How a Dozen Drag
the Jungles of
course the truck is late, or rather the truck is NOT late. After all
it's only a half an hour late, and that, in Juchitán time is really
EARLY. And so the truck is NOT late, not late to transport 12 drag
queens and their staff to the first stop on a nine-city tour of the
jungles of the Isthmus of southern Mexico in a didactic drag show about
AIDS prevention and safe sex sponsored by the Panamerican Health
Organization of the UN. Yeah, read it again and go figure. Of course,
this half hour that the truck is not late or not early or whatever,
totally screws my schedule for the whole day. We are still two hours
from San Pedro Tapanatepec no matter how you cut it. If we left right
now we couldn't make it there before 12:30 p.m. and the scenery takes
three hours (if we're lucky) to set up and after that the lights (of
course they'll be late, too) and the sound and finally the actresses
(Ho, boy!) are scheduled to leave here at 4:00 p.m. (if they all manage
to show up) and so arrive at 6:00 p.m. And then... But ENOUGH!
That kind of
mental activity actually hurts your head in this heat. I look at myself.
I'm standing in the street, sweating, frowning into the sun, gritting my
teeth, worrying about an old truck. Why? Nobody else is. That is, my
muchachos (there are three today) certainly aren't. They're
sitting in the shade on the other side of the street, laying all over
the stones and laughing about something. Probably me. I got to get out
of this sun.
I walk over
into the shade and stare at the muchachos.
got a phone number for this truck?" I ask.
Well, there wasn't a phone within ten blocks anyway. I suppose I could
walk back to the hotel and phone. No, then the truck would come for
sure and then they'd all be sitting around waiting for me. It's a funky
hotel; I like it, the Lidxi Biuza. When we got in last night and
asked for two rooms, that's what they had, two rooms, that's all, no we
didn't have any choices, there were only two rooms. We took them. Of
course, this morning, we're the only ones in the hotel, all the other
rooms are empty. No one at the Lidxi Biuza thinks this is odd.
Well, we got our rooms and Marco has a television and he's happy. And I
got to admit: I'm happy too.
little getting to know this dusty little town in the jungles of southern
Mexico on the broad, fertile Isthmus of Tehauntepec, called Juchitán de
Zaragoza, the cultural center of the land of the Tehuanas, the
great ladies famed throughout Mexico for their beauty and, yes, their
size. One can say "great ladies" here (in fact, one had better say "great
ladies" here) in this matriarchal society, dressed in the most colorful
and elaborate of all the native dress of Mexico, their beauty is
stunning, they are "stately," "grand," and "enormous." Young, they look
rather normal (if you think of normal as Miss Universe!) but just tall.
Later, they begin to fill out: tall and BIG. And later still, if they
haven't shriveled up to the size of a walnut, they get to be huge! Five
or six of me, it would appear; and in their bright colors and ribbons
and gold earrings and flowers in their hair and streaming out behind and
a whole bunch of them together, you can really see how they're called
great ladies. And the men sit around in the shade drinking beer in
their white shirts and little straw hats.
being a matriarchal society, the Isthmus also has the highest ratio of
homosexuals in the world. Well, that's what they say, around 30% of the
population. That would seem low to a casual observer. They say there's
at least one in every family; in fact, it's a mother to be pitied who
hasn't a mushe, the gay son, often the last, who stays at home,
lives as a girl, and then as a woman, who never marries and will be with
the mother all her life. They, too, wear the colorful native dress of
the women, the ribbons and flowers, and many of them are stunningly
beautiful. Of course, they all want to be Gloria Esteban or Selena and
when they go out at night they put on their spiked heels and low-cut
sequin mini dresses and go about doing what they do best (and the reason
we're here today), drag shows!
I've had a
lot to do with drag acts over the years. They're always popular with
the audience. I guess in the theater and such, we come in contact with
them naturally. In San Francisco, of course, one can't escape them. I
was doing AIDS work there in the 80's and managed to convince the drag
queens from two rival Latino bars who hadn't spoken in five years, to
put aside their differences for one night at least and all work together
on a benefit show for a good cause. I was considered something of a
saint for a while. Anyway, I always found them to be agreeable and
always practiced a simple rule: compliment them profusely on how
gorgeous they look. They’ll all say "Oh, Bill, you're wonderful!"
