Analyzing Machismo Before Critiquing Sexism in Other Cultures
On a very mundane Saturday afternoon, I sat at a table outside, alternating between swatting away pesky mosquitos, and wondering why I had even decided to accompany my parents to a barbecue held by their friends. As I reprimanded myself for agreeing to an evening of discomfort—not quite yet fully able to participate in all the adult conversations, and too old to talk with the other offspring (forced to be) there—my ears suddenly tuned back into focus upon hearing a problematic statement.
The only thing that kept me sane that night was that I had spent the day with my best friend who happens to be Muslim. I declined the offer of dinner, sharing that I had just enjoyed some delicious Arabic shawarma sandwiches and baklava. Shortly after my explanation, a friend of the host couple expressed to no one in particular, “esa cultura arabe es tan sexista” (“the Arab culture is so sexist.”) Ergo, the statement that made me bolt upright in my chair because of its overt racism, and conflation of Arab with Muslim.
The other couples interjected in accordance: “Yeah they force their women to cover up.” “They only care about the sons.” “They don’t let their women go out.” That is when I decided that my positionality as a “minor” did not and should not impede me from speaking up to point out the hypocrisy in their arguments: “How can you condemn another culture of sexism when the machismo found in our Latinx culture is sexism par excellence?”
To define machismo is no easy task. It is not quite comparable to patriarchy. Machismo is the discursive and material birthplace of the “macho man.” The “macho man” has been used in the media to describe the Latino but has certainly also been appropriated to define the trope of an “ideal masculine man.” However, machismo extends beyond masculinity as manifested by body type.
Machismo is not only systemic sexism but it is also an ideological narrative that has been culturally engrained. Machismo adopts its hegemonic characteristic precisely because it is a cultural production that is continuously structurally reproduced. Its hegemonic nature makes it potentially more dangerous than the patriarchy, ‘the sexist paradigm,’ because it allows machismo to be naturalized. In other words, it is taken for granted. Machismo transgresses all boundaries of life as it is found both in the public and private domains. Machismo is rooted in religion, tradition, and a sexual/virgin dichotomy. Machismo is inherently misogynistic and homophobic.
Perhaps what greatly contributes to the societal exacerbation of machismo is that it is reiterated by Latinas, through marianismo, the notion that the ideal woman should aspire to be like the la Virgen María (the Virgin Mary)--hence the “maria” in marianismo. I would argue that what has allowed machismo to succeed in large part is the machismo/ marianismo binary. Because machismo has been so invisibilized in our culture, it is easy for women to leave it as an unquestioned aspect of our daily lives. To be sure, I am not stripping women of their agency, and contending that all women are compliant with the institutionalization of machismo, but it is difficult to critically engage with something that has seemingly always existed. Of course, both machismo and marianismo are social constructs, yet, they are based on very real phenomena.
The origins of the machismo/ marianismo binary can be attributed to the Christian Catholic narrative of the nuclear singular family, and gender roles found within, introduced by Spanish colonizers. As heads of the family, men are in charge of putting bread on the table while women are bound to domesticity, caring for the household and raising children properly. The physical labor exerted by the man which yields tangible results in the form of currency and/or commodities, is deemed more valuable than the less tangible work of the woman. This association renders the man the dominant figure in the household because without him, the family is assumedly unable to survive. The power acquired by the father is not just expressed through decision-making but through sexuality. By the father fulfilling his essentialized role as a man, which is to provide for his family, he is a “real man.” This status as a “real man” gives him the ability to be a “macho man” who controls his wife and children, keeping them in check, and in accordance with his law. Yet, he is divorced from the domestic life as that is solely his wife’s area of expertise.
The prevalence of the macho complex can, in large part, be attributed to the inferiority of the indigenous or racially mixed (i.e., non-European) man in colonial Latin America. Male Spanish colonizers emasculated and de-sexualized the native males because they were perceived as being unable to rule themselves. The imposition of an inferior status was maintained even after the colonial era. This internalization of subordination could only be challenged through a display of excessive masculinity and hyper-sexuality. Machismo cannot be justified but arguably, it is a coping mechanism to combat the consequences of colonialism on the Latino man.
