The number 13 is commonly considered unlucky, but in Mexico, the number 41 has been seen as taboo and avoided—at one point the Army left the number out of battalions, hotel and hospital rooms didn’t use it and some even skipped their 41st birthday altogether. The reason has to do with a party held in a secret location in Mexico on November 17, 1901.
On that night 41—possibly 42—men gathered under the cover of night to dance together. Though some may not consider this scandalous by today’s standards, fallout from “The Dance of the 41,” as it was called by the press, was controversial enough to change the landscape of sexuality in Mexico.
Reports on the party shook society to the core, with half of the participants dressed as women and described as wearing elegant dresses, jewelry and make-up. And, as rumors swirled that the president’s son-in-law was the 42nd attendant at the party, the news added scandal to a government widely considered corrupt under the leadership of seven-term president Porfirio Díaz.
“It was a government that was focused on the elite,” says Robert McKee Irwin, editor of The Famous 41: Sexuality and Social Control in Mexico, 1901. “[It had] invested a lot in international business relations and symbolic ties with Europe, often at the expense of Mexico’s poor.”
The divide between the elites and the lower class was severe, and would eventually lead to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. However, the dance saw the lines of social status blurred among Mexicans.
The organizers of the dance were never confirmed, however it’s believed to have been hosted by the upper echelon of society as one in a string of similar hidden events, according to Irwin. Word of the dance would be spread discretely in local cantinas, drawing party-goers of various classes.
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One of the participants in the dance was believed to be Ignacio de la Torre y Mier, son-in-law of President Díaz. Initial reports of the dance were that 42 unidentified men were in attendance, but it was quickly changed to 41 men in subsequent accounts. Had Mier been the 42nd guest?
“I don’t think it can be confirmed but I think that it’s likely,” says Dr. Irwin. “He was removed from the newspaper and removed from the scandal so the scandal didn’t hit the government. So the rumors remained of it but that’s how the federal government erased the scandal from its own space.”
The other 41 men weren’t let off so easy. Although technically no crimes were broken, as it wasn’t against the law for men to dress in women’s clothes, the government still felt the need to take a stance in order to appease an already distressed community. So instead of being sent to a court system, Governor Ramón Corral authorized the punishment of the participants.
As part of their condemnation, the men were taken to jail, with the men dressed in women’s clothes being forced to sweep the streets in their attire. Afterwards, the men were shipped to Yucatán to assist troops in their fight against the Mayans, but not by taking up arms. They were tasked with menial duties such as digging trenches and sweeping floors.
During the weeks following the arrests, the public was both disgusted and fascinated by the dance. News about the event dominated headlines during those few weeks and would only die down after the men were forced to leave and serve the troops. Even as news coverage faded, the long-term impact of the dance and its coverage would be to shine a light on a group of people who had never held any public place in society—positive or negative.
“It was something that was totally repressed in the 19th century but it was there. And I think maybe it was out and this is what brought it out,” says Dr. Irwin, explaining the stifled sexuality of the time.
Similar gatherings and arrests would follow, however they didn’t attract the attention that “The Dance of the 41” did. In fact, years later, the number 41 came to be synonymous with the event in Mexican culture–and therefore a number to be avoided.
By the 1920s, public figures in Mexico began to emerge as homosexuals, including poet Salvador Novo, as the structure for gender norms and sexuality continued to change. And while 41 had been etched into Mexican history as derogatory, the number is now considered a badge of courage and a symbol of strength for queer Mexicans.