Machismo (n)

Having an unusually high or exaggerated sense of masculinity. The belief in the right to dominate and control, including, but not limited to, control over women. 

A sign in a small town somewhere in Latin America
A sign in a small town somewhere in Latin America

This term has been used in many different and contradictory ways. Some individuals might disagree with the above definition of the term machismo, but the word itself has been a central concept when discussing the roles, status, rights and responsibilities of men and women primarily in Latin America. I remember the first time I told a Latino friend that I was a feminist. He stared at me with a confused glance and ask Que es eso? In his mind the basic principle of gender equality seemed preposterous; women were meant to be mother’s and caregivers. 

During my time in Chile I used to joke with other female friends about the “caveman” mentality that many Chilean men had adopted. Me man, me take what me want as he drags the woman kicking and screaming into this cave by her hair. SOME Latino men can be aggressive. Period. Female travelers must either to adapt or they should skip Latin America, although that would be an incredible shame.

The sign says: machismo kills.
The sign says: machismo kills.

Latin American countries are very different from one another but as someone who has lived in Panama and Chile while also traveling to Rio and Buenos Aires, I can say that my experience with machismo has been quite similar. In fact, my time in Panama made me desensitized to cat calls as I would hear whistles on a daily basis when walking down the streets with the occasional oye mami thrown into the mix. Some men have even attempted to grope me and were extremely amused when I spun around angrily. These men often revel in their ability to make gringa’s annoyed.

However, machismo becomes increasingly more dangerous once the sun goes down and alcohol is added to the mix. The men I met at the clubs in Buenos Aires and Santiago did not like to hear the word no uttered to them; in fact, many of them would interpret it as a not now, but try harder. The polite no thank you I adopted from my time spent in clubs in Ottawa and Toronto had to be changed into an aggressive and borderline crazy expression when men crossed the line. And they did. Men would grapple at my arms, grab my face and try to kiss me and touch my butt in an attempt to “win me over.” If I showed any expression of discontent at their advances, I was often seen as crazy. LOCA GRINGA ESTUPIDA!

A protest in Brasilia. Sign says: my body, my rules.
A protest in Brasilia. Sign says: my body, my rules.

And then after almost being punched by a local in Panama, I decided to review my gringa ways. Below is my personal gringa guide to dealing with machismo: 

  • Don’t poke the bear! Many girl’s might tell you that Latino men will never hit a woman, that is not true. Machista men must protect their manliness and they do not tolerate being undermined or belittled by a woman. They can react in two ways; laugh it off while calling you filthy names or put you in your place with a hearty slap or punch. Either way, it is not a pleasant experience. The second problem is that if you are assaulted by someone, most of the time police will not be able to help you. 
  • Always dress appropriately. If you are uncomfortable with the cat calls and unwarranted creepy attention than dress down. Avoid tight fitting clothes, short shorts or anything too revealing. Think classy with just a touch of sexy.
  • Be EXTREMELY weary of your surroundings and never get black out drunk. An acquaintance of mine went to a club with her brother who ditched her after finding a girl. She ended up getting so drunk that she almost was abducted by three strange men outside the club. Thankfully a friend intervened, but that situation could have turned ugly very quickly. Men (whether Latino or gringo) prey on drunk girls in the club because their actions will probably have no repercussions. In the end, it is easy for them to disappear, so they cross numerous lines to get what they want. Never leave a club with someone you just met. At the same time do not rely on friends or family to carry you home after a hard-night of partying. Your friends and siblings are also on vacation and certainly do not want to take care of your drunk arse. Smarten up and stay in control. 
  • Be wary of freebies. A friend of mine recently told me a story about her time in Nicaragua where a gringo boy offered to walk her back to the hostel because he himself was bored of the club. His “good intentions” were a cover to get her to sleep with him and when she refused his advances, he complained… a lot. It actually reminded me of a time in Canada when I met a boy at a bar who offered to walk me home and spent the whole night trying to guilt me into sleeping with him. As a result this rule can apply to gringos and Latinos. Don’t trust men you’ve just met; they may have ulterior motives. It really is a 50/50 chance: yes they might just be really nice guys, but at the same time they might not be. Their motives are also easier to decipher when you are sober as your judgement skills will probably start to falter after each drink. In the end, take that extra two second to assess the situation and try to make an informed decision. 
  • Don’t be polite. In Buenos Aires my cute-as-a-button friend tried to fend off men by smiling a naive smile while saying no. This was interpreted as a yes by three different males who then, without even a word, grabbed her face and started to make out with her. No means no; say it like you mean it and don’t take crap from anyone. They might swear at you and call you crazy but at least they will leave you alone.

