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

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)

The magnitude 8.1 quake that killed 96 people across Mexico struck hardest in the heartland of Mexico's Zapotec culture

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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