I was twelve years old, and a man on the street was already verbally harassing me. He looked at me as if I were a juicy steak instead of an innocent child.
We all know that sexism is a problem, that women have not gained the opportunities and rights demanded by feminists for decades. However, we tend to suffer from the misconception that the feminist cause has worked equally in many places, that little by little we have eliminated certain practices, and that we have a further understanding of what equality is and why we need it. For some of us, sexism encounters a bigger problem deeply rooted in our historical narrative, making any change nearly impossible: machismo.
Machismo is quite a singular word, for it’s not only defined as sexism or misogyny. Instead, it mostly refers to an attitude or conception that men are, by nature, superior to women. I’ve even heard people say that being a macho is positive because to be macho is to protect women. However, I’ve never understood this statement. Machismo reinforces the idea of women as second-class citizens whose rights and opportunities—even when included in public policies—are undermined in their households, in the streets, at school or work. It also perpetuates relations based on power and reflects the inequalities in the social, political and economic realm. It imposes specific ways of how to act and think, limiting female agency over their lives and bodies.
My mother wanted to be a Marine Biochemist. In order to pursue this course of study, she had to move to the north of Mexico. She thought my grandparents would encourage her to follow her dreams as they did with her brothers, who had the opportunity to study away from home. Instead, my grandmother suggested she should study a “short and easy” major so she could “settle quickly.” She believed that a woman studying a science career while living alone and away from home was something scandalous. My grandparents genuinely thought they were protecting her by not letting her go. My mother studied Marketing, and she’s now quite good at what she does. Nonetheless, she will never forget how awful it felt not being able to study something you love because “you are the little lady of the house.”
What is the outcome of this specific form of machismo? The latest set of data from the National Survey on Occupation and Employment showed that only 2 out of 10 engineers in Mexico are women. According to the AMMJE, Mexican working women destinate 70% of their salaries to their community and their household, while men only inject between 30 and 40% of their resources. Mexico remains one of the countries with the largest gender wage gap, being number 83 of 135 (WEF). Unsurprisingly, the WTO revealed that only about 4.2% of CEO positions in Latin America are occupied by females. The fact is that if at home we still make our children believe that women should not pursue the same careers as men or expect them not to be as independent, we won’t see any change in these statistics.
“Oye bonita, ¿vienes sola? Yo te puedo acompañar a donde quieras.” (Hey pretty, are you alone? I can accompany you wherever you want). I was twelve years old, and a man on the street was already verbally harassing me. He looked at me as if I were a juicy steak instead of an innocent child. I realized why my mother didn’t let me go out alone or wear short dresses or skirts in public spaces. Some months ago, I heard someone sitting at a family dinner say: “Let’s be honest, women dress with short and tight clothes, because they want to be noticed or complimented. I don’t understand why they feel offended if we look at them; it is inevitable.” I couldn’t believe someone from my family would say that, neither could I believe that others agreed on such a statement.
Every day in Mexico and all over Latin America, women have to put up with lascivious comments or other forms of street harassment. Catcalling is a universal issue, and countries like my own still joke about how to distinguish compliments and harassment. Machismo protects the aggressors by normalizing these conducts and not considering the implementation of consequences. A girl’s parents would teach her to be careful, to dress in a certain way to avoid harassers, to always walk with someone—preferably a male.
If for several decades women have become more politically empowered, why is machismo still preventing full integration? In fact, more political female representation is not a true sign of full equality. The social infrastructure is still fragile, while the superstructure has not met with a radical ideological change. Inequality is as real as ever. In 2011, Enrique Peña Nieto —the current Mexican president— was asked during an interview about the price of a kilo of tortillas. His answer was quick,“I am not the lady of the house, I’m sorry. I guess it must be around 18 pesos.” The fact is, important men wielding political and social power continue to stand by damaging narratives about women’s positions in society, making even more problematic the disconnection of men with day to day activities, like buying tortillas. Furthermore, this aggression was considered a funny but reasonable comment. Comments falling within this realm continue to discredit women in politics and in other dimensions of power.
My experiences are merely examples of how machismo works. I am not generalizing that all cases are the same; my sole intention is to introduce something as problematic as this into public conversation and awareness. Maybe you are a woman who can relate to any of these stories. Maybe you are a man who, without realizing, has contributed to machismo and made it harder for equality to actually happen. And maybe you are neither, you are a curious reader, a bystander. I just hope that after reading this you will worry as much as I do about the invisible practices feeding machismo on a regular basis. Machismo may not kill as quickly as a gunshot, but it is a silent and insidious torture.
Veronica Lira Ortiz is a visiting student at Yale University.