Marina Castañeda
"El Machismo Invisible"

September 19, 2002

Marina Castañeda, a psychotherapist and author from Mexico, speaks about the declining social approval but lingering societal effects of machismo in Mexican society.

Es que mi marido es muy especial
Susie Hicks, Department of Geography

"My husband is a very special man."

Therapist Marina Castañeda has found that, spoken by a Mexican woman, this statement often means exactly the opposite. In these cases the husband's behavior, far from being special or unique, is typical in its machismo. He expects nothing less than unwavering attention, service, and subordination from the women close to him. "Sometimes I wonder," mused Castañeda, "if all of my female patients are married to the same man."

Machismo has become one of those sticky topics of "cultural difference" that enter into international dialogues on many levels, especially with increasing integration of the economies of the United States and Mexico. The image of machismo as national "character" nourishes stereotypes of Mexican men and women internally, as well as north of the border.

For Castañeda, Mexican psychotherapist and author of El machismo invisible (2002) and Comprendre l'homosexualité (1999), machismo is a form of male domination usually justified by supposedly inherent biological roles for females and males, and executed culturally by the creation and maintenance of separate masculine and feminine "areas." For many people in Mexico and the United States, this definition of machismo is nothing new. What is new, according to Castañeda, is that machismo has "gone underground" in Mexico; in cities and among the middle and upper classes that form the focus of her studies, it is no longer fashionable. But it remains ever present in practice.

In her talk at the Townsend Center for the Humanities on September 19th, Castañeda outlined a hidden discrimination -- embedded in language, double standards, and double binds -- that exerts a negative force on public life and modern democracy. Drawing on her observations as a therapist, interviews, and personal experience, she concluded that the problem is that women are adopting new roles, but men are not. For a society in transition, Castañeda said, el machismo is the "testing ground where we will see if indeed Mexico is changing, how deeply it is changing, and how quickly it is changing."

Where does Castañeda see the footprints of el machismo invisible? Everywhere from cars and cell phones to workplaces, household conversations (or non-conversations) and friendships. In her experience, wives rarely drive because they say their husbands only criticize their driving. Husbands now use cell phones to keep constant tabs on the activities of their wives. "Stoic" men punish women with silence in the home, burdening the wife with the emotional work of the relationship. Men and women rarely, if ever, form friendships with the opposite sex because of rigid expectations for social relationships.

Perhaps some of these phenomena have a familiar ring to North Americans. Castañeda wants to stress, however, the ways in which machista behavior, deeply entrenched in Mexican society, is incompatible with democracy and capitalism. It is the language of power, a system that promotes authoritarian patterns of communication and hierarchy.

"Mexico is a country where men are attended by women from the moment they are born to the moment of their death -- pampered and spoiled by wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters . . . young girls are always told, atiende tu hermano -- 'attend to your brother' -- but young boys are told, cuida a tu hermana -- 'watch over your sister,'" remarked Castañeda."We are being governed by men who have never gone to a PTA meeting, never been to the supermarket, and don't know how to deal with real life because they're above it all. I am convinced that we will not succeed in carrying forth a democratic transition if these kinds of men are running the country."

Castañeda also noted that because this authoritarian language pervades Mexican society, women, too, could become machista when in positions of relative power. Responding to a question from the audience, she elaborated on how these strict gender roles might be confused by male immigration to the North. Mexican men in the United States are often required to perform duties such as cleaning and dishwashing that are reserved for women in Mexican society, while the women remaining in Mexico take on new responsibilities at home.

If women are actively taking on new roles, why aren't men changing? Castañeda points to domestic service as a "bulwark" of machismo; while middle-class Mexican women file into new jobs outside of the home, maids keep men accustomed to being served at all hours of the day. Nannies also contribute to "deep cultural inertias," according this view, by smothering young boys in particular with near-constant physical attention.

For Castañeda, domestic service is just another example of culture lagging behind the Mexican projects of industrialization, modernization, and the attempt to fashion a more representative government. "Machismo is not on its way out because we say so. It's on its way out because it's incompatible with modern life, incompatible with democracy."

Democracy, she explains, calls for open debate and joint decision-making, but the Mexican husband accepts little discussion from his own wife. Efficient capitalism and entrepreneurship, in Castañeda's view, demand versatile and industrious people; but thanks to a rigid gender-based division of labor, "what it all boils down to is that we have half human beings on either side of the fence."

Castañeda believes that, even with social transformations accelerated by economic development, change will be slow and difficult because of the entrenchment of these behavior patterns in daily life. The best way to effect change, Castañeda's central project, is to make visible el machismo invisible.

Ms. Castañeda argues that the declining influence of machismo has led to changes in the status of women and the roles that they play in Mexican society, but that its effects linger in the attitudes of men toward endeavors that are traditionally seen as "feminine."



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