Kansas City Artist Explores Gender Fluidity of Mexico’s Muxe Culture in New Documentary

Kansas City artist Hugo Ximello-Salido, shown here in the parking lot of Casey Automotive in downtown Kansas City, Westside, will release his documentary, “Muxe: The Language of Art & Culture,” this spring. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Spring Brings Release of Hugo Ximello-Salido’s “Muxe: The Language of Art & Culture”

The legend of the Muxe says that the saint flying around the earth dropping seeds of gender was supposed to distribute men, women and Muxes equally. However, the bag ripped over the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Juchitán de Zaragoza, spilling out all the Muxes in that one spot — on the narrow piece of land between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean.

In his debut documentary, “Muxe: The Language of Art & Culture,” Ximello-Salido peels back layers to educate the public about Zapotec culture and the expansiveness of gender within this society.

In Western terms, the easiest way to define Muxe (pronounced MOO-shay) is a third gender, but within their Zapotec community, “Muxe are simply Muxe,” says Kansas City artist Hugo Ximello-Salido. They were assigned male at birth and display traits that are typically associated with women. Muxes are often seen wearing a huipil, an elaborately stitched and colorful indigenous garment. In his debut documentary, “Muxe: The Language of Art & Culture,” Ximello-Salido peels back layers to educate the public about Zapotec culture and the expansiveness of gender within this society.

As a young gay boy growing up in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, Ximello-Salido had never heard of Muxes. What he did know is that his own sexuality spurred ridicule from his peers, as they shouted slurs at him while he walked with friends. This early discord gave him a sensitivity to differences often viewed as threatening. When the self-taught artist arrived in Kansas City some 15 years ago, his interest in LGBTQ+ issues merged with his Mexican identity to form a unique style of painting.

“Part of what makes Hugo’s art so engaging,” says Wolfe Brack of InterUrban Arthouse, “is that he deals with so many levels of culture at once: images and experiences from Mexican culture, Mexican subcultures, and queer culture and how they’ve come to play a role in the makeup of ‘American’ (and I include the U.S. and Mexico in this) culture as a whole.”

These intersections of identity overlap and are repeated themes throughout Ximello-Salido’s work. Traditions of Mexican culture, like La Catrina and Lotería, are carefully arranged with queer and often phallic imagery. The effect is a strong statement that no one person can be defined by a single identity.

Muxes and concepts of gender fluidity have become more pronounced in Ximello-Salido’s art in recent years. No Divide KC’s 2018 documentary, “Art Views: Creativity and Culture in Kansas City,” created by the KC activist organization in partnership with the Johnson County Library, showed Ximello-Salido painting his first Muxe. He explained the concept of a third gender and emphasized that they are widely accepted in Oaxaca, Mexico, but not the rest of the country. Shortly after, he sought to take his exploration of Muxes beyond painting.

Victoria Lopez (left) and Amitai Verdugo stand before the 1,500-year-old Tule Tree, boasting the widest trunk in the world, located in the colorful town of Santa Maria del Tule in Oaxaca. (from the artist)

Making the Muxe Documentary

Ximello-Salido’s journey began in 2019, when he traveled to Juchitán de Zaragoza for the first time. Muxes Ruby and Felina welcomed him immediately. With eyes aglow remembering pre-COVID-19 times, Ximello-Salido spoke of how he could reach out and touch people, eat in their homes and travel unrestricted. The idea to make a full-length documentary bubbled to the surface during this first trip to Oaxaca, and plans solidified throughout 2020.

In early November 2020, Ximello-Salido made his way back to Oaxaca with cinematographer Daniel D’Angelo. As a masculine non-binary filmmaker, D’Angelo brings a unique vision to “Muxe: The Language of Art & Culture” as he “sees the world through a transgender perspective,” according to Ximello-Salido. Both make a point to film with openness and respect. Of this approach, Ximello-Salido said, “We really went into this with the right attitude.” Due to COVID-19 restrictions, they had to make some disappointing adjustments to their agenda.

Nevertheless, their positive attitude and persistence allowed the project to continue. The filming began in the city of Oaxaca at locations including the Quinta Real hotel (a former convent), Emmanuel Fabian’s black clay workshop and the Mitla caves. Each of these destinations highlight a rich piece of Zapotec history. As a visual artist, Ximello-Salido felt it was important to create scenes vibrant with imagery and drama. Kansas City musicians Christine Grossman and Brad Cox are scoring these scenes. After four days of filming in Oaxaca, Ximello-Salido and his crew made the five-hour drive to Juchitán de Zaragoza — the city of Muxes.

Their welcome in the town of around 80,000 was warm and widespread, Ximello-Salido said. Not only were the Muxes eager to share and educate about their lives, but so was society at large. Ximello-Salido interviewed Municipal President Emilio Montero Perez and local priest Father Lucio Santiago. Both men referred to Muxes as a vital part of society, as caring individuals who contribute much to their surroundings.

Ximello-Salido films Amitai Verdugo in the Mitla caves, a UNESCO World Heritage site that dates back 10,000 years. At an elevation of 4,855 feet, the Mitla caves gave origin to the domestication of plants in North America, thus allowing the rise of Mesoamerica. (from the artist)

Ximello-Salido emphasized, “Muxes are venerated and adored in their community because they bring economic growth. They’re good people. They bring good things to the community and want to make it better.” The four featured Muxes — Amitai, Victoria, Rubi and Felina — each play a crucial role within their society. Ximello-Salido highlights this and points to the ways that expanded gender expression and expanded acceptance can coexist to form a warm and open community.

“Muxe: The Language of Art & Culture” showcases Ximello-Salido’s ability to use his experience and artistry to create a product that is educational and visually stunning. The film has an intended release date of March 31, 2021, to coincide with International Transgender Day of Visibility. Ximello-Salido has been in contact with multiple galleries in cities around the world, including Amsterdam, Montreal, New York, Chicago, and of course, Kansas City. Dates are still tentative due to COVID-19 complications, but this film will certainly be popping up around Kansas City in the near future, with a potential premiere at Tivoli at the Nelson-Atkins as Ximello-Salido continues talks with the museum’s Director/CEO Julián Zugazagoitia.

Marissa Starke, executive director of the Kansas City Artists Coalition, said she is looking forward to seeing the results of Ximello-Salido’s hard work and efforts.

“Over the past year, it has been a great pleasure to watch Hugo press forward with his studies and advocacy work around the Muxe traditions and culture,” Starke said. “I know it will be a great opportunity for the Kansas City community and region to dive deeper into understanding a community many have had little to no knowledge of.”

Ximello-Salido says this is just the beginning of his exploration of gender and culture. He wants the world to know that the concept of a third gender is not exclusive to Muxes, but spans the globe in numerous societies, a few of which include Two-Spirit of North America, Hijras of India, and Fa’afafine of Samoa. His next documentary will focus on the gender-expansive group, the Kathoey of Thailand. Stay tuned for more from Hugo Ximello-Salido.

Emily Spradling

Emily Spradling is an adult English-language instructor, freelance writer and founding member of the arts/advocacy organization, No Divide KC. She is particularly interested in the intersections of art, culture and LGBTQ+ issues.

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