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.

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 Negrathe 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.

“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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