Mexico's Muxe Culture Paves the Way for Catholic Acceptance of Transgender People

Forget all your binary oppositions about gender, sexuality, and religion as you read this post.

National Public Radio recently posted a story on their “Picture Show” site which examines a photo gallery exhibit about Muxe culture which thrives in Oaxaca, Mexico. The article explains:

“The indigenous Zapotec culture of Oaxaca is not divided by the usual dichotomies: gay or straight, male or female. There’s a commonly accepted third category of mixed gender — people called muxes. (said to derive from mujer — Spanish for “woman”). Some are men who live as women, or who identify beyond a single gender.”

Alex Hernandez, foreground, takes part in a religious procession during Oaxaca’s celebration of muxe people.

The gallery show is titled “Searching for Queertopia,” and it is being hosted by the Galería de la Raza in San Francisco, California.  The photographs are by Neil Rivas, who follows Alex Hernandez, a muxe living in the U.S., as he goes to Oaxaca

“. . .for a three-day festival called Vela de Las Intrepidas — or Vigil of the Intrepids. Created in the 1970s, the festival is a celebration of ambiguity and mixed gender identities, and for Hernandez, it was like a rite of passage.”

The NPR story describes not only the exhibit, but an interesting point about the involvement of Catholic priests in muxe culture:

The images capture Hernandez in his personal transformation — as well as blurred lines between gay and Catholic cultures, lines he was not encouraged to cross as a child. But in Juchitan de Zaragoza, where the festival is held, some Catholic priests hold services for muxes.

The NPR website carries 12 photos from the exhibit, including several showing the Catholic rituals that are part of the celebration.  

Muxepeople are valued in their culture.  In the interview, Hernandez explains:

“They have an important role. . . .They take care of their parents. … It was nice to know that … there’s this history where queer people had special roles in society.”]

In 2006, The New York Times carried an article about muxe culture which explains the history and religious significance of this phenomenon, noting:

“Anthropologists trace the acceptance of people of mixed gender to pre-Colombian Mexico, pointing to accounts of cross-dressing Aztec priests and Mayan gods who were male and female at the same time. Spanish colonizers wiped out most of those attitudes in the 1500s by forcing conversion to Catholicism. But mixed-gender identities managed to survive in the area around Juchitán, a place so traditional that many people speak ancient Zapotec instead of Spanish.”

The Times article contains a proviso that not all muxes are accepted, but its final conclusion offers hope from the faith of a wise grandmother:

“Acceptance of a child who feels he is a muxe is not unanimous; some parents force such children to fend for themselves. But the far more common sentiment appears to be that of a woman who takes care of her grandson, Carmelo, 13.

“ ‘It is how God sent him,’ she said.”

Catholics in the U.S. have a lot to learn from our Mexican hermanos and hermanas.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

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