In the end, not all Latino men are machista and those that are macho are extremely easy to spot. Remember to keep your guard up and assess the situation before befriending or trusting anyone you meet. Also remember that even if you take all the precautions sometimes stuff happens. When living in Panama I was still cat called when I walked down the street with greasy hair and sweatpants. Sexy or frumpy, I was still being harassed. Sometimes, your best efforts are not good enough and that’s ok. NONETHELESS, I often would recommend that gringos remember that different rules apply in different countries; sometimes it’s better to adapt than to face the consequences.

27 Comments

    1. Machism is fascism…but femminism is communism!

      Haha, all jokes aside, this is a very important topic you bring up. At least here in Mexico, the extreme version of machismo is (in modern times) confined to the lower classes.

      In the upper classes a very strange phenomena takes place where there is an implied machismo in the sense that the wife’s role is to serve as a plus one to the husband and is actually forbidden from working. Violence doesn’t always have to be physical to qualify as abuse.

      I believe that it is the middle class the one that support gender equality the most since both husband and wife work hard to raise their shared social and economic status.

      Just my two cents 🙂

      1. If you lived in the begining of the 20th century, you could say that to a Brisith suffragette: Many of them became members of the weak British Union of Fascists, and yes, they were feminists.

        What about the modern concept of “verbal” domestic violence, which puts to jail men for … criticising their wives? Isn’t that a form of fascism? Isn’t censorship a main characteristic in fascist regimes?

        Personly, I do not think the controvertial term “feminazi”, used by the pertinent masculinist movement, is that wrong, specially when it advocates discrimination of men, or even the physical elimination of men.

        1. Feminism includes men in the conversation 🙂 It is not about discriminating against men or eliminating them.

    1. I have been grabbed, groped, called horrible names, etc. on my university campus (Queen’s University) and in the downtown area of that city (Kingston, Ontario). And this was all done by, um, gringos. I am a woman of colour, so many white men take that as an invitation to make inappropriate and offensive remarks and become physically aggressive. I know a lot of women who have been physically and sexually assaulted here, but it is this dirty little secret that many people (including the university administration–we don’t even have a sexual assault crisis centre on campus) want to sweep under the rug. I also find there is a lot of ignorance surrounding feminism here–people mock it without really understanding what it is and that it means different things to different people (I would also point out that MANY Latinas and Latinos perform important feminist work in their own communities–feminism is hardly something foreign to them). A girl was recently attacked on campus after receiving numerous threats about her feminist activism. We need to attack patriarchy everywhere.

      1. I understand this point. However, this article wasn’t meant to address patriarchy. As a Canadian woman who traveled to Latin America and lived in South America, I found that men were more aggressive than what I was used to. These articles are meant to provide tips on how to spot machista and how to deal with it – not fight it.

        I did a thesis about feminist movements in Chile and I spoke with a lot of Latinos/Latinas that perform important feminist work in their own communities. I don’t disagree with that. Machismo exists. And these are just some tips on how you deal with it.

        1. You perspective relates to me how so many attitudes are unchanging with men and are evolving with women. It does begin in the home however we all have a chance to change our spots. Every time I go out with certain friends they are always wanting to meet women. It never works out for them. I know to simply be. Be a little quiet, be some what still and be myself. Women are drawn to me and they initiate the conversation. Machismo/agression prevents women from feeling comfortable. I believe it is a part of natural selection where men reduce potential partners by being idiots.

