Journalist Daniela Pastrana thought she knew how to be a mother — until her child came out as non-binary. Pastrana's journey to acceptance took her through Mexican history and deep into herself and her own prejudices.
MEXICO — While Gen Z is generally more aware that biology and gender identity are not necessarily connected, their families have a long way to go to learn — or unlearn — old habits and a new language to communicate with.
Journalist Daniela Pastrana took us into the privacy of her own home, as she travels to the ancestral roots of Mexico and talks with experts in search of answers on how to be a non-binary mother.
What's in a pronoun?
I slice the onions into very small wedges and try to focus on the ingredients. Lately I forget the simplest things and I am easily distracted. I think of Alzheimer's, of my own tired brain. I'm scared of it.
In the kitchen, Andi washes the dishes to the beat of Britney. I remember what I wanted to ask for days.
" Daughter, what pronoun do you use?"
Andi stops scrubbing the pan. Looks at me trying to assess my tone
"Why do you ask?"
"Because I see that your friends speak to you in the masculine form. But at home you haven't said anything, so I don't know if you want to have two options and be a girl in the family and a boy among your friends."
"I don't know. But the pronoun that bothers me the most is 'la' [the feminine article in Spanish]."
"Hmm… that creates a big problem for me."
"Because you are the least masculine person in this family."
"Less of an a**hole, you mean."
"Exactly, that. You are the least manlike I know."
"Well, yes… it's easier to feel it than to explain it. I only know that if I had known before many of the things I know now, it would have saved me a lot of bad times. That's why I want therapy."
"Well, we'll see about that. Meanwhile, I'm going to try the hije [gender neutral], because I don't know how to call you hijo [son]."
I return to my onions. I focus on making very fine cuts. Andi walks past me, hugging me from the side, as she has done since she became taller than me. She kisses me on the forehead and runs to her bedroom.
Why do I feel this strangeness?
What am I surprised at? I have been living with adolescents transitioning for years and I spend my time arguing with transphobic feminists in public forums. Why, then, do I feel this strangeness?
I don't care about any mourning. What terrifies me is that they will hurt them.
I try to remember recent conversations I've had on the subject. They told me that there is already an association of families of trans people and that in the pandemic there was a "massive coming out of the closet", as if they had suddenly realized that life must be lived.
I put down the onions and meander through the history depicted in the portraits on the wall. I see Andi with her waist-length hair, which she then shaved off. I watch her in her ballet classes years ago. And as a baby, dressed as a fairy.
A friend who started the pandemic with two transitioning daughters told me that she had to mourn. Her daughters no longer exist. Will I have to mourn? How does the person I have known these 18 years, and who eigh months ago almost became paraplegic after a tree fell on their head, change? Will she be less empathetic? How does it change if how I'm referring to her change?
I look at her photo smiling at me, with that smile that I love, and I go back to my onions, which can no longer take more cutting. I don't care about any mourning. What terrifies me is that they will hurt them.
I think of the young woman who was expelled from the feminist movement from the Faculty of Philosophy at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) for declaring herself non-binary. Of philosophy, damn it. In the National University. I don't want them to get hurt. But, how to avoid it, in this world of shit, where anyone believes they have the right to get into your body and your bedroom?
I put the oil in the pan. The onions have become soup and I forgot what I wanted them for.
Cutting onions while peeling layers of identity
Hatred and violence
Mexico is like an onion. When you cut it, you peel layers of violence. One over another. It is the country of the perfect dictatorship, controlled for more than eight decades by an omnipresent political party. The country that put the drug boss as chief of police. The country of 2,000 graves and 120,000 disappeared people in the middle of the 21st century. The country that every day kills 11 of its women. The country that built its name on the physical extermination of a people — Mexica — and that erased the language and denied the existence of another hundred communities that survived the Colony. The country of murdered journalists and migrants.
How much fear has been cultivated in people, so that they attack a person because of their appearance? How can it be that women, victims of countless forms of violence, are leading the relentless fight against transgender people? Who feeds that hate?
Why pronouns matter
"I've been trying to remember a discussion a while ago. I know that the pronouns are very important to you and that I have to make an effort to get used to not calling you daughter, but I don't understand why it is so important and I want to understand..."
Andi sets the computer aside. The subject is more interesting than the film review they are writing.
"It's like if you have a name you don't like and people insist upon calling you by that name."
I like the idea of the body as an offering to freedom.
I envy their ease to un-problematize problems. I take advantage of the interest to show them the text on the onions that I wrote in the creative writing workshop. Andi reads it silently and the first thing they tell me is that they remember the scene in another place: in their room. That's my memory again; I find it stressful. Then they murmur that it's nice and two unruly tears slip down their face.
I hug them.
The pronoun matters.
There is no more to say.
