After witnessing one of the many moments when my step-father was beating on my mother, I decided to stand up for my mom and for us. Shit, if she wasn’t gonna fight back, I would. After all, I was becoming el hombre de la casa, the man of the house. I was working and helping to pay the bills, so handling my step-father felt like one of my responsibilities, too.
I pushed him out of the door and on his way out he screamed, “Si tu eres un hombre, baja conmigo!” If I was a man, he said, come down with him. He challenged me to a fight.
Down in the lobby of my building, I watched as he unbuttoned his shirt and rolled up his sleeves, egging me on to come out and fight him in the January snow. I saw anger and pain in his eyes.
I don’t know what stopped me from engaging him. I was already taller than most at 14, and I was confident that I could have held my own. What I believe kept me from losing myself that night is the same thing that has inspired my growth as a man today. I now realize machismo, like any facet of patriarchy, destroys boys and men.
I now realize machismo, like any facet of patriarchy, destroys boys and men.
Machismo is a term used within Latinx communities, which describes an exaggerated expression of masculinity. It’s a consequence of patriarchy that reinforces male dominance over women and femme people—a dominance that renders them dependent on men for all of their needs. Men are socialized to rule, fight, control and win. And in Latinx communities, these ideas, which render men as the dominant figure in and out of the home, is accepted by many. It shouldn’t be.
Machismo in Latinx culture allows for an all-out assault on the emotional, gender and sexual expressions of men. If one displays too much emotion, he must be a pendejo (e.g. a punk). If he exhibits a good knack with the ladies, que bacano! (the man!); and if the opposite is true, he is a labeled a maricon (faggot). To survive, we are forced to adapt and conform, or risk, acceptance by our peers and families. Trust me, I know.
Machismo in Latinx culture allows for an all-out assault on the emotional, gender and sexual expressions of men.
I grew up between Washington Heights and the Bronx, N.Y. My upbringing wasn’t unlike that of many other kids in my neighborhood. Many of us were raised by single mothers who worked long shifts to make sure we had enough platanos to go with that Chef Boyardee. In some cases, whether by necessity or convenience, we also filled the role of de facto husbands, fathers, and confidantes. In all cases, many of us were encouraged to act as if we were men while we were boys. We were forced to mature before we had any understanding of manhood.
I learned how to perform masculinity directly, and indirectly, by observing the men in my life. I also absorbed lessons from my mother. She is an incredible human being and the strongest person I know. She worked tirelessly to provide my siblings and I with all that our hearts desired. A very loving, progressive, spiritually-grounded woman, her strength at times manifested in a form of tough love. I recognize now that that was her way of raising a man. Her lessons in tough love were an effort to overcompensate for the absence of a positive father-figure in our home, but what I needed was a softer love.
The hurt male psyche is a reminder of the fractured, neglected boyishness that so many Latinx men may have lived through. As adolescent boys, we were taught not to cry and “man up.” We were encouraged to numb our pain in ways that lead to our emotional repression—a violent hardening process that extinguished the light, vulnerability and empathy we might lack as men. Which of us are still boys running around in grown men’s bodies?
The hurt male psyche is a reminder of the fractured, neglected boyishness that so many Latinx men may have lived through.
To this day, I struggle to show emotion, though I am a very sensitive man. I am afraid of intimacy for fear of being hurt. I have contributed to the destruction of love because of my misguided sense of righteousness. But I have grown and I’ve learned to accept my flaws.
I have opened my heart to give and receive love. I’ve also forgiven myself and others for instances in which we didn’t recognize the godliness in one another. I’ve learned that just because you don’t subscribe to traditional gender roles, it does not mean that you aren’t machista, a male chauvinist. Knowing how to cook and clean for yourself is no excuse for your homophobia and womanizing. Just because you don’t call a woman a “bi—” or a “hoe,” does not excuse your behaviors when you treat her that way. The subtle ways in which we tolerate harmful actions are just as damaging as its visible displays.
My step-father’s anger and his treatment of my mother was a result of his inability to express his deepest pain. Perhaps he didn’t know how to, or was never given the space to do so. My mother’s tough love was her way of preparing me to face the harshness of a world that does not embrace young Black boys. Perhaps she put up with an abusive man because on some level she had no choice but to take the “good with the bad.” Both were victims of a culture that normalized their behaviors. It is our responsibility to change that narrative.
Here is our challenge: we must begin to establish new rites of passage for young men that embrace vulnerability, intimacy, and sensitivity. Maybe we need something other than rites or norms that boys are forced to adhere to? Maybe we need the freedom to become the best version of the humans we know ourselves to be? Maybe we don’t need passages, traditional routes to travel, but instead require space to maroon, to break free altogether?
Maybe we don’t need passages, traditional routes to travel, but instead require space to maroon, to break free altogether?
But I do know we deserve to not lose our playfulness, innocence, and curiosity, virtues that constitute healthier forms of masculinity. I know we need to stop telling boys to man up and hold their tears. I know that we must help boys understand the beauty and equity present in potential partnerships with girls, instead of encouraging them to look at girls as objects to conquer in the home, on the streets, in the club, at the church house, and workplace. I know they deserve examples of what healthy relationships look like. And I know that men must reinforce the importance of respect for others and ourselves.
It’s okay for boys and men to FEEL. If we can agree with that point then perhaps we can continue healing ourselves and begin breaking down the negative effects of machismo and patriarchy.
Jason Rosario is a Social Entrepreneur, Cultural Creative, and Founder of The Lives of Men.