Juchitan de Zaragoza
Surrounded by high mountains, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec forms a crescent of low-lying land that flows south and east into the equally flat, hot, and humid lands of Tabasco and the Yucatan Peninsula. The narrowest point on mainland Mexico, the isthmus connects the Gulf of Tehuantepec with the Gulf of Mexico, which embraces the country's eastern shores. In the area known as el istmo, the Pacific Ocean runs west to east.
Like the rest of Oaxaca state, Juchitan (officially called Juchitan de Zaragoza) has a decided indigenous presence. Its population is primarily Zapotec, along with a smaller number of Huave people who may have preceded them in the area. One of the earliest of Mesoamerica's great civilizations, the Zapotecs had a system of hieroglyphic writing and excelled in math, architecture, and astronomy that flowered during the Classic period (ending around AD600 or 700). The name "Huave" may mean people of the sea in the Zapotec language. The Huave language, still spoken by some 18,000 people, is unlike any other of Mexico.
There's little evidence of the Zapotec's (or Huave's, for that matter) glory days in Juchitan, however. It's an unassuming town where small homes and businesses seem to burn under an exceptionally strong sun. The streets may be dusty or muddy, depending on the season, and there are fewer trees than one would expect along the generally tropical southern Pacific coast.
Plain But Spunky
There are no colossal churches like those at the amazing Dominican monasteries of inland Oaxaca, few handcrafts, and in Juchitan, no beach at all. What people admire about this part of Mexico is its unique culture, tending toward the matriarchal. The women are known to be sturdy and strong both physically and psychologically. They run the market and in some cases, hold the purse strings. Men work in the fields and do other sorts of labor, but women traditionally preside of the town's commerce. In some ways this gives them autonomy, although seen in another light, they must contribute monetarily to the household while still holding down the responsibility of raising the children, keeping house, and so on.
You'll see these business ladies in their element at Juchitan's market, a warren of stalls and outdoor spaces. Outside under the porticos are piles of unfortunate creatures awaiting the pot---including bright green iguanas---as well as chickens, ducks, and turkeys. On the ground or on small wooden tables are piles of fruits as well as pyramids of onions, peppers, chiles and (illegal) turtle eggs. Inside the market building, smoke from countless cook fires has darkened the walls of small kitchens where ladies serve up soups and stews, eggs scrambled with cactus bits, and steamed tamales.
Upstairs, women in long, tiered skirts and short, embroidered huipiles sell their traditional clothing. This ranges from practical polyester numbers for daily wear to dramatic velveteen skirts and matching huipiles embroidered with brightly colored flowers that are used for fancy dress occasions. It's traditional for women to wear as much gold as they can to display their wealth, and upstairs you'll also find stalls selling 10-, 14-, and 18-karat gold bangles, earrings, bracelets and necklaces as well as shoes, sandals, purses, and men's and boys clothing.
This is also a society where gay men are nurtured. In some families it has been traditional to encourage the youngest son, if so inclined, to be a "third gender" muxe wearing makeup and/or dresses, if he likes. In this way, the aging parents would have someone at home to take care of them, as their other sons and daughters would have married and formed families of their own.
The "third gender" muxes (pronounced MOO-shays) of Tehuantepec are generally accepted in this society, especially---and ironically---in smaller towns. In addition to doing sewing, throwing parties, or other traditionally feminine tasks, they perform the function of allowing sexual experimentation and outlet among males in a society that places great value on a woman's virginity before marriage. The men who seek out muxes are not normally considered homosexual, simply curious and desirous. In 2005, Alejandra Isla directed a documentary about Juchitán muxes entitled Muxes: Auténticas, intrépidas y buscadoras de peligro (Third gender: Authentic, Intrepid and Looking for Trouble.)
With just over 70,000 souls, Juchitán is the state's fourth-largest city, after Salina Cruz, the region's port. Although not really a tourist destination, Juchitan is a convenient stop en route between the city of Oaxaca (the state capital) and destinations like Tuxtla Gutierrez and San Cristobal de las Casas, in the state of Chiapas. Travelers who do come specifically to the Isthmus often do so during Las Velas, boisterous neighborhood parties willing to embrace interesting outsiders bearing cases of beer. Although the bulk of these festive parties are held in May, different neighborhoods hold them at various times of the year.