I try to imagine Andi's face with a beard. I don't like it. I also don't like the ring in the nose or the piercing between the eyes. It's probably because of my prejudices, I guess. I like their face. The little nose and slanted eyes. I don't want that beloved face to change much. But it is their body. I have enough with mine, my scars, and the fatphobia that surrounds it.
The body is the first territory in dispute, where we have had to win the right to tattoo ourselves, to pierce ourselves, to manage our reproduction.
I look at the bodies with their various shapes on the beach. I make up a story for them. It amazes me how many women have tattoos. No more than 30 years ago, tattoos were just for men. Now, women of all ages and social groups are tattooed or pierced. I like the idea of the body as an offering to freedom.
Andi and I arrived in Juchitán, Mexico invited by the Cha'ca' family to the festival of the town of Cheguigo. Their May festival is dedicated to San Vicente Ferrer Guie' Cheguiigu.
The festivities were suspended for two years due to the pandemic, so this one is awaited with special anticipation. Andi gets a hairdo reminiscent of Frida Kahlo. They put a false braid on me and the ribbon at the bottom, the hairstyle of ancient women. False eyelashes will make me blink all night.
Oaxaca is the state with the greatest ethnic and linguistic diversity in Mexico. The Binnizá (Zapotec) community is the most numerous of the 18 that inhabit it. It is also known because since pre-Columbian times the third sex has been naturalized: the muxes.
The Binnizá call “muxe gunaa” a person who was registered as a man but identifies as a woman and assumes feminine roles in the community (such as embroidery and trade). And “muxe nguiu” someone who was registered as a woman but adopts masculine roles.
In the last century, the muxes reached more than 6% of the Zapotec population. Now they are less than 1%. They are dedicated, above all, to arts and crafts, although there are also some teachers and politicians, says Diana Manzo, one of the best journalists in the region.
She introduces us to Pilar de Belén, an embroiderer from Santa Rosa de Lima, who tells us that her mother taught her to embroider and that since she was a child she knew she was a muxe. Diana also explains that, contrary to what is thought about the social acceptance of the muxes, in Juchitán there are groups that reject them.
We talked for a long time on the subject. I tell them that many trans-exclusionary feminists in Mexico City, who consider themselves to be of left wing ideology, are convinced that gender ideology is a neo-liberal doctrine that comes from the United States.
Diana replies with her implacable logic and a huge smile: "What nonsense if muxes have existed since before the United States existed."
Statue of a mother and child in Mexico City
Non-binary people have always been there
Could it be that there have always been more non-binary people than we think, but they were invisible, hidden in the categories of tomboy or feminine boy ("sissy")? I am increasingly convinced that there is more to Andi's definition than just genetics and biology. Something that is political. That part of a generation that is eagerly looking for a way out of this suffocating corset of cis life. Because this is a strange binary that we have. It is not a world built for a man and a woman, but for a man and two women: the saint, who is mother, wife, and daughter, and the whore, who is friend, lover, and courtesan.
Ma, we already talked about that...
We fight against the idea of being saints. We go out to work, we fight to be in ruling positions. And what do we win? Overtime, double hours. We are left with the caring roles, and now, in addition, we have to go out to get food and to be leaders of the pack. We won the job; we lost the home.
Andi and her friends don't want that. They do not want to be a womb turned into a machine for the reproduction of labor power for capital. Nor do they want to be the perfect women, the warriors who can do everything and who, in the end, leave their bodies battered in the attempt.
Calling him "son" is not so difficult
"Do you remember that you told me that if you had known things that you now know, you would not have had such a bad time?"
"Ma, we already talked about that..."
"I don't want to be wrong with this story..."
"It's your story, ma. Not mine…"
How frustrating a mom's job can be sometimes. One of the mothers of trans people who I interviewed for this text told me that these have been difficult years, in which she sometimes despairs, but she has understood that "only through love and tenderness" can she deal with her son. Another told me how difficult it had been to deal with the loss of her daughters. “We didn't see (the transition) coming. We thought we were progressive, but this has been difficult. I think my mom took it better than I did."
In those days, I saw with Andi Everything Everywhere All at Once, the film that swept the Oscars and uses the multiverse as a pretext to tell the relationship between a mother who lives to work and her teenage daughter, overexposed to external messages from a world that is very hostile to her.
In the multiverse scene where they're rocks, when the mom tries to apologize and gets a “just be a rock” response, Andi shook my hand. We didn't let go even if sometimes this job of being a mother is difficult.
Andi prepares for their college exams. I start taking salsa classes and I take care of the onions, potatoes, and tomatoes in the kitchen. My memory doesn't improve, but at least I don't worry about it anymore.
I have also discovered that calling him son is not so difficult.
This text was written in the Creative Non-Fiction Laboratory carried out by Revista Anfibia, the PhD in Writing in Spanish from the University of Houston and the Master's Degree in Narrative Journalism from UNSAM between September 2022 and May 2023.