We Can’t Beat Toxic Masculinity Without First Taking on Machismo
Prizing masculinity — and punishing everything else — has persisted in Latin America, turning a colonial past into an oppressive present
Growing up, Eddie Bravo was taught to feel ashamed of his identity. Not the Guatemalan Filipino part — the queer part. “My father was very much in line with the machismo mentality,” he says. Bravo wasn’t interested in cars or repairing the roof — he’d much rather be playing with dolls or hanging with the girls around the way — but he learned to do those things, out of fear that he’d get punished.
He wasn’t alone. Bravo, now 30, says that for many boys of color, feminine traits are often met with the threat of punishment, particularly corporal punishment. “The idea that I’m going to scare you, or beat you, so you feel fear anytime you even have an idea that may be feminine — that definitely played a role in my socialization,” he says.
While women are undoubtedly affected by machismo, men who deviate from conventional masculinity are more likely to be categorized as feminine, or “other,” and subjected to gender violence. Those who exist as transgender, nonbinary, or elsewhere along the gender spectrum remain at higher risk, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean; without legal or state protections, there’s little recourse for victims, and gender-based crimes often go unreported or ignored.
“If you’re really feminine, you’re often rejected. If you’re really masculine, you have like this currency. What plays into that often is color, so that idea of color currency within queer spaces.”
“This is really tied to colonial practices, at least for the Latinx and Latin American performance of it,” says Roxana Blancas Curiel, a postdoctoral fellow teaching at Williams College. According to Curiel, scholars generally view machismo as one of two reactions to colonization. In one, indigenous groups adopt machismo as a response to being emasculated by colonizers; in the other, they use it to mirror their colonizers, and assimilate better into colonial rule. In either case, she stresses the ideology is embedded in concepts of nationhood, manhood, and citizenship, forming a deeply ingrained cultural identity.
Even in the United States, away from its colonial roots, machismo continues to enforce gender roles and expectations. For Cristo Braz, a nonbinary, genderqueer creative professional in New York, the effects are felt daily, particularly in the dating world. “We internalize so many rules: Who we go on a date with, who we find attractive, who we find sexy,” they say. The 28-year-old, who is of Guyanese and Brazilian descent, recounts a recent date with someone who openly exchanged information with a “macho,” more masculine-presenting man. “I’m too damn femme for him,” Braz says. “Those that exhibit the most machismo are the most desired.”
Eddie Bravo has also seen this at play, witnessing the rejection of men who are more feminine, or more gender-variant. “If you’re really feminine, you’re often rejected,” he says. “If you’re really masculine, you have this currency.” But there’s more, he adds: “What plays into that often is color.” Like machismo, colorism has colonial roots; proximity to Whiteness grants a person a range of privileges, from romantic desirability to professional and financial opportunities.
Claudio Cabrera was always aware of his appearance amidst other Latinx men, particularly Dominicans. Dark-skinned, the Black Dominican American media professional still gets questions about his identity. However, Cabrera’s father, who is also dark-skinned, instilled pride in their complexion and identity. That spirit extended to gender roles as well; both of Cabrera’s parents cooked, cleaned, and ironed, making theirs an unconventional household in the Dominican American community. But machismo still cast a shadow over Cabrera’s dating life, causing him to view light-skinned women as a status symbol and the standard by which he measured beauty. “In Dominican culture, you’ll see that a lot of the women that men pursue are lighter,” he says. “They pursue them not just because of what they may like, but because of what pressures they may feel and what the ideals of beauty are like.”
Machismo manifests in numerous ways, both subtle and explicit. Women, men, children, gender-nonconforming individuals, and those with an orientation outside strict heterosexuality can all fall victim to machismo. Although the oppressive ideology has existed for centuries, many remain hopeful that it will be dismantled. Cabrera is one; now 35, he’s challenging his lifelong conditioning with therapy and consistent reflection. “I grew up so maligned for being dark that I needed someone to confirm what my own eyes saw which was beauty,” he wrote in a recent Instagram post.
Curiel calls for broadening our understanding of gender, so respect is in place for all identities. “It’s about understanding that masculinity and femininity are not fixed identities or inherent sets of traits,” she says. “These are performances, daily decisions, and presences that we enact for ourselves and for others. And we have to detach it from a patriarchal understanding.”
That detachment is underway, thanks to women in some of the most dangerous circumstances in Latin America and the Caribbean. The extreme brutality women incur at the hands of men in countries like Bolivia, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic — the nations with the highest rates of femicide — have sparked women-led movements calling for policy changes and protections across the region. “Feminist collectives have been forming throughout Latin America over the past 10 years, but they are gaining momentum right now,” says Curiel. “They realize that if we do not protect ourselves, our governments are not going to do it.”
Yet, as Curiel says, “our allies need to realize that it’s not only about women. This affects all lives.” Chilean feminist art group Las Tesis says as much in “Un violador en tu camino”(“A rapist in your way”), a performance piece protesting gender-based violence: “Y la culpa no era mía, ni donde estaba, ni cómo vestía,” its members chant. “And the fault wasn’t mine, nor where I was, nor how I was dressed.” For thousands of years, machismo has bloodied victims; the only way it’ll end is if all of us stand up to the bully in our culture’s subconscious.