          1. I agree. This is not a Latino issue. The right to feel respected and empowered, as a woman, is not something that should be diminished anywhere! I live in Ohio (very blue collar, very working class state) and I went to a private college. Once, against my better judgement I went to a campus party where a guy (named, KCole, who actually looked every bit the part of a perfect skinhead) cornered me, and accused me of being thirsty for “Massa’s big wht —-“. He grabbed my face and licked me from chin to temple. After physically defending myself, I reported it to the Dean. He, and his co-Klansmen lied, and said that previously (at the party) I’d claimed to taste like cocoa. No one should HAVE to be a “feminist” in order to command respect. Every person who respects themselves AND Others, merits like treatment. The word “feminist” should not even have to exist. It’s men like this all over the world who force you into a mentality where you feel compelled to defend yourself and your rights, even when they are NOT under attack.

      1. thank you for speaking on this elle, i agree. patriarchy must be fought wherever we encounter it.

    1. Honestly this is one of the aspects that puts me off travel in Latin America, India and the Middle East. I felt VERY objectified when I visited Egypt (about a decade ago) and it really ruined my experience in the country. It’s hard to go from somewhere were you feel respected as a woman and then be treated like a piece of propety.

      1. You made a real good choice, unfortunately for many of us we don’t have any choice because we just born in here…

    1. This is such an important topic that people don’t pay much attention to, I think!

      I’ve never really experience the horrible side of machismo because I had a boyfriend who would always protect me, but even when I was with him, I would always feel as if people undress me with their eyes… Only once my boyfriend left me alone in the street for 10 minutes, when he was parking the car, and I got 3 inappropriate offers from strangers..

      It’s tough to be a woman in South America!

    1. I agree with you when you said not all Latino men are machista. I also think wherever you go, there will be men who behave like idiots.

      1. It wasn’t the intention when she said it, don’t try to make relative what it cannot be. 90% of this occurrences are in south america you rarely would have such problems in Canada for example.
        Don’t try to tamper this topic.

    1. I’ve been planning and debating whether or not I want go an upcoming solo trip to Latin America. Being a solo traveler and having studied Latin American History the machismo culture is one of the huge negatives that has been throwing me off. Even after reading this article I am conflicted. Thank you for writing this, and making me aware of the situation and how best to deal with it. I guess I need to throw away my polite Canadian tendencies and get aggressive 😉

    1. This be useful for when I go to Latin America someday. It is sad to read this, I didn’t think this kind of machismo existed in that part of the world, esp being so close to the US and all. But will keep it in mind.

    1. Unfortunately this behavior can happen no matter what the culture. Number one rule is be aware of your surrounding.

      1. No its not, its a south america and other third world aspects you cannot understand.

    1. We’re in Peru just now and luckily have not experienced this but that may be because I am with Craig and have not worn make up in a while… jokes aside, my friend had a horrific experience on the train in Mexico City where men in business suits felt it was appropriate to touch her up. She was told she should have used the ‘female carriage’. WTF?!

    1. It’s always so frustrating to see this kind of behavior. I have a hard time not being friendly, but it’s good to remember that in these types of situations a friendly no doesn’t cut it. Good list of tips to help deal with the situation!

      1. I do agree. No, doesn’t work. Sometimes you really have to be aggressive so that they can get the hint!

    1. Unacceptable behavior. No way around it.

      Just as a counter point, have you had positive experiences with men in Latin America? I’ve met plenty forward thinking men and woman in South America, especially in Brazil.

    1. Ah, I see you wrote SOME men. Yes that’s true. I’m sure you’ve had plenty of positive experiences as well. Hope tides turn in the future!

      1. I love Latin America, some of the people are the friendliest people I have ever met in my life. I did indeed write SOME men, who are just over the top. I felt safer in Brazil, primarily because I could blend in more easily. People thought I was Brazilian, so I was left a lone most of the time.

    1. Such a refreshing break from all the “top 10 to do in blabla”. This is important. It is sad that we still have to debate over it – but also true that all women NEED to accept the fact that the world and its cultures are different and act accordingly. I’m from Italy, indeed a first world country, but you have to know that if you wear tight clothes and show a lot of skin, you will get catcalled and will feel uncomfortable. It’s your choice.

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