And as I
said, that's why we're here, the drag show. I helped this group of
transvestites from Juchitán, called Gunaxii Guendanabani, to
apply for a small grant from the Panamerican Health Organization of the
UN and they got it. Of course, I don't think the administrators of the
Panamerican Health Organization exactly understood what they were
getting into; I get a call about three-quarters of the way through the
project, "What's this about a drag show, Bill?" he asked. (We had to
send them an invitation.) Well, I calmed them down a bit and told them
it was going to be great and, besides, it was too late by then to pull
out and what are they going to do? So, we did "Las Intrépidas
Vs. AIDS" and it was a big hit and then we took it to Oaxaca City and
filled the big theater there to the rafters and just killed 'em.
wasn't enough. We had a hit and in show biz you don't stop there. So,
somebody gets this idea of a Grand Tour of the Cities of the Isthmus. "Cities"
is a key term here, and relative; they're called cities by their
important status in the culture of the Isthmus, not by their size. So
the group went about talking to the officials in the various cities and
lining up the biggest auditoriums and checking everybody's dates and by
the time the poster was ready to go to the printer's, nine of these
little cities had confirmed and that was our tour: San Pedro
Tepanatepec, Mixtequilla, Jalapa del Márquez, Tehuantepec, Ixtaltepec,
Salina Cruz, Matías Romero, El Espinal and, ending up back in, Juchitán.
So the first city is San Pedro Tapanatepec, and we're still two hours
did, of course, come. There'd be no story if it hadn't, or at least a
different story. No, our story continues and the truck came and the
muchachos loaded up the scenery (we're BREATHING glitter these days)
and everything had to go in and out of the truck about four times and
took forever and I bought lots of Cokes and chips and gringo picnic
stuff and the poor old truck started down a long road South. The
muchachos today are Marco, Javier and Pepe. The wind is whipping up
their shiny black hair in the back of the truck and flapping open their
little shirts and soon they're drinking Cokes and laughing and talking
about how fast everybody loaded the truck. They're happy and, I gotta
say, if we get to choose our Heaven as some people think, I'd just as
soon repeat those two hours in the back of that old truck with Marco and
Javier and Pepe forever, you know?
our director. He rode in front with the driver and when we pulled into
the metropolis of Tapanatepec he jumps out and motions to a big falling
down movie house leaning smack up against the Palacio Municipal,
or City Hall.
he said, pointing.
So we back
the truck up to the side door of this old place and right then it starts
to pour down in buckets. Well, nobody wants to get wet but the scenery
is going to get ruined if we don't get it out of there and now and as
Pepe is the smallest, we throw him in the back of the truck and tell him
to unload it all as fast as he can. This is the type of stuff at which
Soon he was
soaked to the bone and flinging scenery right and left, so he strips off
his shirt and his hot little body is glistening in the rain. He gives
me a big smile and I notice his poor little wet undershirt fallen on the
steps of the theater.
Pepe's new look" I said to Sergio.
I took Pepe's undershirt. Well, I didn't steal it really, I meant to
borrow it, but then I lost it somewhere and I had to say I still had it.
He's onto me about it all the time and this gives me no small amount of
pleasure. I'll buy him another shirt one of these days.
auditorium was an oven. And with the rain, it was a steamer oven. I'm
starting to understand the heat. It's simple: don't move. Sit under a
tree and drink a beer, in fact, many beers. Get your body functions to
slow down to nearly stopping and the heat is not so bad.
I looked at
the muchachos. After unloading the scenery from the truck, it
looked like they had died. They had collapsed on whatever flat surface
was handy. I was going to feel for a pulse but then some slight
breathing movements reassured me I still had a crew.
Javier," I said to one of the bodies, "you're in charge. What do you do
little burgs have one thing in common, a big old loudspeaker mounted on
the roof of the municipal building that tells everybody what's going on,
and suddenly we start hearing: "Come to the big drag show tonight at
the Municipal Auditorium! Come to the big drag show!" over and over
until I'm thinking Boy, let's get this show on the road!
We did, of
course. Put up the scenery and the lights came and the sound and pretty
much right on schedule up pulls this big old bus that says Juchitán
Urbano. Well, in little towns like this just about anything will
draw a crowd and the actual arrival of the Intrépidas themselves
was no exception. The bus slowly crept through the curious bunch of
kids and lay-abouts who were jumping up and down and straining to see in
the windows, mostly obscured with pettycoats and falsies, until it stops
by the side of the theater. The girls were a long time emerging, I
thought, and I slightly wondered if something were wrong. No, they
finally showed themselves and looked, well, like a bunch of drag queens
after a two-hour ride on an old bus, not your glamorous movie star image.
But the kids didn't know that and soon everybody was running around town
shouting that the stars of the show had arrived!
