So, here it goes, my entries about our trip to Juchitán, in Oaxaca. A number of months ago a good friend of ours invited us to visit and stay with his family for some year's end celebrations. Of course, since that involved experiencing Mexico from a new cultural point of view, he didn't have to ask twice and we firmly agreed to go in December.
We stayed for one week, and it was an incredibly intense experience. I've been trying to figure how to split my posts, because there's so much to talk about! I figured I'd start with the most important part, and the reason we decided to visit this 100,000 people city on the isthmus of Tehuantepec: celebrations. And our very first one? A vela muxe!
We barely made it there on time, though. Juchitán has no airport, so we had to fly to the seaside town of Huatulco, and catch a bus – an almost 4 hour ride – to get there. The bus left late, went very slow due to some mechanical problems, and finally broke down. Another bus rescued us, but dropped us off in the nearby town of Tehuantepec. We would have been left there to wait for another bus next day or to get to our destination by ourselves, but the staff took pity on us and that very same bus driver agreed to take us to Juchitán – 20 minutes away – and drop us there. We were so happy when our friend finally picked us up at Juchitán's bus station!
The Vela Muxe
But once there, and after a very warm and attentive welcome by our friend and his parents, we finally left for the vela muxe. Now, what is that? Velas originated as religious celebrations with a deep pre-Hispanic influence, popular in the isthmus of Tehuantepec, with processions and the offering of a vela (a candle) to some patron saint. Dance, food and music were part of the celebration. Nowadays, the religious aspect is not as important, but these events are still called velas.
Now for the other part, muxe. This one is a lot more difficult to explain, not everybody agrees with everything, and I'm not even part of this culture. But I'll do my best to explain. First, the word muxe – pronounced MOO-she – apparently comes from a pronunciation of the word mujer (woman) that was current up until the 18th century, where that J was spelled as X and was pronounced as SH. Now, it seems that, originally, muxe were a sort of third gender – people assigned the male gender at birth and who later identified with or manifested feminine traits. They could take on feminine or masculine jobs, and could take male or female partners (though taking female partners doesn't seem to have been common). In more recent history, say the last 50 years, partnering with females is exceedingly rare and most muxe have taken to wearing feminine attire and makeup, though even more recently (barely a few years ago) a group of muxe that don't want to necessarily dress as females has become somewhat vocal.
Muxe don't face the violence that transgender people may face in other parts of Mexico or the world. Nevertheless, the fact that they are tolerated and that they can hold their velas very openly does not mean they fare well. They have very high rates of poverty and illiteracy, as many families, when they think their child may be a muxe, will take them out of school and have them help with house chores, with selling at the market and other tasks. They do suffer discrimination when applying for better-paying jobs, and are sometimes even excluded from public events where high-ranking non-local officials may be present and who could be "offended" by muxe wearing dresses and makeup. So, yeah, they have it better than in other places, but not much better.
Oh wow, I'm writing a lot, right? Sorry! But there's no way not to. Anyhow. So, a vela muxe is a celebration for and by the muxe. And now on to the other interesting aspects. Celebrations are social and collective affairs. Therefore, when you attend one, you're expected to cooperate – you give a limosna, or alms, at the entrance. In exchange, you get a beer box. Then, in a vela like this one, there are many puestos or stations, so you choose which one you want to take your box to. The person responsible for the puesto will be in charge of putting chairs for you and your group, bringing you botana (food), and making sure you always have a full cold beer in your hand. And, since you've given your limosna, you can expect to be well treated. Please note, though, that this is not like simply paying a cover fee to get some service – you are participating, you are contributing, and theoretically you know the person from the puesto you've chosen. This remains a highly social endeavour.
Once we handed over our beer boxes, sat down at the puesto our friend had chosen, and received our botana and beer, it was time to look at the action! This was one long affair, with several different muxe processions. There was one with muxe dressed in traditional local garb. There was the coming queen. And the exiting one. Both with more "regal" attire. There was a procession of muxe in more modern dresses, many of which had won at different contests in years past. And there was an activism side to it all too, since some muxe groups work towards recognition of sexual diversity, do HIV-prevention campaigns, and the like. What a mix!
We ate, we drank, we danced, we laughed, we watched the shows... Awesome introduction to Juchitán's culture!
The Lavada de Olla
Next day, we were invited to a lavada de olla, the washing of the pots. You see, the day before there had been a wedding. The party the next day after a wedding is called a lavada de olla, maybe because people would need to wash the pots in order to cook the new party's meals? Nowadays things are organized a bit differently and families don't have to wash pots, but the name stuck. This is a more intimate party than the wedding, but it's not just another party – there are specific rituals for it too!
