Mexico earthquake hit hard at center of Zapotec ‘muxe’ culture
JUCHITAN, Mexico — A few days after Mexico’s Sept. 7 earthquake destroyed her home and much of her work, Peregrina Vera attended her third funeral.
Two were for friends who died in collapsed buildings. This time, it was an elderly neighbor, Hermilio Martinez, whose heart apparently gave out a day after the big quake as the city of Juchitan shivered with repeated, terrifying aftershocks.
The quake killed 96 people across Mexico, and it struck hardest here in the heartland of Mexico’s Zapotec culture — a region famed for deep-rooted feminism, the flamboyant “Tehuana” dresses often worn by Frida Kahlo and for one of its most noted traditional subcultures: the “muxe,” people born male who dress and identify as women and who are accepted, even honored, for their contributions.
Among them is Vera, a 26-year-old creator of whimsical decorations for the many festivals and parties spread across Juchitan’s cultural calendar. Many of her works were buried under rubble from the magnitude 8.1 quake.
“It started slow, slow and we were thinking that was it,” Vera said. Then there was crashing, darkness. “People yelling. Everyone crying.”
Her 73-year-old grandmother Faustina had been buried under rubble for half an hour when her house across the street collapsed as she slept in a hammock. Vera said that shortly after the quake, just a day before he died, the 90-year-old Martinez had seen her on the street and asked how Faustina was doing.
Last week, a front-end loader and dump truck finally arrived to haul away what had been Faustina’s house as relatives watched for items that could be salvaged.
It was about that time that Vera learned that her grandmother had been transferred to a third medical center — this one an hour away — and would soon be flown to another for surgery on her back.
Throughout the city of some 100,000 people, residents like Vera tried to maintain their composure and chip away at the imposing task of rebuilding lives suddenly shaken to the ground.
“Most lost their property, their home. For others, the house is still standing, but is uninhabitable,” said Felina Santiago Valdivieso, who is active in the muxe community. Many are without income because their places of work were damaged. “It is going to be a long time for us to recover and to see how we can help ourselves and lift ourselves back up.”
On Monday, Vera’s wardrobe remained buried under adobe bricks and clay roof tiles. She found tight-fitting jeans, a low cut flowered top and beat-up flip-flops.
Vera lost eight handmade embroidered dresses — examples of the most celebrated of Zapotec handicrafts — that had been passed down from her other grandmother. She swiped through photos of herself wearing them on her cellphone and vowed to find and restore them. “You’re never going to find (others like) them,” she said.
Two men who had collected donations from Oaxaca’s LGBT community arrived at a friend’s house with a car full of provisions. Vera received a call to pick up the bag of beans, pasta, tortillas, sugar and other items. Other muxes from as far away as Mexico City and Veracruz were also headed for Juchitan with aid.
Asked how she will move on, Vera said, “Start from zero, start again at the bottom.”
Oaxacan muxe Peregrina Vera surveys earthquake damage at a friend’s home in Juchitan, Mexico. Two of her friends died in collapsed buildings.