I told them
how great they all looked and they all had a kiss for me and Pitufina
says "Bill, thank God you're here!" (Did she think I wouldn't be?) And
Amarantha was the model of efficiency; she told me three times that she
had brought her own flashlight. A little nervous, Amarantha? Felina is
an enormous drag queen, not fat, just BIG, with piles of bright red-golden
hair (she's a stylist, they say), and today she's surveying the back
stage with a cold eye. "Where do I ... you know ...uh?"
Dress? Anywhere you like!" I said. This was a mistake.
stared at me with enormous eyes and started to slightly hyperventilate.
She was developing a bewildered state of near panic under an enormous
load of tulle and taffeta and net stockings (she also has the most
costumes changes in the show) looking for some place to sit down.
pretty sure Felina was OK but I also knew her state could be contagious
to the other girls and so I took her by the arm.
I've made this special little place for you," leading her back stage to
a dark corner.
she whispered, and I heard the purr of Jayne Mansfield begin to return
to her voice.
you, Felina, and Pepe's going to put some nails in the wall here for you
to hang up your costumes... Aren't you, Pepe!" and Pepe ran off to find
she was pleased. Then she began breathing heavily and pulled me to her.
She looked into my eyes and whispered, "Money."
don't have any money. After the show, Felina. Maybe."
pesos," she whispered, tightening her grip. My arm was beginning to
hurt and I thought what she might do to me for twenty pesos.
I got twenty pesos. Here!" And I handed it over. What in the world
did she want with twenty pesos? I never knew, of course, but later that
night she would knock 'em dead.
working away doing sound checks and such and I notice there's a bunch of
kids sitting in the seats and watching us and it's like six-thirty. "What
are they doing here?" I asked one of the workers. "They've come for the
show" somebody says. They've come TWO HOURS EARLY to the show? I
thought wow! And they kept coming and I convince the actresses that
they can't rehearse anymore, that the audience is here and so I herd
them into the women's (natch) restroom to get ready. Pretty soon
the people are just pouring in and more seats are set up and the guys
with the sound equipment only know one level and the preshow music is
put on super loud! and soon the place is rocking. It's like an hour or
so until the show and Sergio comes up to me followed by our whole little
crew of muchachos and says well, let’s get this last little formality
short passageway out the side of the theater into the Palacio
Municipal and Sergio is plodding up the steps and muttering we got
to go meet the Mayor and come on Bill or something like that. So I comb
my hair and we all traipse next door into the city hall and then into a
big, old crumby office with a high ceiling and a bunch of hombres
silently standing around. I have no idea what's going on but Sergio is
looking a little nervous and I'm thinking Oh, boy, here we are bringing
a drag show to this little burg of macho guys looking at us and nobody
saying a thing. Well, Sergio, says how nice to be here or some such
thing and pretty soon the guy who turns out to be the Mayor says how
good it is that we came and that "sometimes people say they're going to
come and then they don't come."
says Sergio, "we came!" and pretty soon everybody's shaking hands and
saying how good to meet you and how thankful they all are. You could
have knocked me over with a feather. AIDS and sex and homosexuality and
drag shows, well, you sometimes have a problem, you know? And
especially in little back-woods operations like this one and not too
sophisticated. But the Mayor and his buddies in the Mayor's office of
San Pedro Tapanatepec on this day don't know that. Heck, they're happy
we've come and they're thanking us for coming.
slowly get the feeling we're waiting for something. This is common in
southern Mexico. One is expected to wait patiently for long periods of
time and I could tell this was such an occasion. Sergio had settled
into a non-linear conversation with a farmer and the muchachos,
appropriately glassy-eyed, were totally contented just to be standing
there. Personally, this forced, indefinite period of inactivity minutes
before the show, was driving me up the wall.
small flurry entered the chambers in the form of a number of large
ladies in traditional dress.
wife!" Sergio cued me. We were waiting for the Mayor's wife?
round of greetings and how nice you've come and thank you so much and
it's obvious who is the real power in this manly office. Then she
motions with a nod and we're off in her wake, out the door and down the
passageway, following her into the theater and, once there, in a slow
procession around the room greeting well-wishers in time to end up at
the foot of the stage as the lights dim and Elí announces over the
microphone something like: Here She Is! The Wife of the Mayor!
She is led
onstage and into the spotlight to a gigantic applause and begins reading
a short passage. AIDS has come to our community. The Secretary of
Health reports cases of AIDS in our community. The virus which causes
AIDS is being spread by unprotected sexual relations. Many of these
sexual relations involve young people. It is vital to use a condom
every time in sexual relations. And more.
At last, the
mayor's wife intones her heartfelt gratitude and welcomes, on behalf of
the entire city of Tapanatepec, "Those Intrépidas Versus AIDS!"
to roaring applause, and the show finally begins.
