Juchitán, Mexico – Felina Santiago was cutting hair in her salon when she heard that one of her oldest friends, Oscar Cazorla, had been stabbed to death at the age of 62.
“I was paralysed with pain,” she recalled. “I knew we had lost a pillar of our community that day.”
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Santiago and Cazorla both belong to Mexico’s muxe community, pronounced “mu-shay”, made up of people who identify as a third gender, neither male nor female.
Traditionally, in Indigenous Zapotec society, muxes have been respected, even celebrated. But Cazorla’s murder in 2019 — along with the death of another prominent non-binary figure this month — has left the community shaken, fearful of further violence.
The latest high-profile incident came on November 13, when Jesus Ociel Baena, Mexico’s first openly non-binary magistrate, was found dead at home with multiple wounds.
“Hatred is harming our cities, our towns and the people in our communities,” Santiago said.
“When one hears about tragic deaths, like that of Jesus, who was well-known — an academic, smart and very influential — it makes us think we need even more protection.”
The news of Baena’s death broke just four days before the biggest muxe event of the year, called the “Vela de las Auténticas Intrépidas Buscadoras del Peligro”. The name loosely translates to the Vigil for the Authentic and Fearless Seekers of Danger.
Taking place in Juchitán, a town in the southern state of Oaxaca, the three-day festival brings together thousands of revellers each year.
But for Santiago, the president of the festival, the latest celebration was particularly poignant. It was a chance to show “no fear” in the face of the violence.
“The sadness affects us all deeply, but we must show our resistance to stop the feeling of fear growing. We stand together in solidarity to show society we are one and we want justice.”
High rates of violence
Violence and threats have haunted the muxes and other members of Mexico’s LGBTQ community for years. From 2018 through 2022, homicide claimed at least 453 LGTBQ people in the country, according to the advocacy group Letra S.
In the last year alone, the group estimated that, on average, seven LGBTQ people were murdered each month, with transgender and non-binary people at particular risk.
Studies suggest the violence is a regional issue. Earlier this month, the Trans Murder Monitoring project found that 74 percent of all documented murders of transgender or gender-diverse people took place in Latin America.
In the region, Brazil registered the highest number of murders, but Mexico came in second, with 52 homicides between October 2022 and September 2023.
Part of Zapotec tradition, the muxes are their own distinct community, similar to but separate from categories like “transgender”. They are often described as representing a “duality” that embodies both sides of the gender spectrum.
Many are declared male at birth but embrace feminine roles and characteristics, sometimes wearing dresses and makeup.
Calling for justice
The annual “vela” festivity was conceived in the mid-1970s as a celebration of muxe identity, full of dancing, opulent gowns and round-the-clock music. Cazorla, the muxe who was murdered in 2019, was one of a few key figures who founded the event.
But Cazorla’s death — and that of Baena — cast a shadow over this year’s celebration, the 48th edition of the “vela”.
Justice remains elusive: No arrests have been made in either case. Authorities have said that Baena’s partner Dorian Herrera may have killed him in a murder-suicide.
But that suggestion has sparked outrage among LGBTQ leaders, who question how such a conclusion could be reached so quickly after Baena’s and Herrera’s deaths.
“A huge number of crimes perpetrated against our community go unanswered,” said one muxe attendee at this year’s “vela”, Valkis Lopez.
“And this is just the crimes that are reported to the authorities in the first place.”
Even at one of the high points of the festivity — the crowning of a victor in the muxe beauty pageant — cries for justice rang out from the stage.
Elvis Guerra, a muxe poet, accepted the towering, jewel-encrusted tiara with a speech that acknowledged the violence LGBTQ people face.
“There are still those who, from behind the shield of ignorance, continue to murder us today,” Guerra said.
A place of power
But the founders of the “vela” have created a space where muxes can demand respect, Guerra explained in the speech.
“Today, we can go out into the street and look straight ahead, bending only when you put the crown on us,” Guerra said.
“Why? Because of social warriors like the matriarch Felina [Santiago] and the late Oscar Cazorla, whose devious and dastardly murder remains unpunished to this day. We owe freedom to them.”
Another attendee, muxe activist Mistica Sanchez Gomez, said the violence was likely aimed at suppressing LGBTQ identity. “Hateful murders seek to provoke fear in us,” she told Al Jazeera.
But for Santiago, the “vela” remains a moment of joy first and foremost.
Every year, the festivity begins with street parades, with muxes sailing through the streets atop wooden carts pulled by bulls. Fireworks and seemingly unending brass-band music provide the soundtrack to the carnivalesque atmosphere, while local muxes and tourists dance side by side until sweat drops from their breathless faces.
Santiago believes this year’s vela brought more attendees than ever before, a sign of popular support and greater awareness despite the high-profile murders.
That fact makes her smile, but her stare remains pensive as she thinks of the friend she lost: “Oscar would have been very proud.”