Dispatch from the Global Streets: Queerness, Power and Sex in Juchitán de Zaragoza
I’m sitting on the side of the street smoking shitty Marlboros (the tobacco was too dry) and drinking mescal out of an Aquafina bottle. The liquid running into the gutter at my feet smells like chicken blood and gasoline, and there’s this shirtless guy— his name is Pocho, he’s probably in his early 20s—kissing my neck and telling me about how he’s really not that drunk (he’s trashed) in a thick Zapotec accent. A shoplifter is getting the shit kicked out of him in an alleyway off of the open air market down the street.
Sitting with us are a brother and sister from Mexico City. They got robbed at the bus station on their way to Chiapas so they’ve decided to stay in town while they look for new papers. The older women at the market have been giving them some leftover fruits and tortillas, which they’ve been sharing with us for the past hour or so. The small store across the street starts to blast upbeat techno music mixed with salsa as young women in tube tops, 4 -inch heels, red lipstick and impossibly tight white jeans strut out holding signs that read “sale”. A little girl in a soiled huipil is trying to sell us some gum and loose cigarettes.
This is Juchitán de Zaragoza, a small city in Southern Oaxaca, generally known as two things by outsiders: the rebellious cradle of indigenous Zapotec culture (to the political types), or a “queer paradise”, home of the muxe (to white gay tourists and some of the more internationally-minded queers). The muxe are members of the Zapotec community, gendered as male at birth, who are typically portrayed as wearing colorful women’s dresses, full faces of makeup, Zapotec braids and as dedicating themselves to traditionally feminine lines of work like artisanal crafts, the market, and (more recently) sex work.
Some people consider them drag queens, some characterize them as trans women. Others think of muxe people as an authentic indigenous expression of gender that somehow survived European colonization unscathed (the reader should note that the word muxe is a Zapotec derivation of the Spanish word for “woman”). In other words, they are seen as living anthropological artifacts, born out of that pre-colonial nostalgia that online activists and 19th century social scientists alike know so well. From the conversations I’ve had, muxe people seem to care little for the various gender rationalizations that curious gay white men (and whoever else constitutes the readership of The Advocate) impose on them.
For the past few years Juchitán’s muxe community has been in the partial spotlight among documentarians, journalists, and anthropologists (including myself). There are two lines of thinking when it comes to characterizing this place as a queer paradise. First, muxe people are usually able to walk freely in the streets without worrying about the beatings or verbal abuse a trans woman in Mexico City or Guadalajara might experience. Their presence is considered a normality in the public sphere and—as opposed to the common perception in the US and other parts of México that queer folks are ‘unnatural’ or a cultural aberration—the existence of the muxe community is seen as a traditional (even folkloric) phenomenon.
There’s a common saying in the region that Zapotec mothers are happy when a muxe child is born, since it means that someone will be around to take care of them in their old age. You wouldn’t guess this from the numerous muxe teenagers that are thrown out of their homes when they get caught copping a feel in the middle school bathroom (but the residents of neighboring towns and cities are more than happy to tell tourists the story anyways).
The second reason Juchitán is considered a queer paradise is for the sex. While the first reason can be boiled down to some superficial ethnographic observation occasionally mixed with folkloric nostalgia, the second is a bit more interesting. It’s true that in Juchitán sexual identity and play don’t seem to follow the same rules that we see in stateside, particularly Chicago where I have grown up and spent most of my life as a non-binary person. Until a perhaps a decade or two ago, the word “gay” was seldom uttered by the residents of Juchitán.
Sexual identity in Juchitán is based on the role one takes in sex, dividing the population into two umbrella categories: those who get fucked and those who do the fucking. The signifiers of gay male sexual identity in Chicago –specifically the most visible kind, the chiseled white faces and ken-doll bodies that we plaster all over pride parade event cards and Budweiser ads on Logo—tend find their base less on a concrete and singular sex act and more on the neighborhoods we live in, the clothes we buy, the apps we use on our phones, the bars we go to and the friends we have. Gay male sexuality can encapsulate multiple roles, and infinite subgenres (bottom, top, verse, bear, otter, twink, queen etc.), and the thing that separates gayness from the straight boys isn’t who puts the dick where, but who bears the signifier and performs the lifestyle. An interesting byproduct of this social relation is the peculiar fetishizing of masculinity that we see in gay culture—this self-loathing urge to uncritically emulate the masculine (masc4masc, anyone?) and the consummate instability of femme identity.
According to the logic of the second line of reasoning, in Juchitán there exists the category of man (i.e. he who penetrates) and of not-man (i.e. whomever is penetrated). Whereas in Chicago a straight boy can only diminish his signified masculinity and open his identity to questioning by fucking a queer, in Juchitán his masculinity only grows, and this is something that can be proudly displayed as a notch on his belt. In this sense muxe identity represents to the more analytically-minded a bedrock of femme stability that can’t be found elsewhere. To the str8-chasers among us (who are perhaps yet another version of, or the counterpart to, the masculine fetishist), role-based sexuality in Juchitán represents a free for all buffet of straight dick—offering a perceived sexual freedom (or mimicry of heteronormative public sexual expression) that can’t be attained in that Irish pub in Wrigleyville.
I can attest to this. A femme person (muxe or not) that visits Juchitán and likes to take dick (read: me) can pretty much fuck any guy that they want. A muxe person living in Juchitán, however, also suffers a disproportionate likelihood of being beaten, abused, or murdered by their partner, high rates of sexual assault, and an uncomfortably high likelihood of being infected with HIV—in other words similar threats that many women of color face in Mexico and the United States. The muxe community, like many of their rural sisters, have been forced to migrate to Mexico City, among other places, where their only option to make a living (outside of the bleak maquilas and sweat shops) continues to be sex work.
I can’t speak for the muxe community when it comes to the subjective experience of this kind of structural violence—the most I can provide is semi-empirical observation. What interests me is the white queer community’s disparate perceptions of these subjective experiences. On the one hand we have the fantasy of muxe selfhood: the fantasy of a stable femme identity (and what’s more stable that something folkloric, something artifactual, something that supposedly plays no role in modernity?), which is tied to the ability to express sexuality publically and normatively. On the other hand we have structural violence.
One can’t just desire the stable sexual identity; the whole package is a stable sexuality identity that comes with an equally stable structure of violence. My instinct is that whiteness has an active interest in perpetuating this violence, that fetishistic desire is an indirect mechanism through which racialized, gendered violence is reified. Let’s say it bluntly and a bit less precisely: there’s a bunch of white queer guys making media essentially about how want to be women of color but paradoxically this fantasy is implicitly tied to their desire to see women of color suffer.
Why is that? It seems like a pretty earnest desire for a certain kind of sexual freedom—certainly not an explicit impulse towards violence. This is the kind of desire that is molded by white queer people’s own experiences of violence. Yet it seems that racialized and gendered realities go ‘behind’ earnest desire’s ‘back’. A particularly interesting project reveals itself in this line of questioning: how do we go about making a truly liberatory queer paradise?
Photos by Ideal School