When I tell my dad about what I do for a living it is hard for him to understand. He thinks it is just another thing that young people are doing these days to complain about their realities. This is not because he and his family are not affected by machismo in their culture. Rather it is precisely they are very much affected by it. Machismo refers to men’s gender norms and expectations in the LatinX culture. This means that people don’t have a problem judging working mothers or commenting on women’s hairstyles or clothing. They don’t see a problem with judging men who cry or are vulnerable because that means that they are weak. This behavior shaped my idea of what it means to be a man or a woman.
Machismo is so ingrained in Latin culture that few even notice it exists, especially when one is raised in a very close-knit family circle which is typically the case. In Latin America, la familia is everything. We are a collectivist culture and we put our community first. But as we saw in the movie Encanto, sometimes we have a hard time talking about what lurks in the shadows of our communities. It is hard for me to accept that I was previously blind to machismo, too. I still recall when I first came to this country and learned about diversity and inclusion. These terms themselves took me by surprise as I thought that due to our history of mixed races, we Latin Americans were pretty naturally inclusive. I now know how wrong that assumption was.
The truth is that living as a woman in Latin America has always been a complex experience. On one hand, Latin American culture is very matriarchal; it is heavily influenced by the role of mothers and grandmothers when it comes to family. However, I remember both of my grandmothers treating their daughters and sons drastically differently. Daughters were expected to be perfect: financially successful so they could support the whole family and also subject to harsh judgment.
On the other hand, sons were treated with the utmost respect, care, and overprotection. Nobody would dare to tell my uncles how to live their lives, but my grandmother would spend hours complaining and shaming my mom’s decision of studying while being a working mother. In other words, the world caters to men. Religion is where you can see the epitome of how masculinity is portrayed in Latin America. Women are expected to be obedient, devoted, and pious, while men are absolved of their sins.The message that these behaviors said to me was that I could not make mistakes, that I couldn’t deviate from what the Church said I was supposed to be. This not only influences women’s sense of self but also their safety and sense of worth. I remember watching my family victim-blame when talking about a vicious domestic violence incident without blinking. I also remember thinking, as a young woman, that being called on the streets for having curves (what I now understand as harassment) was OK, in fact, it meant that I was worthy of praise and so I was taught to crave those moments.
When I came to the States and started learning more about sexism, racism, and DEI I started looking back at my story with different eyes. It felt like an awakening; I started to realize that my perspective on womanhood and masculinity was deeply rooted in the machismo culture in which I was raised. I learned terms that I never heard before: harassment, over-sexualization, objectification, marianismo, etc. I think the hardest awakening I had was with my spirituality, which relates to the construct of Marianismo. Marianismo refers to the gender roles and expectations women have in LatinX culture, mostly related to their spirituality; the ultimate goal for women is to be as close to the Virgin Mary as possible. I remember the time I went to church after attending my favorite class, Gender Psychology. The priest started his sermon by explaining that men are closer to God than women, and thus, wives should quietly obey and follow their husbands as they know the grace of God like no other. This was in such opposition to what I believe to be true. As I reflected on this day, I realized that I had been exposed to this narrative for many years, being raised Catholic in Venezuela, but it wasn’t until I was empowered to think critically and that I had the vocabulary to name my experiences that I was aware of the detrimental effects of toxic masculinity.
Moving Forward and Opening Doors
So how can we progress away from the machismo that so insidiously plagues our society? As we celebrate LatinX Heritage Month, I think it is important to understand the significance of how we frame the DEI conversation. In Latin America, terms like diversity, equity, and inclusion can be triggering or simply foreign – just as they were to me before coming to the States to study. Something that is not foreign at all for the LatinX culture is to speak from el corazón, from the heart. When we are able to connect to our heart, we are able to connect with ourselves and with the experiences of others and that should be our first step. I believe we can also make more progress towards inclusion if we pay attention to not only to what we talk about but how we talk about it. What I have learned in my work with healthy masculinity at The Better Man Movement is that DEI is about people being their best selves at work, for them to feel welcome, respected, and heard. This is something that I would argue any good leader wants, no matter where they come from. More mindful framing can help us open the door to more learning opportunities for those who might not be as conscious as we are about DEI thereby moving us closer to the inclusive world we all want.
By Andrea Cummings | Project Manager at Better Man Movement | September, 2022