Mexico quake hit hard at center of Zapotec 'muxe' culture

Peregrina Vera, a Oaxacan muxe, third from right, stands with female mourners during the funeral for neighbor Hermilo Martinez, 90, who family members said did not recover from the shock of Thursday's magnitude 8.1 earthquake, in Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. Four days after Mexico’s magnitude 8.1 earthquake destroyed her home and much of her work, Vera attended her third funeral. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
A cat lies amidst the remains of Peregrina Vera's home, destroyed in Thursday's magnitude 8.1 earthquake, in Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. Vera, a Oaxacan muxe, said the cat had moved her four newborn kittens into the house just two days before the quake collapsed the building, burying them in rubble. Ever since, the cat has been sleeping atop the debris in the spot where she lost her kittens. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Peregrina Vera, a Oaxacan muxe, attends the funeral of neighbor Hermilo Martinez, 90, who family members said did not recover from the shock of Thursday's magnitude 8.1 earthquake, in Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. Vera's tattoo shows a fairy sitting in a canopied chair, inspired she said by a costume she had worn for a festival. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Peregrina Vera, a Oaxacan muxe, huddles over her cell phone with another muxe friend as she lies on one of the cots her family and neighbors are sharing to sleep in the street outside homes destroyed and damaged in Thursday's magnitude 8.1 earthquake, in Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. Throughout the city of some 100,000 people, residents like Vera tried to maintain their composure and chip away at the imposing task of rebuilding lives suddenly shaken to the ground. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
An upside down photo of Peregrina Vera, a Oaxacan muxe, wearing one of her festival costumes which was lost along with her antique, traditional clothing when her house collapsed in Thursday's magnitude 8.1 earthquake, is lit by a spot of sun filtering through leaves, on the patio of her home Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. The photos of the extravagant floats Vera creates and of herself wearing everything from her grandmother's traditional dresses to the flowing apricot gown she wore when crowned queen of the Muxes in 2014, only survived because the day before the earthquake a woman had come to commission her to decorate a float for a festival in December and asked to see her work. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Peregrina Vera, a Oaxacan muxe, surveys the remains of a muxe friend's home that was destroyed in Thursday's magnitude 8.1 earthquake, in Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. Two of Vera's friends died in collapsed buildings. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Peregrina Vera, a Oaxacan muxe, sits beside an earthquake and rain damaged dolphin, part of a decorative float she made for a festival, outside her aunt's home in Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. Most of her work as a creator of whimsical decorations for the many festivals and parties spread across Juchitan's cultural calendar, remains buried under the rubble of her collapsed home, brought down by Thursday night's magnitude 8.1 earthquake. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Peregrina Vera, a Oaxacan muxe, shows pictures of homes destroyed and damaged in Thursday's magnitude 8.1 earthquake, to friends as they discuss their experiences of the massive quake in Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. “It started slow, slow and we were thinking that was it,” Vera said. Then there was crashing, darkness. “People yelling. Everyone crying.” (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Peregrina Vera, a Oaxacan muxe, sits as she discusses Thursday's magnitude 8.1 earthquake with a muxe friend, right, and neighbors after they visited another muxe friend's destroyed home in Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. Vera lost eight stunning handmade embroidered dresses _ examples of the most celebrated of Zapotec handicrafts _ which that had been passed down from her other grandmother. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Roberta Sicaro, a Oaxacan muxe, uses a cell phone light to walk through the remains of his home, destroyed in Thursday's magnitude 8.1 earthquake, in Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. Sicaro, whose bed was buried under thick chunks of brick wall, said he survived because he had gotten out of bed to get a drink of water 15 minutes before the quake. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
A friend of the family helping to clear rubble and salvage usable items walks inside the collapsed home of Peregrina Vera's 73-year-old grandmother Faustina, which was destroyed in Thursday's magnitude 8.1 earthquake, in Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. Vera, a Oaxacan muxe, learned Monday that Faustina, who spent 30 minutes under the rubble before being rescued by family members and neighbors, was being flown from Salina Cruz to a larger city for surgery. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Roberta Sicaro, a Oaxacan muxe, shows the few pieces of his embroidery and adornments he was able to save after his home collapsed in Thursday's magnitude 8.1 earthquake, in Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. Sicaro, who also makes traditional Huipil adornments, had been commissioned to create decorations for a figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe, but much of his work and materials were lost in the quake. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Roberta Sicaro, a Oaxacan muxe, attends a customer at his family's kiosk, alongside the remains of their home which collapsed in Thursday's magnitude 8.1 earthquake, in Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. Fearful of returning to damaged homes, Sicaro and his neighbors are sleeping on woven cots and in chairs in their alley. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

JUCHITAN, Mexico — Four days after Mexico's magnitude 8.1 earthquake destroyed her home and much of her work, Peregrina Vera attended her third funeral.

