How a Dozen Drag Queens Re-conquered

the Jungles of Southern Mexico



            The truck was late.

            Well, 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.

            "OK, who's got a phone number for this truck?" I ask.


            "Hmmm.  Where's Elí?"

            Nobody knew.  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 by 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.

            Besides 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.

            But that 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 away!

            The truck 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?



            Sergio is 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.

            "That's it," 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 muchachos excel.

            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.

            "I like Pepe's new look" I said to Sergio.

            "Better," he answered.

            Soon after, 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.

            The 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.

            "Well, Javier," I said to one of the bodies, "you're in charge.  What do you do first?"

             He stirred.

          All these 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?"

            "What?  Dress?  Anywhere you like!" I said.  This was a mistake.

            Felina 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.

            I felt 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.

            "Felina, I've made this special little place for you," leading her back stage to a dark corner.

            "For me?" she whispered, and I heard the purr of Jayne Mansfield begin to return to her voice.

            "Just for 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 a hammer.

            "Bill, Bill," she was pleased.  Then she began breathing heavily and pulled me to her.  She looked into my eyes and whispered, "Money."

            "Money!!?  I don't have any money.  After the show, Felina.  Maybe."

            "Twenty pesos," she whispered, tightening her grip.  My arm was beginning to hurt and I thought what she might do to me for twenty pesos.

            "Well, yeah, 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.



            So, we're 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 over with.

            "Formality?" I asked.

            There's a 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."

            "Oh, no," 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.

            Then I 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.

            Finally a small flurry entered the chambers in the form of a number of large ladies in traditional dress.

            "The Mayor's wife!" Sergio cued me.  We were waiting for the Mayor's wife?

            Another 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 audience cheering.



            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.


*   *   *


            There would 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 bright smiles.

            The 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.


*  *  *



            The Isthmus 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.

            And it 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.

            First, the 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!)

            You'll 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 boys.

            Here enters 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 mushe.

            Mushe (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%, or less).

            A small 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 their will?

            These are 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.