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?

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