When I tell Latinas that I plan on publishing a book on the conditions related to being a Latino male in today’s American society, I’m invariably asked, “why don’t you just do it on Latinos in general?” And when I try to explain how the Latino male is at greater risk in American society than the Latina, I’m usually confronted with an expression of utter bewilderment. Most Latinos, male and female, simply cannot see how the women in a machismo-driven community could be any less vulnerable than the men in that same community?
But it’s machismo that puts the Latino male in danger.
Machismo, loosely defined, is the popular perception in most Latino communities that men are superior to women, and hence, masculinity is superior to femininity. Lately there have been widespread revisionist attempts to remake the image of machismo into something more closely resembling Anglo-Franco chivalric romance, the Western ideal defining a woman’s affection as something to be earned through loving gentleness, rather than through brute conquest. People have tried to connect machismo to romantic paintings depicting a well-dressed suitor greeting his chaste lady with a rose at her window; in actuality, machismo is better represented by the image of an Aztec warrior carrying the seemingly lifeless body of his prize. To be fair, Latino culture’s relentless vein of male chauvinism is not solely the legacy of the community’s indigenous past. Patriarchies are as old as recorded history, and the Latino community’s own brand of male dominance can partly trace its roots back to the progenitors of our linguistic and religious traditions, the Romans. (Ancient Rome was a patriarchal place, and it’s no coincidence that the Roman Catholic Church continues to be intensely patriarchal to this day.)
Most Latinos refuse to believe that machismo is more detrimental to the male than to the female, but their refusal is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of machista power. As the English historian Lord Acton wrote in a 1887 letter, “power tends to corrupt,” and there is no power on the planet – other than kingly power – which corrupts more quickly and thoroughly than machista power. If power inevitably corrupts the powerful, then it follows that the powerless remain uncorrupted by the form of power that the powerful possess. Because nothing corrupted is said to be truly powerful, machismo guarantees that the machista eventually reverts to state of sheer powerlessness. The machista, it seems, is a prisoner of his own gender’s perceived power.
The Latina – far from the corruptive forces of machista power and entirely aware of her own captivity under marianismo – is, ironically, empowered by her role as the powerless within the Latino community. But to understand the simultaneous incapacitation of the Latino male on the one hand and the empowerment of the Latina on the other, it’s important to take a closer look at how machismo corrupts the machista in the first place.
Machismo puts the Latino male at risk physically by making it imperative that he be physically strong and constantly ready to prove so. He must be ever willing to impose his superiority by way of physical violence, whether that violence is directed toward other men or even women. The machista has no qualms with violently dominating another man, who he feels can and should accept violence as a primary means of competition among all Latino men. He is equally indifferent to beating on a woman, who he’s taught to view as beneath him, because seeing something as subhuman makes it easier for someone to mistreat such a creature (save for animal rights advocates). Gender equality still would not save the Latino woman from violent oppression, however, since violence is the machista modus operandi even when dealing with those who he perceives as his equals. (Machista veneration of violence makes Latino male homicide rates some of the highest in the nation and around the world.)
The Latino male is diminished emotionally when he’s pressured to focus on the outward and ignore the inward. Machistas are conditioned to be loveless toward themselves, their lovers and those around them. Even the most enlightened societies must contend with the prevalent chauvinistic notion which teaches that emotions are feminine and actions are masculine. The Latino male is encouraged to be superficial, while the Latina is instructed to be much more, if not entirely, inward. This means that not only does the machista not take time to understand his lover, he scarcely takes the time to understand himself. There’s no apparent incentive for him to study something that’s supposed to be immediately buried, i.e., his feelings. Emotions are viewed as a human weakness and the antithesis of physical potency; in fact, machismo teaches that all things inwardly are either effeminate, impractical or both, and what a man can do physically – with his hands and with his body – are to be his true merits. In comparison, since a woman – Latina or otherwise – is traditionally expected to be inward, her emotionality is generally left unrestricted, allowing her emotional intelligence to develop unperturbed.