You must be invited to it, but you're also expected to give a limosna, you get your beer box, you hand it to your hosts, they show you to your seat/table, and botana and drink follow. It's a very colourful celebration, with lots of red (apparently and old reference to a virgin bride's blood after her first night with her husband), with women in their floral dresses and elaborate hair-dos... At some point, there might be a women-only dance, where the women wear crowns made from some fragrant leaves. In Juchitán, and Oaxaca in general, women do carry a lot of weight and are known as rather independent.
After some dancing, eating and drinking, the newlyweds have a special dance under a twirling box. As the box twirls (from a rope being pulled), red bits of paper start falling off and, at the very end, the four sides of the box open and let rose petals or red paper fall on top of the couple, revealing some religious figure inside the box. Gorgeous!
By the way, among the interesting things we had there, were fried fish-eggs, still in their pouch. Weird. A bit salty. A bit hard. Not my favourite. But certainly out of the ordinary!
New Year's Eve
Yet another special event we were lucky enough to be invited to! Although it also meant a very uncomfortable guilt trip for me. You see, among the many animals eaten at New Year's Eve, there's goat. And unlike our big modern sanitized cities, you don't go get your goat meat from the supermarket and nicely processed into something that won't remind you of the being it came from. No... you go to the main square, and choose and buy your goat to slaughter. Oh wow. Like, right at that point I had been rather comfortable with my policy of "Well, if it's new, or a special experience, I'll eat meat". But after looking at those goats' eyes... It painfully reminded me of why I'd become vegan. Ouch. That feeling remained with me for the rest of the trip, I'm afraid.
Something else? The viejitos (old men) to burn and blow up at midnight! They represent the old year, and in the days prior to NYE people dance on the streets dressed up as old men, as a way of saying good bye to the old year that's ending. That photo below is of the viejito next door to our hosts' house.
At our hosts' there were a few images of San Vicente (Saint Vincent), the saint after whom Juchitán was originally named. He's usually pictured with his index pointed up, as he was said to perform miracles merely by raising it.
Dinner included a fruit and vegetable salad, fettuccine, and... cow's head. Yes, a whole head was ordered, and the meat stripped from it and eaten in tacos with green salsa and lime. I was not going to disappoint my hosts, and anyhow I am vegan over 99% of the time, so I dug in. And, frankly, though many might be horrified at the idea of eating the meat off a head, it's meat, and you wouldn't be able to tell it from any other kind, in my humble opinion. And on top of that it was good. And oh so filling! So shoot me for saying it was good.
There was barely any space left in my stomach for dessert, but I still went for it. Prepared by our friend's mom, this is called lechesilla (or, pronounced the local way, lechesía). Very milky, very smooth, and surprisingly (and thankfully!) not too sweet. With some raisins and peach. Really good. And I'm not saying it because it was my friend's mom's recipe! Oh, yeah, and I guess you've spotted the beer bottles and mezcal glasses. Remember: no celebration here is a celebration if your host hasn't made sure you always have a beer and some mezcal by you.
Then, at midnight, hugs, no grapes (in Mexico City we usually eat 12 grapes at midnight), and then going out to see the viejitos being blown up! Whoa! You could hear firecrackers and loud booms all around! Our next door viejito stood no chance!
And afterwards? Singing, sharing stories – some rather riveting, activism-related ones, by the way – and welcoming family and neighbours that pop by to say hi and wish a happy new year. See? Everything remains very social and collective through and through!
Finally (is anybody reading anymore?) there is the recalentado, or reheated leftovers from the previous day's meals. As with other things, it does not necessarily mean that you're eating leftovers, but that's the name used for this family gathering on January 1st.
As for food, surprise! more meat! This time – mole de venado, or deer in mole sauce. Now, unlike other regions where mole sauce is very very thick, this one was more on the soupy side (albeit a very rich soup), and is called yellow mole sauce (mole amarillo). The deer meat was still attached to the bones. And there was some edible herb too. Ah, and you also added some juice from those gorgeous orange limes you see there.
Dessert was pumpkin and bread drenched in piloncillo (pure, unrefined sugar, usually pressed into a cone shape). And do you really want me to mention beer and mezcal yet again?
And I'm not mentioning countless other velas and celebrations that took place before and during our stay, eh?
OK, I think this is plenty! I wasn't aiming for such a long post, but I guess that, when it comes to traditions and celebrations, there's no way around it! It was intense, it was enriching, it was enlightening, and it was too much fun.
And this is just half the story about our stay in the isthmus of Tehuantepec!
Ah, wait! One very last thing. I need to explain the title of the post! Guidxi means land in Zapotec, and Binnizá means Zapotec people (it literally means people of the clouds), so guidxi binnizá means the land of the Zapotec. OK, there, until my next post!