Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Vela de las Auténticas, Intrépidas Buscadoras de Peligro

Meet the Authentic, Intrepid Danger-Seekers of Juchitán, Oaxaca. Another name for them is "muxes" (moo-shays), a positive way of referring to gay men in the Istmo region of Oaxaca. The Zapotecs of the Isthmus maintain a society that many have called "matriarchal", full of strong, powerful women who serve as heads of household in both the economic (commercial) and domestic spheres (men play larger roles in the spheres of production, politics and culture). Because the culture values women so highly, it is usually not seen as a bad thing for some boys to display certain womanly characteristics. In fact, the culture has created a space for gay men as kind of a "third sex".

Traditionally in this region, if a boy shows signs of being a "muxe", his mother will not admonish him, but rather encourage the behavior, even going so far as to cross-dress the boy and raise him as female. Although attitudes are rapidly changing due to the strong machismo present in the rest of Mexico, Zapotec mothers in the Istmo tend to consider a muxe "the best kind of son", because he is less likely to marry and more likely to stay at home for most of his life, caring for his mother. What more could a mother want? Although I have so far been unable to confirm this with any source I have found in my cursory internet research, I have also been told that if an Istmo mom has no daughters, she might raise her youngest son as a muxe, cross-dressing him and preventing him from marrying, the goal being to ensure that there will be someone around to care for her in old age.

The sources I have read on the topic seem to agree that in modern times, it is less likely for a boy to be raised a muxe by his mother and more likely for gay men to face scorn and abuse from their fathers, and prejudice both from the community and the larger society. Yet, the Intrépidas dare to be openly gay, often transvestites in the middle of machista Mexico. Intrepid danger-seekers indeed.

Infiltrating machismo aside, it is evident that a semi-comfortable space exists for gay men to inhabit in Juchitán (not so much gay women, unfortunately): something that cannot be said for Oaxaca City or anywhere else in Mexico I have heard of. In Oaxaca, I have yet to meet anyone openly gay (except for maybe my zumba teacher, who I'm not even sure was openly gay). Most Oaxacans will not self-define as gay-haters, but the majority are culturally Catholic and clearly homophobic. Gay bars exist, but straight people tend to keep their distance. Not so in Juchitán, from what I observed during the two days I spent there. For starters, the community welcomes this annual gay celebration and transvestite beauty contest, the "Vela de las Auténticas, Intrépidas Buscadoras de Peligro".

"Velas" are traditional community celebrations in the Isthmo, often in honor of a saint. They usually take the form of a block party in which people dress up in traditional costume, drink lots of beer and dance all night. Most velas are not gay velas, but the Intrépidas organize their own velas several times a year. This particular vela, held every year at the end of November, is the biggest and most extravagant of them. It begins with a week of cultural events such as movie screenings and artistic exhibits, then culminates with a beauty contest to which muxes both from home and abroad are invited, and dancing all night for three nights straight. In the past it has been held in a dance hall. This year it was held in a large outdoor tent, but was no less of a party. And the best part: everyone is invited.

The thing that most impressed me was the community's general acceptance and even embracing of the event. My friend Sarah and I had the opportunity to chat with various people we met over the course of the weekend: a family of flower vendors, the caretakers of our hostel, a couple girls from couchsurfing, a gay man visiting from Oaxaca to attend the vela, and the woman who sold us the iguana soup we had for breakfast (yes, that's right, iguana soup!). All of whom encouraged us to go to the vela, and most of whom were thinking about going themselves. The entire weekend I had my ears open for homophobic comments (such as, "why do you want to go to THAT event?" or "That is THEIR celebration, not ours"), but heard no such things. Those comments only existed in my imagination. Straight and gay couples, trannies and even lesbians all attended the vela, and all had a good time.

Here's how it works: there is no real dress code for the night, but we were told to either wear a traditional costume if we had one, or just wear anything we wanted. Many people were dressed up, though. When you enter the event grounds, you choose one of the Intrépidas to be your host, and go greet her and offer a "limosna"-- in this case a donation of 50 pesos (about $4). In exchange you get to sit in your host's seating area, you are given a plate of food, and can drink as much beer as you want for the remainder of the night. The night consisted of several bands playing cumbia, salsa, and merengue (one band even came from the Dominican Republic, which made me super nostalgic!) followed by a procession of all the Intrépidas down the "runway", all gradually lining up on a stage in the front. This year's Reina (queen), Amarantha, was the MC (see the above photo, right)-- not only intrepid because she's a tranny, but also because she has only one arm. Once all the Intrépidas were up on stage, next year's Reina was announced and crowned. It seems that being named the Queen is not only an honor but a responsibility: she will also be the "mayordomo", or organizer of next year's vela.

