5 Ways Latinxs Can Challenge Machismo in Our Families and Communities

A parent with a teenage child

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Mis hermanxs, it’s time we talked about machismo.

Machismo refers to the “traditional” idea that Latinos must be hyper-masculine, dominant authoritarians.

At the heart of machismo is the idea of a strict binary where “real men” are physically intimidating, emotionally aggressive, and always in charge.

Everyone else – especially women, femmes, and trans-feminine folks – live to obey the rules of these men.

Machismo is a tool that preserves the gendered rules in our households and community spaces. It  is not only a doctrine of sexism, but of homophobia, transphobia, and ableism.

By creating unwavering guidelines of what a “real man” should look, act, sound, and be like, machismo is a harmful system where no one in our communities can be their full selves.

Machismo is dangerous in that it teaches everyone that the only acceptable way to be a leader is to be a domineering man.

It leaves no room for softness, femininity, or the kind of community support that is a part of our families and our lives. Putting people into rigid boxes that police our behaviors and actions is not right. This kind of thinking does nothing but bind us as individuals, as families, as a people.

We’re not allowed to experience a full spectrum of emotions

As niñxs, we’re taught that machismo attitudes are “traditional” attitudes. As people of diaspora, we’re raised believing it connects us to our roots, protects our cultures, and reminds us of what family should be like.

But what machismo actually does is create a harmful system and a dangerous power dynamic. When we are raised in this kind of system, we find it hard to see that there are other, healthier ways of being.

And since machismo has become a form of everyday control in our lives, it’s not always easy to notice it.

Sometimes men perpetuate machismo through physical, verbal, and emotional abuse.

Often, it’s all of the little ideas and actions that create this cycle of dominance:

  • “Boys don’t cry. Don’t be a sissy.”
  • “In my house, it’s God’s authority first, then mine, and then my wife’s.”
  • “I don’t cook. That’s not a man’s job. That’s women’s work.”
  • “This is my house. Everyone who lives under my roof plays by my rules.”

In order to truly build strong communities, Latinos need to help dismantle machismo. As a Latino, you need to be able to see how machismo works in your home. You need to be able to understand why it is harmful, and actively work against it.

I know that this can be a hard thing to think about, especially since we’ve all been taught since we were small that being macho is just the way men are.

Growing up, I always thought that when my tíos (uncles), my grandfather, and my brother became violent or patronizing, it was a normal part of life.

Even though the way they acted often scared or belittled me, I thought it was okay because that was how men showed love.

But in reality what was happening was that neither I, nor the men in my life, could have real relationships. Instead, the way we all acted was rooted in upholding machismo ideals.

Machismo is not an inherent part of our communities; it is a construct that creates gendered borders around all of us.   

Here are five things that you can do to combat machismo, starting right at home:

1. Start Engaging with Your Family

I grew up in a single-parent household. For most of my life, I’ve heard family tell my brother, “You’re the man of the house. You have to take care of your mother.”

This is blatantly wrong – it’s not a child’s place to take care of a parent. However, in my experience, this is a very popular sentiment across Latinx households. And in most cases, I’ve heard adults say this to little boys – not to other adults.

This is just one of the many ways machismo is taught to us from a very young age. Although my brother was only a child, he was granted authority in the house simply because of his gender.

This is dangerous because it teaches little boys that they’re not allowed to simply be children – they’re supposed to be in charge and making decisions.

This also reinforces the idea that women are essentially useless unless obeying a man – or in this case, a ten year old child. In putting this kind of burden on my brother, my family was also asserting that my mother, a grown woman, was incapable of having any kind of authority in our household.

This kind of ideology is repeated so often that it’s instilled in us as we grow. We begin to think that men are the only ones who deserve of respect.

Of course, the way machismo shows up differs from household to household. You may be reading this and seeing the light bulb go off – you know exactly how machismo is enforced in your house. Or you might be sitting there wondering where I get off, because everyone is treated equally in your home.

But it’s time to move back and really pay attention to what’s happening in your home. It’s the everyday actions and words that normalize machismo in our lives. Just because something seems normal doesn’t mean it’s not harmful.

Observe how elders in your family treat you in comparison to how they treat other members of your family.

Are there things specifically expected of you because you’re “the man,” as opposed to things expected from feminine members of your family?

It’s not only how others treat you, but also how you treat others. Dig a little deeper and pay attention to how you interact with the different members of your family. Think about your tone of voice; is there a difference between who you ask things from and who you demand things from?

You might be surprised at the differences you notice once you start paying attention.

2. Stop Expecting Your Mother to Baby You

I know talking about anyone’s mamá is a sensitive topic, but hear me out.

In my family, both of my grandparents worked multiple jobs. Yet it was only my grandmother who came home and had to cook, serve everyone first, and clean up, all while watching after the children.

And what did my grandfather do? He laid back and relaxed.

It’s not that grandpa didn’t deserve to relax once in a while. Of course he did – but so did grandma. Why was it that she was the one who had to be on call 24/7 for everyone else in her life? Even though my grandmother was the one doing everything in the house, my grandfather was still considered the one in charge.

This was something that happened not only in my grandparent’s house, but also in many of the two-parent Latinx households that I visited. This was something that no one ever questioned because it was just the way things “were” – women were just expected to take care of the domestic work.

This created a very unequal system in the house where my grandmother got almost no time for herself, whereas my grandfather had a lot of time to do whatever he wanted.

Oftentimes, my grandmother was exhausted from constantly having to look after everyone. This created an idea that all men have to do in the home is to sit back, give orders, and be served. Meanwhile, it created an expectation that everyone else should be a breadwinner and a caretaker.