Two were for friends who died in collapsed buildings. This time it was an elderly neighbor, Hermilio Martinez, whose heart apparently gave out a day after the big quake as the city of Juchitan shivered with repeated, terrifying aftershocks.

She followed the hearse that bore him a mile to the far edge of a cemetery where temporary covers of branches and palm fronds shadowed the graves, a place that has been all too busy these past few days.

The quake killed 96 people across Mexico, and it struck hardest here in the heartland of Mexico's Zapotec culture — a region famed for deep-rooted feminism, the flamboyant "Tehuana" dresses often worn by Frida Kahlo and for one of its most noted traditional subcultures: the "muxe," people born male who dress and identify as women and who are accepted, even honored, for their contributions.

Among them is Vera, a 26-year-old creator of whimsical decorations for the many festivals and parties spread across Juchitan's cultural calendar. Many of her works are now buried under rubble left from Thursday night's quake.

"It started slow, slow and we were thinking that was it," Vera said. Then there was crashing, darkness. "People yelling. Everyone crying."

Her 73-year-old grandmother Faustina had been buried under rubble for a half hour when her house across the street collapsed as she slept in a hammock. Vera said that shortly after the quake, just a day before he died, the 90-year-old Martinez had seen her on the street and asked how Faustina was doing.

Late Monday afternoon a front-end loader and dump truck finally arrived to haul away what had been Faustina's house as relatives watched for items that could be salvaged.

It was about that time that Vera learned that her grandmother had been transferred to a third medical center — this one an hour away — and would soon be flown to another for surgery on her back. Faustina had suffered three broken ribs and blood had pooled near her spine.

Throughout the city of some 100,000 people, residents like Vera tried to maintain their composure and chip away at the imposing task of rebuilding lives suddenly shaken to the ground.

"Most lost their property, their home. For others the house is still standing, but is uninhabitable," said Felina Santiago Valdivieso, who is active in the muxe community. Many are without income because their places of work were damaged. "It is going to be a long time for us to recover and to see how we can help ourselves and lift ourselves back up."

On Monday, Vera had to scramble. Her wardrobe remained buried under adobe bricks and clay roof tiles. She found tight-fitting jeans, a low cut flowered top and beat up flip-flops. A plastic clip in the green, white and red of the Mexican flag held up her highlighted brown hair she slung a small purse across her chest. She had to borrow a pencil to line her eyes.

After the funeral, Vera made the rounds visiting other muxe friends. They swapped stories about who had received a box of food or some spare clothing. Vera complained that government provisions were supposed to be limited to one per household, but some families were gaming authorities by having multiple members line up.

They compared rumors about homes being robbed as people slept in the street or at shelters, deathly afraid of the continuing aftershocks. They lamented the loss of wardrobes and teased each other about slapdash post-quake ensembles.

Vera lost eight stunning handmade embroidered dresses — examples of the most celebrated of Zapotec handicrafts — that had been passed down from her other grandmother. She swiped through photographs of herself wearing them on her cellphone and vowed to find and restore them. "They are original," she said. "You're never going to find (others like) them."

Two men who had collected donations from Oaxaca's LGBT community at a friend's house with a car full of provisions. Vera received a call to pick up the bag of beans, pasta, tortillas, sugar and other items. Other muxes from as far away as Mexico City and Veracruz were also headed for Juchitan with aid.

Back at her damaged home, Vera pulled a stack of glossy photos from a dirt floor just off the patio. The day before the earthquake, a woman had come to commission her to decorate a float for a festival in December and asked to see her work.

That's the only reason the photos were not where the roof collapsed. They showed extravagant floats Vera had decorated and Vera herself wearing everything from her grandmother's traditional dresses to the flowing apricot gown she wore when crowned queen of the muxes in 2014.

Vera hopes she will still have that new commission, but rumors have been swirling that some of the city's festivals will be cancelled or scaled back due to the disaster.

Asked how she will move on, she said, "Start from zero, start again at the bottom."

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