This introduces the first machista axiom: the ideal man is neither inwardly nor averse to physical contests.
That’s not to say that the machista is unfeeling; on the contrary, he either feels too much or is overcome too quickly by his emotions. Like an untrained swimmer, he drowns in every feeling, while a woman’s emotional experience leaves her much more suited to stay afloat. Not so for the machista, whose every pleasure and pain burns uncontrolled, further fueling his aggression.
At this point, I realize that some people still might fail to see fault in a man’s lack of emotional intelligence. The inherent weakness in lacking any kind of intelligence, especially one as fundamental to human nature as emotional intelligence, should be apparent to everyone. But to explain it concisely, as social creatures, part of what it means to be a human being should be the perpetual endeavor to understand what we feel and what others feel.
Pressured to be outward, Latino males are not only more at risk of neglecting their emotions than their female counterparts, they’re also more at risk of neglecting their own intellects. So much emphasis is placed on the Latino male’s physical capabilities and his willingness to act unflinchingly, there’s little pressure placed upon him to contemplate and understand the world around him and within him. In the machista mind, thoughts are too closely related to emotions, and aspiring to be a self-actualized individual seems awfully inward to be definitively masculine.
And even when he is encouraged to pursue an advanced degree, the culture that envelops him illuminates only a limited number of career paths – lawyer, doctor or businessman – professions traditionally considered “safe” (prestigious and high paying). Yet, even a Latino male’s job title is not the be all and end all in terms of how he makes a living. A Latino lawyer, for example, is usually lauded by his family and community members, but not if he earns little money for his services or volunteers them out for free; the same can be said of the Latino doctor. Similarly, as part of the machista mindset, the Latino businessman should only be idolized if he actually earns a good living from his ventures. Again, Latino culture demands that its men be practical, constantly focused on the end of each pursuit rather than the pursuit in and of itself. Perhaps for this very reason, Latino men are rarely encouraged to pursue careers in academia or the arts, careers deemed by Latino elders as impractical and financially uncertain. The acquisition of knowledge is viewed as a cul-de-sac, and therefore, the pursuit of knowledge is seen as a fruitless appropriation of his time.
And thus, the second machista axiom: the ideal man garners as much money and recognition as he can.
The machista’s lack of understanding, of himself and of the world he inhabits, allows him to become a slave to machismo, just as any doctrine is likely to ensnare a number of ignorant adherents. Machismo becomes the only lens through which he experiences the world around him, living untempered by principles like equality and justice. The machista male borders on beastly, a creature conditioned to react before any real contemplation can occur. This conditioning makes him further dangerous, since he cannot see the senselessness in validating his superiority through violence. Anyone is potentially dangerous when they cannot be reasoned with.
As I said above, that a Latina is free from the corruptive forces contained within machismo makes her essentially more powerful than a machista. And although both man and woman in Latino culture are social prisoners of machismo and marianismo, respectively, a Latina’s ability to contemplate and understand – and therefore, to acquire knowledge and realize her status as a prisoner – will be the guiding light in her escape from that prison. A slave’s first steps toward freedom are his realization that he lives in bondage. But the machista’s self-imposed ignorance does not allow him to recognize the prison bars around him, and until he does, he is doomed to remain powerless.
And speaking of slaves, the idea that corruptive power does at least as much harm to the powerful as it does the powerless is neither original nor new; it was the same truth some abolitionists used against slavery in antebellum America, arguing that slavery did as much damage to the slave master as it did the slave. And the notion that men themselves are held captive within a patriarchal society is a position put forth by many gender studies scholars around the world.
As a Latino male myself, I have always viewed machismo as the curse that it is. I feel the constant pressure to pass through its prescribed pinhole, whether I’m destroyed in the process or not. Machismo strips the Latino male of his rightful individuality and compels him to be nothing more than a man.
But there are some of us who still aspire to be something more.