These Poetic Portraits Explore Gender Identity in a Community in Mexico

When Nelson Morales began to photograph members of Oaxaca’s muxe community, he discovered his own identity as one of them.

“Make up,” 2015, Uni—n Hidalgo, Oaxaca.

Text by Jake Naughton

Photographs by Nelson Morales

Nelson Morales took a photography workshop that changed nearly everything.

He had been working since 2012 on a project about the muxes, a group of people in Mexico who are born male but adopt norms and customs associated with women (and who sometimes are considered a third gender).

The muxe community is concentrated in the isthmus of Tehuantepec, in southern Mexico, and is a favorite subject for foreign artists and journalists. “Many artists come to Juchitán,” a town on the isthmus, Mr. Morales said. “But they always do the same reports, the same point of view from outside.” Though Mr. Morales was born in the Tehuantepec region, he admits that his original pictures looked much like everyone else’s — pretty, but uninteresting.

But in 2015, Mr. Morales took a workshop with Antoine d’Agata, a Magnum photographer, that pushed him to get to the heart of himself and his practice.

“The big lady,” 2016, Uni—n Hidalgo, Oaxaca.
“Dear friends,” 2015, Juchitan, Oaxaca.
“Close your eyes,” 2017, Salina Cruz, Oaxaca.

“I didn’t have any models and I had to make self-portraits,” he recalled. “And then the next day, I went out with some muxes and in that moment, something happened because I became part of that scene.” Though muxes historically have commanded respect in some parts of Zapotec culture, Mr. Morales said he had grown up rejecting the muxe community and any possibility that he might be part of it.

Still, he found himself drawn to document them. In 2010, he was asked to photograph a muxe beauty pageant, and afterward he continued photographing the community out of curiosity. “I wanted to know more about them,” he said.

Maybe it was the self-portraits, but something was different the day he went out with the muxes. “I entered with a camera and there something changed,” he said. “Something exploded, something happened, and from that moment, I have not stopped making self-portraits, nor being a part of the scene.”

In that instant, Mr. Morales found his own identity as a muxe, and his voice as a photographer.

“Self-portrait,” 2015, Uni—n Hidalgo, Oaxaca.
“Adam and Eve,” 2016, Juchitan, Oaxaca.
“Queen on board,” 2015, Uni—n Hidalgo, Oaxaca.

Though the resulting photographs are far from documentary, they seem to reflect a truth that is more elusive than a simple declaration of fact, in the same way poetry can teach us something the news cannot. His work captures the surrealism, grace, eroticism and mystery that defines his lived experience as a muxe and that of everyone else he knew, but which has been left out of the images made by photographers from outside the community.

“You know, the reality of life is subjective,” he said. “Sometimes those levels of reality are augmented a little bit by this world of fantasy. I have lived in the muxe culture, in those nights of parties and going out, of fantasy, of sex, of freedom of the muxes — I’ve been there. And it makes me interpret it in this way.”

 New York Times
Categories: DD.HH., Galerías, LGBTI, México