In the indigenous town of Juchitán, within the Mexican state of Oaxaca, there are three genders: men, women and muxes. Pronounced “MOO-shay,” muxes are people who are born male and adopt roles and identities associated with women. Muxes are broadly respected within Zapotec culture, and are celebrated every year in Juchitán during a days-long festival known as the Vela de las Intrepidas (Vigil of the Intrepids).

The beloved celebration reached San Francisco’s Mission District this month with the inaugural “Vela Muxe” festival, a series of workshops and events hosted by the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (MCCLA). Coinciding with International Anti-Homophobia Week, the week-long festival featured a traditional “Calenda” on Friday, a muxe-led procession that began in the Castro District and ended in the Mission District.

Lady Kero and Nelson Morales were crowned Queen and King of the inaugural “Vela Muxe” festival in San Francisco, Calif. on May 18, 2024. Photo: Karem Rodriguez

Joined by members of the Bay Area’s LGBTQ+ communities, there were several muxes from Oaxaca in attendance. Among them was Lady Kero, who was crowned “Reina de la Vela” on Saturday. “I feel a lot of happiness,” said Kero. “To give visibility to my sisters who are behind me … [for] the fight we have had, and continue to have, for our rights.”

The “Rey de la Vela” crown was handed to muxe photographer Nelson Morales. His series, “Tierra de Muxes,” was part of the festival’s art exhibition, showcasing a collection of 20 portraits that highlight the beauty and diversity of muxe culture. “For 14 years I have portrayed the muxe community and myself as part of an exercise in self-acceptance,” said Morales.

Considered Mexico’s “third gender,” muxes have disrupted the gender binary since pre-colonial times. Unlike in western societies, their fluid gender identity is not tied to sexuality, making LGBTQ+ terms like gay, transgender or transsexual inappropriate. Instead, muxes exist as a mixed gender: some live as women, others identify beyond a single gender.

Though prejudice persists, within the Istmo de Tehuantepe, muxes are respected by the important roles they fill in Zapotec society. Muxes traditionally don’t marry, and instead grow up looking after aging parents or their sibling’s children — a role that family members often consider a blessing. 

According to a legend, Vicente Ferrer, the patron saint of Juchitán, carried three bags of seeds: one feminine, one masculine and a third bag with a combination of the two. When the mixed bag spilled in Juchitán, the muxe was created.