Sarah and I left at 1:30 (unforgiveably early for a Mexican party, but we were sick and tired), but the dancing and merriment went on until the wee hours of the morning. After a delicious breakfast the next day of warm, spicy iguana soup (a specialty in Juchitán), at 3:00 we headed over to the "lavada de las ollas" ("the washing of the pots"), apparently a euphemism for continuing the party the next day. (We saw a lot of people dancing, much like the night before, but not one person washing a pot the whole time.) I only staid at the party for a few hours, but was there long enough to see next year's Reina, Mística, dancing a marinera. This party also went all night, without a doubt.

Overall, the Vela reinforced my already strong suspicion that Mexicans know how to party a lot harder than I do. And, it gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside about humanity. Granted my impression was somewhat superficial, but I'm not sure if I've ever been in a more gay-friendly place in my life than Juchitán, Mexico. And who woulda thought?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Día de los Muertos

The very title of this post is a misnomer. In Oaxaca there is not so much a "Day of the Dead" as a "Week of the Dead". The main celebration began on October 31st and lasted until November 2nd, but starting a week earlier you begin to see decorations, "pan de muerto", and candy skulls all around the city, and there are separate days devoted to welcome home different categories of dead-- October 28th: those who died in accidents and violent deaths, October 29th: the unbaptized, October 30th: the "lonely soul", October 31st: baptized children, and finally, at 3:00 PM on November 1st, the children go back to the spirit world to allow the adults to come for a visit. Traditionally, families build altars in their houses to lure the dead back to their homes. The altars include flowers, candles, and pictures of saints as well as offerings of food and drink that the dead person enjoyed in life. Altars for children also include toys and anything else the child enjoyed. Altars are also made on top of tombstones, and some families will spend the entire day and night sitting in the cemetery to be with their deceased--not just sitting solemnly, but often talking amongst themselves, reminiscing about the person, eating and drinking mezcal, or even playing music.

To quickly recap what most people have probably learned in elementary school or Spanish class: Day of the Dead is the most classic example of "synchrotism", the love child of the Catholic All Saints Day and the "cult of the dead" that pervaded pre-hispanic spiritual beliefs in Mexico. In the pre-hispanic belief, death is just a continuation of life, and spirits of the dead are ever-present in life. It just so happened that indigenous harvest celebrations in which people made food offerings to their dead almost perfectly coincided with All Saints Day at the end of October, the colonists decided to take advantage, and so Day of the Dead was born.

Now that I've made the introduction, I want to steer away from this blog sounding like a quaint description of a foreign tradition, and really try to get across what the experience was like. Because, as cliché as it sounds, there is a big difference between learning about Day of the Dead in school and actually experiencing it. Being the secular humanist that I am, it is rare for me to feel connected with any sort of spiritual holiday, but with this one, I really felt like I "got it". During Day of the Dead, death is not just solemly observed, but celebrated as being part of life. The dead are not just mourned, but invited home to party. And satiric epitaphs are written for the living, in the form of "calavera" poems (following this link you can read the calaveras I wrote for my friends). In short, the holiday is both serious and solemn (because what could be more serious than life and death?) and a time to celebrate (because, well, if we can't laugh about life and death what can we laugh about?).

I am reminded of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges called "The Immortals". In it, a man stumbles upon the "City of the Immortals", only to find that it is inhabited by a race of "troglodytes" who have built a completely chaotic city full of dead ends and nonsensical architecture, and sit around most of the time doing nothing with no intention of achieving anything. It turns out that these creatures, knowing they are immortal, have no motivation to do anything because there is no time limit to their existence. The point is that the fact of death gives more immediacy to life; our existence would be meaningless and boring without death. Thus, death is an essential part of life. Maybe I'm way off, but for me, that is what Day of the Dead is about.

Now for a breakdown of what I did and saw during the main days of the celebration. On Friday, I took a stroll through the zócalo and observed the construction of six or eight huge sand sculptures depicting skulls and skeletons. The people constructing these sculptures used shovels as well as cardboard molds that created the shape of a skull, for example, the same way you would make a sand castle on the beach using a bucket. When I came back the next day to see them completed, the sculptures had been spray-painted with color, creating several gigantic, colorful 3-D scenes on the floor of the zócalo.

For several days, the zócolo was also strewn with MULT flags. MULT (Movimiento Unificación y Lucha Triqui) is an indigenous autonomy movement representing Triqui people who want complete autonomy of their people from the Mexican government. One of the leaders of the movement was recently assassinated, and aside from the fact that many holiday celebrations here usually seem to become venues for protest, Day of the Dead was an appropriate occasion to remember Timoteo Alejandro Ramírez and other casualties of military violence against indigenous people and activists. In addition to MULT, APPO also had a presence in the zócalo, displaying an altar to the victims of the teachers' strike that turned violent in 2006. The altar included skulls made of sand with toothpicks stuck into them bearing the names of the victims, along with photos of gory scenes from 2006. That altar really struck a cord for me and gave me a bit of a lump in my throat. It's all good to joke about death, to party and drink mezcal for days on end, but when the moment comes to be serious, you get serious.