Machismo sets up strict, gendered roles about who does what in a household. One of those key ideas is that since the man is the one in charge, it’s up to everyone else to cater to him.

This manifests itself oftentimes in how mothers, and other elder feminine family members, are expected to cater to the men by cooking and cleaning up after them.

If my grandfather had committed to helping out – serving her first at dinner, or cleaning up the children while she was in the kitchen, or doing the dishes when everyone was done – things would have been much more equal. My grandmother would have been able to take time for herself, something that everyone needs.

It also would have shown my grandmother that all the work she does for the family was truly appreciated, and that it was important for everyone to take care for one another.

Furthermore, the Latinos in my family would have seen that housework was not “demeaning” or “feminine,” but as something that had to be done as a member of the household.

3. Stop Expecting Everyone Else to Defer to You

When I was a teenager, my tía (aunt) showed my tío (uncle) a photo of me hugging a guy friend at prom. His response? “Who’s that punk with his arm around her? How come I’ve never met this boy? Why did she let him touch her?”

I know he was trying to come from a protective place, but it was just demeaning instead.

His statement made a lot of (heteronormative) assumptions about my friend, our relationship, and myself. First, my uncle immediately sexualized the situation, simply because he is a boy and I am a girl. Second, my uncle assumed that he, and not I, should be the gatekeeper when it came to other men in my life.

Third, my uncle assumed that I was somehow wrong for letting my friend touch me. His final statement actually sounded like an accusation; it was as though he was condemning me for making choices about my own body.

Altogether, this created a dangerous notion that as a young woman, I had no right to my own agency. Underlying my uncle’s words was the idea that he, as an older man in my life, should be the authority on what I was doing and with whom I was doing those things.

He was implying that I was doing something inherently wrong by not including him in any of my decisions – from when I first met my friend to the moment the photo was taken.

What ended up happening was that even though my uncle thought he was coming from a place a love, the opposite actually happened.

It made me feel as though I couldn’t actually share anything about my life with my uncle, lest he condemn me for any of my actions. It annoyed me that he had turned such a small, happy moment into a patronizing lecture. 

Underlying his seemingly innocuous statements was the idea that I should not be in charge of my own life.In my experience, I have noticed this explicitly happen as a younger woman in the family, but it happens to others as well.

Machismo creates a system of one man in charge; it is your house, and your rules.

It creates mentality that infantilizes everyone else in the household and says they don’t know how to make choices for themselves.

There is a difference between showing care and concern for someone and showing “Because I’m the man, I know better about your own life then you do.”

You need to stop policing the actions and feelings of everyone else, even if it feels like you’re doing it for all the right reasons.

Stop threatening our partners. Stop using gendered slurs. Stop interrogating our actions.

4. Start Speaking Up to Other Latinxs

I’ve overheard many conversations where my tías (aunts) will say to other women, “You always need to stick by your men, no matter what they do. They’re just frustrated and need support. You know, it’s just how men are.”

Although I’ve usually heard this being said about romantic partners, I’ve also heard different variations, where someone is talking about a brother, father, or male cousin.

Oftentimes, this is said when a Latino has done something particularly violent. This includes screaming at, throwing things at, or even hitting others. There are multiple dangerous things about this kind of statement that are absolutely wrong.

First and foremost, it supports the idea that toxic or violent relationships are actually loving relationships.

It demands that someone being hurt put aside their own self-care in favor of a man’s. It reinforces the machismo principle that everyone exists for the sole purpose of caring for the man in their life.

This kind of rhetoric also explains away hyper-masculine behavior as an inherent trait. Because we are taught that men can only express their feelings in one way, we believe that violent is the only way that men act. We believe that aggression is just a natural state.

But this kind of behavior is not normal; there are many healthy ways to show emotions and be a leader. This system of power is something that was created, and is thus something that can be broken down.

Noticing and changing your actions on an individual level is great, but it still does not do enough to disrupt machismo on a larger scale. If you’re working to combat machismo, you have to be willing to speak up about it to family members who perpetuate it.

This means speaking up to all members of the family, even those of us who don’t benefit from machismo. As an idea, it’s so insidious that everyone can internalize it and contribute to it. All too often, when we try to dismantle oppressive ideas ourselves, we remain silent to the actions of those around us.

Speak up!

Take the time out to have conversations in your family about machismo. Acknowledge that it’s difficult, and meet people where they’re at. Encourage your cousin to do the laundry without complaining about it.

Let you best friends know that it’s not okay to make fun of feminine folks.

5. Be Willing to Maintain Conversations with the Folks in Your Life – Even When They Don’t Immediately Get It

There is no kind of harmful behavior that anyone can just unlearn in one night. Dismantling machismo is not an exception to this rule.

The first time I talked about machismo with my brother, I was frightened. I didn’t know how to open to up to him about my feelings. I had no idea how he would react, because let’s face it: Talking to someone about their privilege is hard.

And at first, he didn’t really see how machismo showed up in our lives.

It was frustrating for both of us, and I was scared that the gulf between us would just grow. But instead, we kept having conversations about machismo in the Latinx community and sexism as a whole.

What was great is that I wasn’t the only one talking about my concerns – he really opened up to explain how he saw things from his perspective as well. We’re still talking through things, and I’m still trying how to open up to him in many ways – but it’s been an awesome start.

Sometimes it’s hard for us to see when we’re being overbearing or exercising our privilege at the expense of others. You need to talk to the other members of your home about what kind of support they really need and crave. Let’s be honest – all Latinxs and our families are so different.

It’s up to you and the people in your life to figure out how to work on dismantling machismo together. Dialogue is key! And let’s be real: what could be more anti-machismo then talking about your feelings and listening to others around you?

All it takes is one conversation to start you off.

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