The southern state of Oaxaca was one of the hardest hit by Mexico’s recent 8.1 earthquake, but the state’s Indigenous Zapotec women and muxe third gender members are slowly putting their community back together again after the disaster.
“Most lost their heritage, their home, others the house is still standing but it is already uninhabitable,” said Felina Santiago Valdivieso, an active member of the muxe community, which is made up of boys who are raised as, and grow to identify as, women, a tradition honored in almost every Zapotec family.
Valdivieso added that it will be a long time before families will be able to recover financially and emotionally from the tragedy.
The earthquake tore the city of Juchitan apart, leveling thousands of the city’s buildings, killing 98 nationwide and impacting 2.5 million people, official sources stated.
"It started slow, slow and we were thinking that was it," Peregrina Vera said. “Then there was crashing, darkness. People yelling. Everyone crying."
The community has been recognized for its colorful “Tehuana” dresses popularized by artist Frida Khalo, and its uniquely strong sense of equality as well as its muxe members.
In times of desperation, the village’s deep rooted equality did not waver, with men, women, and muxes members working side by side from the moment the earthquake began, bringing victims to safety, mourning their loved ones, and moving on to rebuild their city.
“I carried my mother out as I left the house, and then my brother and I went to rescue my aunt who was trapped,” Vera said, adding that soon after, she re-entered the house to rescue her grandmother as well.
Among the severely damaged buildings was the downtown market, the most important for miles around and the heart of Zapotec women’s economic power for more than a century. Slated for demolition due to the quake damage, its loss is a blow to Juchitan’s women.
Irma Lopez, who sold traditional Indigenous clothing, was proud that 80 percent of market vendors were women but said it meant they were particularly hard hit by the destruction.
“We are the ones who have lost the most,” Lopez said, standing just outside the market.
“Many say Juchitan is the ultimate matriarchy. It’s a city of women who fight, who work hard,” Valdivieso said, who owns a beauty shop. “Now more than ever, we’re going to work to get back on our feet."
Donations have arrived from the LGBTI community of Oaxaca to assist the community.
Former bar owner Martha Toledo, whose business collapsed in the quake, killing three clients, said the disaster would not crush Juchitan’s spirit, “It will have to be rebuilt, like the phoenix, you have to return.”