MEXICO CITY -- Surrounded by vibrant jacaranda trees that lean charmingly over a soccer pitch, a large rainbow flag hangs on a pitchside fence.
It's a humid Saturday afternoon in April at the sprawling Magdalena Mixhuca park, and Club Deportivo Muxes are hosting Azul Oceania FC in Mexico's fourth division, known as the Liga TDP. Located in a modest venue with a few rows of concrete bleachers on two sides, approximately 50 fans are here to support Muxes.
Sporting pink and white kits, with a rainbow armband for their team captain, Muxes are, by far, the dominant team. Opponents spend most of their time defending and chasing the ball as Muxes score goal after goal, regularly running and celebrating past their pride flag and a banner that reads "Deporte Sin Etiquetas" (Sport Without Labels).
The final whistle blows after 90 minutes and Muxes has an easy 3-0 win -- their sixth consecutive victory.
But what's happening on the field is only part of their story and objective.
Claiming to be the first inclusive team in Mexico that represents and supports the LGBTQ+ community, Muxes have used their platform to educate, promote and engage in social change that they believe can be achieved through the sport.
In doing so, they've swiftly become one of the more compelling teams in Mexican fútbol.
An aim to 'revolutionize' Mexican soccer
Tired of instances of anti-gay behavior while playing seven-a-side games, a group of friends from the LGBTQ+ community were motivated to create a team that would directly and proudly stand in the face such gestures. The group found inspiration in the Muxe population from the state of Oaxaca, people who are recognized as male by birth but are accepted as a third gender in their indigenous communities.
In 2018, a vote from the group of friends selected a new name for their team: Club Deportivo Muxes.
Presenting a safe space for LGBTQ+ players and allies, as well as promoting support for the community, the nonleague team quickly found an audience on social media. With a growing spotlight, the team decided to do more.
Muxes then approached Mexico's soccer federation (FMF) about the formation of a professional men's club. After approximately a year of planning, in 2020 they found a place in the fourth division, a competition that serves as a developmental league for players aged 22 or younger.
Since then, Muxes have expanded to include a women's team and youth academy.
"We literally arrived to revolutionize the sport at the social level," said Marco Almaraz, a founder of Muxes' professional club. "It comes with pride, but above all it's also a great responsibility."
Part of that responsibility is going up against a machismo culture that is prominent in Mexico. In a country where an infamous anti-gay goalkeeper chant is heard in some Liga MX and men's national team matches, Muxes' message of inclusivity and support for LGBTQ+ values made them a target.
During their debut season in 2020-21 as a professional side, opponents would make anti-gay comments during games. Rival fans would also yell insults and call the club a "princess team."
"[Opposing players] hit you more, because of homophobia," Muxes player Isaac Ivan Hernandez Moreno told ESPN Mexico about matches. "They were more dirty, more towards the player than the ball."
Silencing offensive comments by defeating most of their rivals, Muxes have since transformed into one of the top clubs in their division.
"A lot of people think homophobia doesn't exist, because they don't experience it," Almaraz said. "So how did we respond to them? With on-the-field results."
They finished the 2022-23 Liga TDP regular season in second place of their group, and are currently in the regional quarterfinal stage of the promotional playoffs. Should they reach the final, a place would then be earned in the Mexican third division.
"Our goal, on paper, is to be promoted this season," Almaraz said. "Muxes thinks big and the goal is to eventually be in the Liga de Expansion [second division] in six years, max."
With that ambitious goal, Muxes brought on adequate front-office staff, technical staff, physical trainers, and most importantly, an ideology that has unified and energized all involved.
"In the end, it's great what we fight for and the ideals that we abide by, but if it's not accompanied by a good management of the sporting side, well, they'll hardly believe in you or the project. That's what we try to do, both always hand-in-hand," Almaraz said.
"It's now very unlikely that you'll see a rival offend Muxes, because they respect them."
A growing impact both on and off the pitch
Muxes was founded by individuals in the LGBTQ+ community, but the organization has made a point to not be exclusive to only those members. While the women's team is mostly made up of players from the community, the professional men's team currently has just one.
But members of the squad use the club's philosophy and identity as motivation.
"Honestly, I believe that it has helped us grow as people, because you learn to have empathy with others who can go through a tough time and need a lot of support," said men's team captain Mario Mare. "As a result, it has united all of us."
That empathy recognizes the unnecessary hardships that are suffered by the community they represent. According to Mexican advocacy group Visible.LGBT, there was a total of 1,791 documented cases of discrimination and violence against members of the community in the country from 2020 through 2022.
On and off the field, Muxes have used their platform to discuss anti-gay issues, educate audiences on gay athletes and take part in tournaments like the "Kicking Out Transphobia" competition held in April in Mexico City. They've also been recognized by the country's Asociacion Nacional de Deporte LGBTQ+ (National Association of LGBTQ+ Sports) for their efforts.
"Both objectives have to be carried out in parallel, demonstrating that you can combine the sports part with the social and cultural parts. We know it's complicated, but the entire team of professionals that make up the club make sure the project is successful," said Muxes president Juan Carlos Perez Lazcano.
No longer just a group of friends playing seven-a-side games -- although they remain the "core and matrix" of the organization -- Muxes have surpassed early hurdles and influenced Mexican soccer in their own way.
"We faced many obstacles through social barriers, but little by little work has been done so that the club is recognized on the footballing level, demonstrating that our cause is accepted and recognized in the professional field," Perez Lazcano said. "It's a great responsibility and a source of pride."
For those on the field, they also know they are playing for much more than just sporting results or a chance to appear in the third division.
"They fight for the cause, they fight for the LGBT community. It's something that's very embedded in the players, despite some not being a part of the community," Almaraz said. "It's what we try to instill in the player, because beyond playing soccer, we also educate and want to develop human beings."
From Muxes to Liga MX? A path forward
Bigger clubs, including several in Liga MX, have taken notice of Muxes' success by signing several youngsters from the team's fledging academy.
Since starting their own youth academy, Muxes have sent players to the academies at Liga MX sides Monterrey and Cruz Azul, two of the most recognized teams in Mexico's top division. Another former Muxes youngster is playing regular minutes at second-division Atlante, with two more at Correcaminos.
On the women's side, they've been able to send two players to Mexico's women's beach soccer national team this year.
"I believe that we've broken paradigms in this sport, because even teams in the first division are looking for us," Almaraz said. "I think this is an important step. I'm not exaggerating when I say that this is an important step in soccer in not just Mexico, but also at the global level."
What lies ahead for Muxes? Aside from their promotion playoff run, the club is also looking for more partners and sponsors. Though the team has received support from Nike's Pride Network and have pet food manufacturer Eukanuba as a sponsor, investments and budgeting can still be tight.
In either case, their goal remains unflinching as when they started as a seven-a-side club five years ago.
"I think we're breaking those stigmas, those labels," Almaraz said. "Our social cause is very strong, we defend it and fight for it, but the sporting results, they also go hand-in-hand."