It's a true
crowd pleaser. It has a fun, raunchy look and full of loud, popular
music, while including lots of good didactic information about AIDS, how
you get it, how you prevent it and so forth. The condom is demonstrated
twice, once in the Zapoteco language, and the characters in the play are
convinced to practice safe sex. An HIV positive person shows that its
OK to hug a person with AIDS and "Nacho el Macho" is shown the errors of
his ways and promises to always use a condom. Amarantha gets to do her
big Paloma Sanbasilio number and Felina, as I said, knocks 'em dead as
Gloria Trevi. "La Irma" gets the bitchiest lines; on hearing that Kika,
another drag queen, has died of AIDS, she says "I hate to say it, but,
less burros, more corn!" It all ends in a big dance number by
the whole troupe of incredible looking Intrépidas that leaves the
I like to
walk around, behind the audiences, and watch over their heads and hear
the corny old jokes and watch the condom scenes and hear these dizzy
queens exhort their young audience to protect themselves and hear the
great waves of laughter and applause that greets the show. I guess
that's what this show is all about, this whole experience, the youth,
the girls with their long black hair and almond skin, the guys with
their bright teeth and ready smiles, their lives, their loves, their
families in this little town of Tapanatepec under the new moon of
September in the South of Mexico.
I smoke a
cigarette and watch from the back of the auditorium, until it's over and
the crowd has thinned. The scenery and lights and sound are packed into
the truck and the actresses into the bus. The moon has long ago sunk
below the horizon and now the stars are out and the wind is again
whipping the muchachos' black and shiny hair in the warm autumn
night and Marco and Javier and Pepe and I are taking another two hours
of that Heaven I'm collecting.
* * *
come eight more cities, in those days and nights of the Grand Tour,
hours in the back of the truck, in the backs of auditoriums and movie
houses, there would be restaurants by the river, there would be eight
more mayors and eight more mayor's wives. Eight more times the
loudspeakers would call "Come to the big drag show tonight!" Amarantha,
Felina, Irma, my girls, for a few moments they would become Gloria Trevi,
Selena, Irma Serano. And the kids, the boys, the girls, each night
would come to us with their arms about each other, each night with their
incredibly positive and healthy response which this show has received
throughout this large area of Southern Mexico is a stunning fact. Never
once did the group encounter homophobia or rejection of the subject
matter or of their sexuality. In every community parents thanked us for
bringing this message to their children and to their town. I know that
AIDS can be a very delicate subject at times, and more so, it is often
assumed, in isolated and rural communities. But that was not the case
for twelve drag queens and a truckload of muchachos and me that
September under the moon of the Isthmus of Southern Mexico.
* * *
of Tehuantepec has been RE-discovered. A few years ago a few thesis
writers stumbled upon the unique and fascinating culture of the
Zapotecos del Istmo and word slowly got around and today the place
is fairly crawling with anthropologists, photographers, oral historians,
video documentarists and latest-oddity hangers-on. About five years ago
there appeared a stunning series of photographs by famed Mexican
photographer, Gabriela Iturbide, and was printed in an attractive
catalogue entitled "The Women of Juchitán." Then last year a fairly
hefty little tome was published, "Women of Juchitán." Now a little
klatch of Berkeley students are snooping around being extremely helpful
and a guy is here making a video but now he's waiting around for the
Intrépidas to maybe go on another tour, and so, as I said, they seem
to be coming out of the woodwork. I expect a definitive treatment to
appear in the popular press any day now.
should. This story has everything for the modern sensibility: gender (and
how!), exotic locale (torpid tropics), politics (the women of the
Isthmus are long known for resisting authority; they, in fact, consider
themselves still "unconquered"), strange customs (notable importance on
the physical virginity of girls at the time of marriage), and, of course,
sex. Plenty of sex. The story of Juchitán, México, touches us in the
groin. We (and they) are empowered, dis-empowered, identified, offended,
intrigued, bothered and/or excited by this story pretty much according
to our sex. That is to say, according to our sexuality. That hits
pretty close to home. Practically everybody I know has an opinion about
sex. I tell you, this story will sell magazines.
So, here we
are on the flat, wide, fertile Isthmus of Tehuantepec with the Gulf of
Mexico on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other and we find our
old-world notions about sex and sexuality turned on their heads. As
I've indicated, the most obvious example of this is to be found in the
position of women in the society, namely, as the undisputed power and
maker of decisions in practically all the important aspects of life:
money, food, family, shelter, and sex, that is to say, the doling out of
these commodities, and, especially of interest to this discussion, the
doling out of sex. Women control the vast open-air market in the center
of the city and set prices for the food and goods moving in the economy.
