The [not so] invisible machismo in Latin America
By Verónica Lira Ortiz
The outcomes of everyday sexist practices
[dropcap]I[/dropcap] remember the first night I walked alone at Yale. Part of me felt terrified, but another felt as safe as ever. I would have never imagined walking alone in the surroundings of my home university in Mexico, much less at night. When I reached my dorm, safe and sound, my heart was beating so fast and I was tremendously unsettled. I was also shocked: nothing had happened; no catcallers, no weird strangers, no fear. I felt secure in my bubble, and I felt privileged to walk slow and in my lonesome, contrary to what I have to do back home. In these couple of months Yale has become my safe bubble, but back home in Mexico reality is very different.
Six women are killed every day in Mexico; around 90,000 cases of domestic violence are reported every year in Chile; eleven cases of sexual abuse are registered daily in Colombia. The list goes on and on.
We have all heard the numbers. We all know that sexism is a problem, that women have not gained the opportunities and rights demanded by feminists for decades. However we tend to suffer from the misconception that the feminist cause has worked equally in many places, that little by little we have eliminated certain practices, and that we have a further understanding of what equality is and why we need it. For some of us sexism encounters a bigger problem deeply rooted in our historical narrative, making any change nearly impossible: machismo.
Machismo is quite a singular word, for it’s not only defined as sexism or misogyny. Instead, it mostly refers to an attitude or conception that men are, by nature, superior to women. I’ve even heard people say that being a macho is positive because to be macho is to protect women. However, I’ve never understood this statement. Machismo reinforces the idea of women as second-class citizens whose rights and opportunities — even when included in public policies — are undermined in their households, in the streets, at school or work. The invisible machismo perpetuates relations based on power and reflects the inequalities in the social, political and economic realm. It imposes specific ways of how to act and think, limiting female agency over their lives and bodies. It also restricts men from navigating areas outside of toxic masculinity.
We should all learn about different experiences from people far away from home, our comfort zone, our safe bubble, and away from Yale. Hoping to gain a better insight on how machismo works in the day to day basis and detangling from my own experiences, I decided to talk to a handful of people coming from different Latin American countries like Colombia, Chile, and Mexico.
Ùsted no sabe de eso
I’ve known Estefania for three years now, having clicked at a debate championship immediately. She is a Colombian teacher and passionate feminist, but her ideals didn’t seem to matter once she entered home and was treated as a “woman”. Estefania Ángel was only six when she already knew how to change a diaper, wash the dishes, set the table and do a little bit of cooking. Even though her parents considered themselves as quite progressive, her brother wasn’t forced to learn all of those things. This is a perfect example of micro machismo, of the natural tendency to make men seem as more dominant or powerful by permitting complacency in housework responsibilities.
What is the outcome of machismo? Being an only daughter, I did not comprehend how masculinity could be passed down from generation. Every time Estefania visited her parents, she noticed how her brother was becoming more like her father. How even while they spoke of women’s empowerment, they both refused to set the table or get their food. And they tried to do so, her mother would just tell them “Siéntese, ùsted no sabe de eso” [Sit down, you don’t know about this.] The biggest outcome of this particular micro machismo at home is the construction of masculinity and femininity under a relationship of power and dominance, a historical dynamic that is now normalized.
“Fortunately, I has always been a bit of a rebel and I’m not afraid to question the structures around me. No matter how cliché it sounds, I have become a strong and independent woman”, said Estefania. Unlike her, not many question this power relationships and there are very few things done to change them or even speak about them. If we did so, probably our elders would tell us, “Ùsted no sabe de eso”.
La chica en el parque
Twenty-four year old Chilean professor Christian Jorquera recounts one of many instances of female harassment. “A few days ago while relaxing after a long day of work, I saw in the corner of my eye a girl who seemed very young and very uncomfortable. There was a man talking to her; but I didn’t want to make any quick assumption of who he was,” Jorquera said. “She didn’t say anything. Nobody said anything. The man stood up in front of her and pronounced tremendously nasty words. I told him to leave her alone. I felt disgusted and decided to stay with the girl while someone came and picked her up,” he added.
Like the girl Christian met at the park, many women have to put up with lascivious comments or other forms of street harassment every day. Catcalling is a universal issue, and countries like Chile still joke about how to distinguish compliments and harassment. Machismo protects the aggressors by normalizing these conducts and not considering implementation of consequences. A girl’s parents would teach her to be careful, to dress in a certain way to avoid harassers, to always walk with someone – preferably a male.
