to the driver. “No!” the driver insisted. That angered Octavio. Later, he told me, “It wasn’t the first time someone had died in my arms. I know what it looks like.”

When they arrived at the clinic and Octavio lay his father’s body on a cot, he saw the blood in his saliva. He knew it was too late.

In the months after his father’s death, Doris retreated into silent depression, pulling Octavio into the darkness that enclosed her. She couldn’t sleep, couldn’t work, couldn’t go back into the room she had shared with her husband. Octavio closed off his parents’ bedroom. He brought his mother’s things downstairs and left his father’s to sort some other time. Every night, he pulled the red sofa cushions onto the living room floor. He slept on that makeshift bed next to his mother, who lay in the hammock but hardly slept. Octavio struggled to face both her sense of loss and his own.

He tried to convince his mother to see a therapist, thinking he might take her there himself when she refused to go on her own. Years earlier, when he returned to Oaxaca City after his boyfriend Flaquito had been murdered, Octavio had felt that he wanted to die. One night, he had washed down sleeping pills with mescal. Hours later, a friend found him slumped on the floor, roused him, and pounded on his stomach until Octavio vomited up the poison. After that, Octavio poured nearly all the money he had earned at Mariposa Negra into therapy sessions. He wasn’t sure how, but his conversations with the therapist convinced him that he wanted to live.

With his father’s death, his life closed in on itself. He knew he would never go back to Oaxaca City to finish college—a dream he’d nurtured for more than a decade. Mornings, he cleaned the house. Afternoons, he set up a table by the train tracks, near the bus stop. Bus drivers, soldiers, and housewives came by to hand him small wads of cash, slowly paying off the dresses, dolls, and necklaces they had bought from Doris. Octavio stood behind the table, hands on his hips, wearing tight jeans and dark sunglasses. He flirted with those who stopped and those who passed by. He noted payments in a thick notebook labeled “Doris,” adding and subtracting odd sums quickly in his head.

When the sun slanted toward the horizon and the street began to empty, he would put away the table and walk home. Occasionally, his mother would prepare a midday meal, but more often he did it. Sometimes the brother who lived next door came to eat the meals Octavio cooked. That was all Octavio ever saw of him. His other siblings lived far from Ixtepec. Two of them visited occasionally to see Doris, but never offered to help Octavio.

As Octavio and I sat in his living room, five months after his father’s death, he asked me the question that had been circling in his mind. What would happen when he was sixty-five, as old as his mother was then? Most elderly muxes are cared for by their nieces and nephews, but Octavio didn’t feel he could rely on that. “Much less with the family that I have!” If he couldn’t depend on his siblings, how could he depend upon their children? Perhaps when he could no longer care for the house alone, he would rent it out and go live in a home for the elderly. Most Mexicans cringe in shame at the thought of such places, but Octavio insisted that living in an old folks’ home wouldn’t be so bad. “As long as my mind is clear, I will still have a lot of options, as long as I can go out and do what young people do, as long as I can read, listen to music, see things change.”

Octavio’s patience with his family had stretched thin. He decided that when they all gathered for Christmas, he would demand their help, explaining he could not do it all himself. After the holidays, he wrote to tell me what had happened. He’d gathered his rage and poured it out in a speech. Only his sister seemed to hear his plea. In the months after Christmas, she occasionally made the five-hour bus ride from her home to spend a weekend with her mother and cook meals, to give Octavio a break. “It was a total change in my life,” Octavio said of his father’s death, as we sat in his living room that November afternoon. He paused, unwilling to end on a low note. “But all change has to be good.”

The previous night, Beth Sua, Shayla, and I—and more than 500 others—had attended the annual Vela de las Intrépidas. Octavio had opened the left side of his wardrobe and pulled out a strapless dress, cut tight with a long slit up the skirt. A hand-painted white lily, symbol of Mexico, curled around the front of the bodice. A blue-green iguana, symbol of the isthmus Zapotecs, wrapped around the skirt.

Octavio did not shove the painted dress into a bag. His mother had asked him to prepare for the Vela de las Intrépidas at home. Her husband gone, she no longer had to bow to his wishes. Beth Sua put on the dress, a beaded necklace, a pearl bracelet, and long gold earrings. Then it was time for makeup. Nervousness overtook her. “It took me about an hour just to put on my eyeshadow.” She tried three colors before she got it right, carefully scrubbing off each bad choice and starting over. She braided her hair, then decided it would look better falling around her shoulders and unbraided it. After three hours in front of the mirror, her hands trembling and her stomach hollow, Beth Sua was ready for the vela.

At midnight, Beth Sua stood with her arms around her friend Shayla, mayordoma of the celebration. Shayla’s gold lamé skirt shimmered under the lights of the Princess Salon. The vela had outgrown the regular dance hall and moved to a larger location at the edge of Juchitán, near the road to Ixtepec. Beth Sua held a black, folding fan. Shayla held a tray filled with small calendars—party favors from the vela hostess. Both smiled broadly, lipstick curling into crescents as my shutter closed on the moment.

After the vela, I mailed the photo to Octavio. He wrote to tell me that he liked the image. And he had shown it to his mother.



Postscript: In the years since this narrative took place, Octavio has moved out of his mother’s home and now lives fully as Beth Sua. She runs a shelter in her small house for undocumented migrants from Central America who ride atop the railroad through Ixtepec on their long journey to the United States. Beth Sua provides a safe space to queer and transgender migrants who are not always welcome at other shelters. Beth Sua still mourns the loss of her dearest friend, Shayla, who died of testicular cancer.

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