Machismo and the Reaction Formation of the Mexican Man
Américo Paredes, in his 1971 article “The United States, Mexico, and Machismo” (Marcy Steen, trans.), defines the macho as “the superman of the multitude,” a “national type” by which Mexico, as a nation, is often classified (Paredes 215). Through this decidedly folklorist definition, Paredes makes machismo out to be an aspiration handed down from generation to generation of Mexicans in the laments of songs “addressed to a woman who has gone away with another man ‘who is no doubt more of a man than I am’” (215-216). There is no contesting that machismo, as a stereotypical yet identifying characteristic of the Mexican man, exists within Mexican folklore, but Paredes debates its source. Does Mexican machismo stem from the conquest of Native Mexicans by Cortés, which he seems to dismiss as Freudian nonsense, or, from a more sociological-folklorist perspective, is the manifestation of the macho a reaction to the repetitive subjugation of the Mexican people and culture?
Paredes declares that if machismo sprung from the rape of some Indian women by some Spaniards, then it is “very ancient indeed” (216). However, the symbolic rape of Mexico — and what is folklore, if not the internal symbols of a culture — proves more alluring of an explanation. The denigration, desolation and destruction of Mexican culture that was perceived by its members as generous, stoic, heroic and brave — what Vicente Mendoza calls “authentic machismo” — perverted it into a nation guilty of imitating the false and paradoxical character of the American frontiersman. In other words, the respectable Mexican man who wielded a knife with swift and deft cunning was made a fool by the long-range American danger of the Colt .45; this was enough to equate the image of the Mexican with that of the savage American Indian.
The only way for the proud Mexican man to compensate was to bite the bullet, react, and defend himself with his own revolver in his own hands. The pseudo-historian Walter Prescott Webb, according to Paredes, “recognized the Mexican as an ‘artist with a knife’ … since it is part of the tradition of machismo in the United States to scorn the man with the knife, who is always given the role of coward and traitor” (229). The original, real role of the Mexican macho was exactly the opposite. A hegemonized people like the American Indians before them, Mexican men had no choice but to accept the American ideal of the manly backwoodsman and adapt it to suit their own essential need to be seen as true, brave and above all, Mexican.
In his criticism of American machismo, Paredes adeptly cites the Jacksonian nationalistic movement, with the pelt-adorned, rifle- and pistol-wielding backwoodsman at its center, as the genesis of American Manifest Destiny. The American macho embraces nature but only as his manifest destiny, spreading the seed of the nation throughout the untouched land without any actual appreciation for the artistry of the natural world. Nor does the frontiersman appreciate the technology of his firearm, but only that it exists; he does not care from whence it came, even though it was often produced by the people and in the places he learned to despise, meaning by intellectuals in the East. The residents of the former colonies were weak, unmanly and European; but their products were phallic symbols of the best a man, a real man, could be.
This paradox is not the only conundrum to which Paredes alludes. Citing Cervantes’s Don Quijote as evidence, he affirms that the noble knife of the Mexican held a place much closer to true machismo in the hearts of Mexican soldiers in the early 17th century. Paredes also offers the example of the gaucho of Martín Fierro who wields ‘“the one that never misfires’ in his hand” (230). However, on the subject of the essence of machismo in native Mexican knife-fighting and in the colonial American firearm, Paredes postulates that “if we are gun-toters ourselves, we cannot accept such a judgment. … The knife was made the weapon of the renegade, of the coward; the pistol became the weapon of the macho, the brave man. … [I]t agrees with the tendency to change an unpleasant reality by inverting it, the very thing that is at the base of machismo” (230).
This inversion of reality is not unique to Mexico, as Paredes clearly shows with his parables of Theodore Roosevelt’s conquest of the western frontier. However, as much as he denounces Freudian Oedipal theories concerning the origin of Mexican machismo, Paredes’s summoning of a sociocultural meta-reality may be a chink in his armor. He states that to psychologists, “we owe but superficial references to Mexican folksong and other folkloric genres” (216), but the concept of changing reality to suit one’s needs sounds quite Freudian indeed. In psychoanalysis, believing the opposite of what one perceives as the truth because reality causes anxiety is a defense mechanism called “reaction formation.” If Paredes was searching for a universal link to Mexican machismo, he may have found it in an unlikely place. This reaction formation in response to the colonial and hegemonic efforts of the United States in the 19th century might have resulted in precisely what Mendoza calls the “false machismo:” “[s]upermanliness that conceals an inferiority complex” (216).
This false machismo was accepted and formed into stereotype by American propaganda. Brash, insensitive, foolish and reckless, the American stereotype of the Mexican macho truly came to fruition in subjugated Mexican culture during World War II. Paredes describes corridos from the 1940s that illustrate the style of this false, manufactured machismo:
¡Traigo me cuarenta y cinco I’m wearing my forty-five
con sus cuatro cargadores! with its four cartridge clips!
¡Y traigo cincuenta balas, And I carry fifty bullets;
las traigo pa’ los traidores! they are for renegades!
¡Caramba, yo soy su rey Caramba, I am your king,
y mi caballo el segundo! and my horse is second only to me!
¡Ora se hacen a mi ley Now you will bow to my law,
o los aparto del mundo! or I’ll send you from this world! (221)
These corridos appealed to Mexican middle- and lower-class, whom Paredes later describes as those who might own guns, had they the political clout (221), or those who might play “the dozens” with others to determine who was more macho (223). Paredes does determine a link to the past here with examples of macho-esque tales from Eskimo and Nordic cultures (222-223) in addition to the American backwoodsman, whom he holds responsible for the recent “inversion of reality” in Mexican machismo. In fact, Paredes states that the “North American bully… is the spitting image of the Mexican pelado making out as the bravo from Guadalajara or the panther from Guanajuato” (224). He is the ruffian embracing his lower-class self as a deposed man less macho than his cultural conqueror. Paredes sums up the plight of the Mexican would-be macho, unable to protect his people or his country with purely Mexican devices: “Harassed, dispossessed by the man with the gun, the Mexican lost no time in wishing to be a man with a gun also” (232). American machismo — and siding with the loathed gringos — was the Mexican man’s only working mechanism to save his manliness.
Paredes, A. (1971). “The United States, Mexico, and Machismo” (M. Steen, Trans.). In R.
Bauman (Ed.), Folklore and Culture on the Texas-Mexican Border (pp. 215-234). Austin: CMAS Books.