Because the woman is seen as oppositional to the man, it is therefore “anti-manly” to clean, to cook, to wash dishes and clothes, etc. I have heard stories of women who drop what they are doing as soon as their husbands arrive home to make sure dinner is warm and set on the table; not because the husband is tired from work but because he is the man. Certainly, there are women who subvert their subservient positionality, and find power in the assignation of the private sphere because they know their husbands will not interfere. It goes without saying that presently there are families who no longer submit to these hierarchal roles, yet the legacy of machismo’s cultural and ideological characteristic is hard to elude.
For example, in my own home, machismo/marianismo is practically nonexistent. Nevertheless, there are moments when my parents subscribe to these cultural ideologies without even realizing it. My father will sometimes say, “I’ll help with the dishes,” instead of saying, “I will do the dishes.” Using the verb “help” implies dishwashing is not part of his job (gender) description; it is part of my mother’s, but by helping, he will relieve her of her prescribed gendered duty for the day. Dishwashing is perhaps the most prototypical example of machismo/marianismo because dirty dishes also brought to the surface my mother’s suppressed marianismo. It was assumed that if my mother did not do the dishes because she had done more than enough by cooking, and my father did not “help” with the dishes, I would do the dishes.
Rarely was my brother, who is six years my junior, ever considered. One day no one did the dishes and my mother got angry (rightly so). She immediately yelled for me only to go upstairs and do the dishes. I frustratingly asked her why she did not consider calling my brother, too. Granted, he is younger but dishwashing is not a unique skill that requires years of wisdom; we also have a dishwasher so dishwashing in our house is lightly ridding dishes of food, and placing them in the dishwasher. Without a doubt, I knew that my brother had not been called up because of his age, but rather, because of his gender. After speaking with my mother about this subconscious internalized sexism, the dishwashing routine has now officially changed in the Torres household, with everyone taking turns carrying out our responsibilities as members of said household.
While I would not consider my mother a marianista, I am not surprised she may have a marianista thought every so often because of the socialization of this mode of thinking. In marianismo, which works in tandem with machismo, woman is equated to mother and wife. A woman’s task is to be worthy enough to find a husband so that she may procreate. This progression of life is modelled after that of the Virgin Mary. Thus, the ideal woman is someone who can aspire to the virginity of the Virgin. The ideology of purity—of being domestic, subservient, self-effacing and suppressing one’s sexual urges— is a cyclical lesson instilled in young girls by their mothers, who were taught by their own mothers. Thankfully my mother broke this cycle in my family, but the machismo/ marianismo binary is so pervasive that a total rupture is difficult to achieve. However, I will definitely honor the schism.
Machismo is also heteronormative so that members of the LGBTQ+ community are viewed as anomalies. If a gay man is already the ‘most superior’ gender who reserves the ‘right’ to engage in sexual relations with women, why would the gay man degrade himself by having sex with other men, something women do? If a trans man is ‘born’ the ‘most superior’ gender, why would he give up his male status to embody the ‘lesser gender’? In this way, machismo is innately defined through an interconnected relationship between misogyny and homophobia.
The existence of machismo has greatly decreased in Latin America as the region has progressed, and recognized the rights and societal contributions of women and the LGBTQ+ community. Nevertheless, the machismo/ marianismo binary still forms part of our landscape. I do hold hope that one day it will just be a thing of the past. Until then, we must work to dismantle it, to teach our girls that they can aspire to be more than housewives and mothers (not that this is not a legitimate dream, but it cannot be the only narrative for women), that it is okay for boys to be emotional, and that they do not look ‘cool’ if they disrespect girls or queer folx; that it is okay for women and queer folx to own their sexuality, and that men do not need to sleep around solely to look manly; that members of the LGBTQ+ community should be free to express who they are. Until we can confidently say these goals are achieved, the Latinx culture has absolutely no right to criticize other cultures of sexism.