Friday night I celebrated Halloween in a (slightly) more American way: first, I attended an event at the Cineclub Pochote entitled: "OUIJA: Session for the Resurrection of Edgar Allen Poe. Spiritual session for wizards, witches, charlatans and detractors." (When I saw that advertised, I obviously had no choice but to go.) Unfortunately, there were some technical problems with the projector that prevented Edgar Allen Poe from being properly resurrected; apparently these days we rely on computers even to bring dead people back to life. But, as a group we did manage to have an MS-DOS style chat with the damned spirit of Poe. Following that, I went with a couple friends to a Halloween party at Txalaparta, a popular bar here. In Mexico Halloween is kind of celebrated simultaneously with Día de los Muertos, but in Oaxaca at least, the emphasis is more on the latter. And the costumes tend to me more scary; you won't see anyone dress up as Shakira or a flight attendant, unless they're dead Shakira or a dead flight attendant.

On Sunday the Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca officially began: outside of the Panteón General (main cemetery) there was an all-out fair that lasted for days, I mean with junk food, games, toys, a carousel and a mini ferris wheel. And lots and lots of gringos. Inside the Panteón the tombs had been decorated with flowers, sand murals, and altars, and some families sat on the tombs of their loved ones chatting, eating, playing music. There was an exposition of Oaxacan weavings in the Panteón, and an exposition of giant paper maché skulls on the "andador turístico", the main touristic road. All day (and continuing for several days) throughout the city you could see and hear "comparsas", or parades headed by a brass band and followed by people dressed up in their scary costumes, from time to time stopping to dance with passers-by as they marched down the street. In the Plaza de la Danza, there was a huge altar displayed along with thousands of candles lined up on the stairs. In the evening in the same place, there was a performance of traditional dances from around Mexico.

After enjoying that performance for a bit, I went to Xoxocotlán, a town about 15 minutes outside of Oaxaca City that is known for having a very traditional celebration of Día de los Muertos. There are two cemeteries there: one older and smaller, one new and larger, with bigger tombs. Seeing the cemeteries at night was a whole different experience than during the day: the altars lit by candles, people dressed in all white, with white veils, spending the night with their dead, visitors in costume stepping over the tombs, and mariachi bands playing. The atmosphere was spiritual, solemn and festive all at once, and somehow those things went hand in hand. I could be mistaken, but it seemed to me that the local families weren't bothered by the costumed visitors raucously celebrating and drinking mezcal all around them. Each party had respect for the other. It was all part of the spirit of the occasion.

On Monday night, I went all out, painted my face to look like a skeleton, and went with some friends to San Agustín Etla, another small town outside of Oaxaca, but a bit farther removed: we had to make a bunch of turns and drive down a few dirt roads to get there. But the journey was well worth it. We spent all night dancing around with several comparsas, which we followed from house to house in the town. The starting point for all the comparsas was the church in the main square, where we roamed around for awhile dancing and being merry and seeing all the different costumes. Not everyone was dressed up, but those who were went all out. The best was definitely a dude who was dressed up as that evil octopus guy from Pirates of the Caribbean, his costume featuring REAL OCTOPUS TENTACLES hanging from his head. (I know they were real because they felt and smelled like a real octopus.) If we had arrived in San Agustín by 9 PM, or stayed until 7 AM, we would have been welcomed with free tamales de mole and mezcal. Latecomers that we were, we had to settle for drinking our own mezcal and buying our own tlayudas. Sometime well into the night we followed the comparsa down a steep hill and across a field to one home where the residents were giving out free "consomé", a hot spicy soup. By that time it was just what we needed to give us that extra kick. Thanks to that and the awesome power of mezcal, I managed to stay awake and energized all night until we finally decided to head home at 5 am, and all crashed on the floor of my friend's house.

The next day, November 2nd, the party was still going. Conveniently, the friend whose house we stayed at lives right next to another cemetery somewhere near the Instituto Tecnológico (where I work), so starting early in the morning you could hear firecrackers and explosives being set off. It had been a long night, so we ambled out of bed around 10 am and sat down at a food stand, in my case to eat pozole (a delicious soup with lots of stuff in it) and drink juice, and in the case of some Mexican guys in our group, to drink more beer to cure their hangover. We just sat there talking for hours on end, Mexican "sobremesa" style; by the time I actually got back to my apartment it was 4 PM. After 3 days of non-stop celebrating day and night, the only thing left to do was collapse in my bed.

So, I don't have anything against candy apples and snickers bars, or even teenage girls dressed up as prostitutes knocking on my door on the chilly night of October 31st and demanding a trick or a treat... but dudes, Day of the Dead is waaaayyyy better than Halloween. Can we please consider taking some tips from our southern neighbors? Just this once.