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Machismo and marianismo are current topics in my everyday practice as a clinician in the Latino community. The issue of gender roles is inherently sensitive, and although the United States has a rich history of exploring the significance of sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation, the exploration of these topics in Latino cultures is still somewhat underrepresented.

Fortunately, there are some clinicians who are looking at the intersection of sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation in relation to culture, and these researchers acknowledge that such issues are perhaps more complex in Latino cultures. I am not one of them and this post is only my humble input, but what I can tell you is the following: in the 20 years that I have worked as a facilitator in parent academies, the topic of gender roles is painful every time.

Please forgive me if some of these ideas seem antiquated. I do not agree with all of the traditions, and I believe that associating certain qualities with womanhood and others with manhood is a large and controversial issue. Okay … if you are still reading after my after somewhat ominous introduction, let’s have some fun. It’s just like jumping into very cold water, so here we go!

Being an honorable man (macho) and a virtuous woman (marianista) could be considered the archetypes of Mexican traditions.

Macho

In the Nahuatl tradition, a macho was the man who earned respect and trust from his community. Jerry Tello, a Latino spiritual counselor, states that a true macho man demonstrates high ethical standards and moral values. According to Tello, true machos uphold our ancestors’ code of honor, avoid violence in any form, and protect their families and communities.

It reminds me of the movie “Brother Bear”, when the grandmother hosts the ceremony to honor Kenai, who became a man after his Native American sacred vision quest. Similarly, according to the Nahuatl tradition, a young man (of male gender) becomes an honorable man (a macho) only after a sacred vision quest sometimes helped by elders in the community.

Marianista

The word marianista derives from Maria the virgin, who is the sacred goddess in Latino culture. A marianista displays the purity, caring, and love that the Virgin Mary offered to the world.

Women are expected to exhibit her moral standards. They are educated to be the center of the family and to make the most important decisions regarding health, finances, and family relationships with others. They also need to demonstrate that they are able to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of the family and the community. A marianista is a woman who is strong and respected, and one who is able to counsel or receive counsel from her partner.

What came to my mind as I wrote this were the indigenous ceremonies in which I participated in Mexico, where women were as much a part of the ritual as men. Being a macho or a marianista in the traditional Mexican language was a good thing; it was a signal of being an example of conduct for the community, synonymous with true manhood and true womanhood. In my opinion, while these indigenous archetypes have traditionally been associated with male and female gender roles in Mexican culture, the qualities of macho and marianista can be present in all people and can easily apply to everyone regardless of sex, gender, or sexual orientation.

Machismo & Marianismo

The way I see it, the words machismo and marianismo are nouns used to describe the distortions of these archetypes. A machista man is the one who takes advantage of his position of power or is given a position of power because of his gender. A machista takes his role to the extreme and controls the family because he is the provider. Nowadays, there is not much training on the code of honor from our ancestors. As immigrant families get more acculturated to this country, their young men have less knowledgeable and experienced elders to rely on for their personal development. Therefore behaviors like aggression and the hiding of one’s feelings could emerge, which may be dysfunctional responses to discrimination and mistreatment that most immigrants receive upon their arrival.

The word marianismo represents the sum of the characteristics that a woman should have if she wishes to partner with a machista man. A woman who acts out the marianismo style is one who is religious to the extreme, sees any sexual activity as a sin, and completely renounces (or at least pretends to renounce) her power when with her male partner, especially in public. Chaney first suggested the word in 1973, during times when women were either saints or sinners with no room for anything in between. Since then, different scholars have researched marianismo. You can find a very comprehensive explanation in the following book: The Maria Paradox: How Latinas Can Merge Old World Traditions with New World Self-esteem (1996, G. P. Putnam).

Are machismo and marianismo patterns heading for extinction?

Not really, or perhaps maybe only for those of us who live in a society that promotes gender equality. Certainly the Internet and other media help inform us of other ways of “being”, but patterns are intrinsically resistant.

I often observe new models in therapy based on the same old patterns. For example, I see men and women who now use iPhones and Facebook yet continue to keep the same patterns in their relationships that they inherited from their parents.

Example

To explain this more clearly, let me describe an imaginary client named Marcela.

Marcela grew up in the 1980s in a house where her father refused to wash his dishes or his clothes and never cooked or participated in household chores. He claimed that this was work for women only, and he and other males at home had to be served. Even so, Marcela’s father was considered a responsible man because he was the breadwinner. Marcela did not have a chance to play with or enjoy her father’s company, but he was still present during her childhood. Her mother was a housewife, who sat at the table only after everybody had eaten. Marcela’s mother never went on a trip by herself or with her friends, but she was always attentive to the family’s needs and offering what the family needed from her.

Fast-forwarding to 2012, Marcela is married with children. She and her husband both work full-time. She arrives home exhausted with household chores waiting for her. Although she contributes equally to the family’s finances, she does not feel comfortable questioning her husband about lack of help when he comes home from work, turns on the TV, and ignores any chores. She may also have spare time, but she feels guilty going out with her friends.

Let’s now talk more about Jorge, Marcela’s husband. From childhood, he was educated to be the provider and the protector of his family. He was also taught to be an honorable man, a tener palabra (to keep his promises), and to be brave. He was brought up to be served but not to cook or assist with household chores, much less share his feelings. Sharing feelings, in his opinion, was only for the women.

Personally, I come from this culture, and I am struggling to make personal meaning of those archetypes. My intention in writing about this is to open a scientific dialogue in the American community through this post and learn from it. From my experience as a therapist and parent educator, once in therapy or in a parent academy, men and women may find that they want to explore new ways of being when they begin to examine unquestioned assumptions about gender roles.

I have found that machista men tend to be fast learners as they begin to understand and change old patterns. On the contrary, I have found that women may struggle a little bit more to make changes. Perhaps women carry guilt from one generation to another.

Considerations in Therapy

Some considerations for the American therapist dealing with Latino clients are:

  • Examine your own views about gender roles, and work with counter transference issues with peers or supervisors if you find this impedes your ability to offer a nonjudgmental space for your clients.
  • Ask as many questions as you can to understand your client’s perspective.
  • Be open to the possibility that some clients may decide to relinquish marianismo/machismo patterns while others may not.
  • Be aware of cultural differences, particularly when you are considering a CPS report for something else you do not understand.
  • Consult with peers who are knowledgeable in working with Latino culture.
  • Have fun as a therapist! Allow some playfulness for the client.

Questions or comments? Feel free to write at counselingmexicans@yahoo.com or comment on this post. Also, if you enjoyed it, don’t forget to like or share this article!

References

Santiago-Rivera, A. L., Arredondo, P., & Gallardo-Cooper, M. (2002) Counseling Latinos and la familia: A practical guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Gil R.M., & Vazquez C.I. (1997). The Maria Paradox. New York, NY: Random House.

Rodriguez, Roberto and Gonzales, Patrisia (1997). Deconstructing Machismo. Retrieved 23 June 2012 from Latino Spectrum: http://www.mexica.net/literat/macho.php

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Carmen Román, MS

Carmen Roman is a licensed psychologist in Mexico with a MS in Gestalt Therapy and is an intern in the PhD Clinical Psychology program at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in California.Carmen is the author of the blog MorningsWithCarmen.com and the video blog Cafecito Virtual (www.youtube.com/user/cafecitovirtual).