I have been the “girl in the park” far too many times. You can’t wear a dress or a skirt if you’re traveling in public transportation or if you’re alone in the park, no matter how hot or sunny it is outside. I have heard comments about my body since I was 12, men have explicitly said what they would do with me, some have even tried to get a handful of skin… Here, at Yale, I feel privileged to wear whatever I want whenever I want, but this is something that very few people seem to understand.
So, next time you encounter someone who wears a tank-top and shorts while walking down York Street to get ice cream, remember that machismo prevents thousands of girls from doing that. Thousands of Latin American women have at least once been that girl in the park, at least once felt unsafe, afraid and disgusted.
¿Y te pagó las palomitas?
One of the things I’ve learned at Yale is the differentiation between sexual or romantic relationships. Back home in Mexico, if you are in a heterosexual relationship, the man must be responsible for payments, transportation and even deciding on what to do. “I remember asking my mom for money because I had already run out. She didn’t give me any because she insisted that my boyfriend had to be responsible for paying everything that evening. In my mum’s eyes, a woman should never take out her wallet while dating a guy,” said Alejandra Sánchez, a 23 year old Mexican student. Having everything in the palm of your hand may not seem like a problem, but it cements the narrative of male dependency for economic security; men are the only ones able to access resources and use them at their convenience, while women have to wait to be taken care of. If a woman pays for something or makes more money than her partner, the man will be seen as a mantenido, colloquially interpreted as a lazy and irresponsible bastard who depends on his female partner. The concept of “stay at home dads” is not very popular amongst Mexicans and that, in midst of 2017, is still perceived as ridiculous.
Machismo affects both men and women. Men have to comply with certain standards of masculinity and power, to avoid appearing weak and useless. On the other hand, we women are compelled to allow men to be more successful and powerful than us, and never pay for something—as it is not our responsibility to do so. No matter whether you’re 23 like Alejandra or 53, your role in a relationship will most likely be criticized under a narrative that very few recognize and try to escape.
After Alejandra came home that night, the first thing her mother asked her was “So, did he buy the popcorn?” She just nodded and smiled without giving an answer. The truth was that Alejandra had paid for both of their popcorns. Who knows, maybe in the future her boyfriend will become a “stay at home dad” while she works at a major global firm. Sadly, no matter how happy they turn out to be, they will still be judged under the narrative of machismo; and people will probably keep asking if he pays for the popcorn.
In 2016 hundreds of women took the streets wearing red, pink and purple, shouting in unison, “Ni una menos” In English, this translates to “Not one [woman] less”. These groups of Latin American women, from Argentina to Mexico, demanded justice for all of those who had been killed, who had been ignored. They were marching to create awareness about femicides and rape, about the careless and macho governments which excused these vile acts.
Latin America is one of the few regions in the world that has a history of female presidencies including Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, Argentina’s Cristina Fernández, and Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla. If for several decades women have become more political empowered, why is machismo still preventing full integration? In fact, more political female representation is not a true sign of full equality. The social infrastructure is still fragile, while the suprastructure has not met with a radical ideological change. Inequality is as real as ever. In 2011, just before presidential campaigns started, Enrique Peña Nieto —the current Mexican president— was asked during an interview about the price of a kilo of tortillas, the basic food for many Mexicans. His answer was quick… Peña Nieto replied,“I am not the lady of the house, I’m sorry. I guess it must be around 18 pesos.” The fact is, important men wielding political and social power continue to stand by damaging narratives about women’s positions in society, made even more problematic the disconnection of men with day to day activities, including buying tortillas for their household. Furthermore, the aggression was not viewed as such but was considered a funny but reasonable comment. Comments falling within this realm continue to discredit women in politics, including presidential candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota.
The people I’ve talked to are just an example of how machismo works. Alas, I am not generalizing that all cases are the same, my sole intention is to introduce something as problematic as this into public conversation and awareness. Maybe you have been the woman at home, the girl in the park, the popcorn-buying teenager. Maybe you are a man, who without realizing, has contributed to machismo and made it harder for equality to actually happen. And maybe you are neither, you are a curious reader, a bystander. I just hope that after reading this you will worry as much as I do about the invisible practices feeding machismo on a regular basis. About how a relic of an idea, the old raggedy thing nobody wants to keep, still continues to shape the lives of thousands of men and women. Machismo may not kill as quickly as a gunshot, but it is a silent and insidious torture.
Verónica Lira Ortiz is a Visiting International student in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.