EDITOR NOTE: This article is a little dry but makes the point that sexist labels have driven hispanic cultures since Pre-Colombian times. Even today it's still difficult to escape the accusation of men acting "macho" here in the Tijuana region. It's a common way to describe men in Latin countries that is not used with a majority of white men. Does that make the term ok?
Machos are not born; they are made. For the same reason, the term machismo refers to a concept that has been invented and not to a primordial cultural trait of any particular group of people. In the United States, machismo was "discovered" by social scientists and feminists much as the New World was "discovered" by Europeans five centuries earlier: U.S. scholars and feminists noticed gender oppression in Mexico and the rest of Latin America and announced that it was a particular cultural trait among Spanish-speaking men.
Although some believe machismo has ancient roots common in all "Latin" cultures since Roman times, others argue that it is an ideology that originated uniquely in Andalusia, Spain, and was carried over the Atlantic Ocean during the Spanish Conquest. There is even an opposite theory positing that machismo was indigenous to the pre-Columbian Western Hemisphere. In fact, the term machismo has a very short word history dating back only a few decades in the twentieth century.
This does not mean that what scholars today call sexism is new to the Americas, or that inequality based on sexuality and gender difference—today recognized under rubrics like homophobia and misogyny—are of recent vintage. But like the expression sexism, the term machismo is new.
Perhaps the most complicated aspect of the idea of machismo stems from the fact that until fairly recently the term may have been more broadly used in the United States than in many parts of the Spanish-speaking world. Although elsewhere in the world macho always has had a negative connotation when referring to humans—it originates in a term that designates the male of an animal species (hembra being the female)—in Latin America the term has a somewhat different history. Only in the 1990s did the term come into vogue more broadly in Latin America; earlier it was mainly utilized to refer to culturally determined forms of masculinity by intellectuals and activists involved in examining and struggling against oppressive regimes grounded in ideas and relations of gender/sexuality systems in journalistic writing, social science studies, and feminist critique of the oppression of women and gays.
Pegging extreme sexism to one or another culture is a dead-end at best, and a racist subterfuge at worst. In the contemporary United States the machismo mystique is regularly employed to imply that somehow Spanish-speaking men, and especially Spanish-speaking heterosexual men, are more prone than men from other cultural backgrounds to sexist language, actions, and relationships. This is in large part a result of scholarship by U.S. academics, including anthropologists and sociologists, who have gone to Mexico and other parts of Latin America to study questions of family, kinship, and gender/sexuality and through this research have developed interpretations and paradigms consistent with hegemonic notions of studying down—that is, looking at populations that have been marginalized and oppressed (as opposed to "studying up"; that is, examining the ruling classes)—and finding political, social, and cultural fault with oppressed others.
In Latin America, the term macho usually must be distinguished from that of machismo. Macho has different meanings in different social circumstances: sometimes it refers simply to the male of a species, whether animal or plant. In other cultural contexts "to be macho" can have contradictory connotations: for older generations this may refer to something positive for men to emulate, so that a macho man is one who is responsible for the financial welfare of his family, whereas for younger men to be macho can refer to culturally stigmatized behavior like beating one's wife, and thus in order to differentiate themselves from this kind of stigmatized practice many men of these younger generations would not readily refer to themselves as macho.
The term marianismo was created, in almost biblical style, in machismo's image: it was not good for the macho to be alone, so in 1973 a North American academic invented marianismo. Marianismo has done damage to our understanding of gender relations and inequalities among Latin American and U.S.. Latina women similar to the damage done by machismo among Latin American and U.S. Latino men. Now discredited, marianismo was originally an attempt to examine women's gender identities and relationships within the context of inequality, by developing a model based on a religious icon (María), the quintessential expression of submissiveness and spiritual authority. This notion of Latin American women is grounded in a culturalist essentialism that does far more than spread misinformed ideas: it ultimately promotes gender inequality. Both marianismo and machismo have created clichéd archetypes, fictitious and cartoonesque representations of women and men of Latin American origin. If a Mexican man, for instance, is abusive and aggressive, he will be labeled a macho. If a Mexican woman quietly endures such an abusive relationship, her behavior is automatically examined within the marianismo paradigm. But if a white man and a white woman display similar behavior, they are seldom analyzed in so cavalier and simplistic a fashion.
What is more, frequently these traits of machismo and marianismo are pegged in particular to working class men and women, as if those from the middle and upper strata were too sophisticated for their lives to be captured by such crude academic groupings. As theoretical categories, therefore, machismo and marianismo are not only culturally chauvinist but elitist as well. The machismo-marianismo paradigm represented an expression of a widespread intellectual colonial mentality in the behavioral and social sciences that remained dominant and unchallenged for far too long.
As a contemporary idea, machismo has long since entered popular discourse, including among the Latino/a populations in Latin America, the United States, and elsewhere. Indeed in the twenty-first century, Latino/a cultures are commonly defined from within as inherently macho. As such machismo has become a critical aspect of Latino/a identity politics, even when, as in this case, the cultural characteristic in question is held to be a negative set of ideas and practices.
The etymology of the idea of machismo thus has roots in political and social concerns of the late twentieth century. The origin of the term is found in texts, especially journalistic, social science, and feminist dissections of Mexican men and Latinos in general in this period. The popularization of machismo as an epithet for Spanish-speaking males of the species coincided with the rise of second-wave feminism and, later, cultural identity politics in which supposedly immutable cultural traits were linked, as if genetically, to men with one or another geographic and/or class ancestry.
The origins of the term give an indication of its future as an idea: to the extent that hegemonic ideologies and ways of constructing knowledge about Latin America and Latinos remain unchallenged, including with regard to gender relations and inequalities, it will be possible to continue employing machismo in a stereotypical fashion and as an expedient label for complex social interactions. If, on the other hand, the idea of machismo and that of its even more problematic would-be opposite, marianismo, are recognized and discarded as antiquated paradigms invented to explain and teach about gender inequality in Latin American and Latino/a societies, then the idea of machismo could be short-lived. Machismo as a shorthand for sexism may have come into journalistic, social science, feminist, and popular vogue for a variety of reasons, including the well-intentioned desire to criticize gender inequality and oppression. The continued employment of this hackneyed term can only reflect the persistence of an elitist and racist model to understand gender inequities among women and men of Latin American origin.
Originally Published: Science