Their gender and their power have influenced the politics of the region,
like their refusal to bend to distant powers. The wife of the Municipal
President is, in fact, the most powerful person in the community. The
ramifications of this elevation of women resound throughout the
culture: processions, festivals, Saint's days, all are lead by women.
The native dances, in fact, are female, and most social affairs are
strictly segregated by sex.
But it is in
the home that the position of women is most strongly felt and of
greatest interest to us here. As I have said, there is a tendency for
the women of the Isthmus to get very large; big, tall, and fat! After a
few decades of rich foods and beers (the women of Juchitán drink a lot
of beer, it has to do with the heat, I think) and a half-dozen or so
progeny, the women truly resemble everybody's great ideal: THE MAMA!
Meanwhile the bond between mother and offspring is fierce. As in so
many aspects of life, childrearing is given over to the woman, or women,
that is to say mother, grandmother, aunts and assorted cousins and older
sisters. One result of this attention is an extreme protection of the
young, from others, from the world outside the family, from worldly
influences. This occurs in two ways.
daughter is virtually locked away from male contact. She is greatly
made over, hair, clothes, flowers, and thoroughly integrated into the
segregated society of women's activities, raised and instructed and
beautified, until, one day, she is given away, or taken away, usually
amidst great crying and wailing, to her husband, who is assured of
receiving a physical virgin. (When the occasional unplanned pregnancy
happens to arise, the boy and girl are married. No shotgun necessary!)
notice I'm on some slippery ground here. Making broad generalizations
about groups of people is, at best, questionable, politically incorrect
and rude. I am not an anthropologist nor sociologist nor archeologist
nor anything like that. I am an artist, that is to say an artistic type.
My task is simply to view the world and reflect with a few observations.
Everything I have said, and am about to say, must, please, be taken with
a large rock of salt. Think of it as here-say. That enormous caveat
expressed so clearly, let's return to a few even juicier observations.
So here we
come to the son, or sons, who reside in a unique and intense position
within the family. The mother is clinging to her son ferociously,
guarding him, warning him about "those girls" who would lead him astray
and do terrible things with him. (Is she perhaps remembering some past
stories or experiences? Of hers? Of her husband's? That awaits
another tome.) Thus the son is smothered with love by the mother, whose
grand effort is now to keep the son by her side as long as possible, and
when the boys begin to get eyes for the girls, she warns him strictly to
have nothing to do with those girls and encouraged to "go play" with the
an interesting and important element of the Isthmus society, namely a
strong sense of "sexual tolerance." The mother, like most everybody
else, in fact, is quite aware that the boys are, indeed, playing with
the boys and accepts this as harmless fun (no shotgun event threatens,
at least). And of course, counted among "the boys" will likely be a
(MOO-shay) is a Zapotec word (sometimes spelled muxe). It refers, in
simplest terms, to the female son, or sons, who do not marry and who
will stay with the mother, within the family structure, all their lives.
Objectively, that is to say scientifically, he is a homosexual,
physically attracted to other men. Often the mushes will dress
as women and be integrated into the female society. All the same, she
is able to bridge the sexual divide (we'll go right to using "she" and "her"
here) and is free to associate with the boys, "play" with the boys,
flirt and carry on as much as she likes. To teenage young men,
separated from girls their own age, hormones moving and with the
apparent acquiescence of mama, the mushes offer a natural sexual
outlet for a high majority of Juchiteco males before they are married.
But why is
this, apparently normal, homosexuality so prevalent in the Juchiteco
culture? Some say over 30% of the population (in the United States, by
comparison, the prevalence of homosexuality is agreed to be around 10%,
observation: society in Juchitán accepts fully the above-mentioned
sexual tolerance, and by extension, a reduction in sexual intolerance,
with its accompanying reduction in homophobia in general. The young
boy, growing up with feminine tendencies, will not, at least, be
confronted by exhortations to "be a man" or "stop being a sissy." In
fact, his role models may include uncle or neighbor muches
already well accepted within the family structure.
So here we
may ask: does this strongly matriarchal society, with its sexual
tolerance and all that implies, affect the prevalence of homosexuality?
And, by implication, are some impressionable young boys somehow "guided"
into a sexual preference to which they would not have been attracted in
another society (read: Western, read: American) ...almost against
weighty question and way beyond my abilities to address here. Let's
just say that on this broad, fertile Isthmus, under the mango trees and
the new moon of September, I offer one more small observation: I never
met a drag queen I didn't think should be one.