Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia: The Socioeconomic Origins of Machismo and the Macho

By Scott Berghegger
2009, Vol. 1 No. 11 | pg. 1/1

The simultaneous allure and repulsion of Mexican machismo belies its ambiguous nature as an identifying characteristic of the nation itself and as a phenomenon that some claim is unique to Mexico and others say is endemic throughout patriarchal societies worldwide. Macho behavior is defined as “vulgar language, sadistic insults, the utter degradation of women” (Peña 1991: 31), but a macho can also refer to “a real man, good drinker, lover, singer, fighter, brave and willing to defend what he believes in” (Stevens 1965: 849) and as a man who is “fuerte, feo y formal” (Najera Ramirez 1994: 9). The ideal Mexican man, according to folkloric interpretations, may incorporate elements of both these “bad” and “good” sides of machismo into their personality.

However, some scholars debate the authenticity of a chauvinistic Mexican machismo that is sprung internally from Mexican culture. Is the pejorative side of machismo an imaginary solution to a real problem? Is machismo simply a stereotype created by non-Mexicans — an example of names lending reality to things, as Paredes puts it — or a reaction to psychohistorical trauma of invasions by Spain and the United States? Or is machismo more than a label on bragging and the subjugation of women in a society crippled by economic despair?

A variety of answers stem from experts in sociology, psychology, anthropology and political science make the determination that the concept of Mexican machismo is quite palpable in the lives of Mexican men (and women) and that the stereotype of the brute macho, like most widespread cultural assumptions, came from a source outside Mexico. However, the most salient answer for the question of the source of true, non-stereotypical machismo is that of class struggle between middle- and working-class Mexicans and between Mexicans and their historical conquerors.

If the stereotype of the brash Mexican macho was created by foreign observers — especially white Americans from the 1910s through the 1940s — of the behavior of Mexican men, it certainly did not erupt from the idealized male figure of the charro cinemático. The charro, a man who symbolized masculinity through his dramatic feats of acrobatics and strength in the Mexican rodeo, was idealized in Mexican culture during the presidency of Porfirio Diaz. Diaz developed the idea of the charro into an “invincible national hero…. thoroughly integrated with the ideas of manhood, nationhood, and power” (Nájera-Ramírez 4). This power allowed any Mexican man who emulated the charros to assume a status otherwise unavailable to him due to centuries of subjugation by foreign entities: he, as the charro, was a man who bested animal and treacherous woman alike as well as represented his country as something stronger than the rest of the world perceived it to be.

However, in the 1940s, during the rule of President Manuel Avila Camacho, came a bevy of melodramatic, heavy-handed and heavy-hearted nationalistic films starring Diaz’s idealized image of the charro. These films coincided with a surge of Mexican national pride during World War II and featured such handsome stars as Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante. The actors in the films sang of alpha manliness, brazenly displaying their machismo through corridos, warning renegades of their cunning with pistols made in other countries (Paredes 1971: 221). Paredes calls these “moving-picture corridos” and claims that they aim at the middle class man, “a man who goes to the movies, has enough money to buy a car, and enough political influence to go around carrying a gun.”

True charros objected to the glamorized version of the macho in the movies. Yes, the charros fantásticos were “fuerte, feo y formal,” as the rodeo men supposedly were. But Negrete, Infante and the like were more photogenic than truly “feo,” brandished guns rather than ropes and sang canciones rancheras (known until the 1930s as canciones típicas mexicanas — Mexican folklore songs) to gain the sentiment of screen starlets and moviegoers. In addition, the creators of such charro films designed archetypal character flaws such as alcohol binges and violent outbursts — characteristics of the stereotypical Mexican machismo.

The charros of the screen sometimes used questionable tactics to achieve their goals, but right-minded people were more than willing to look the other way as the heroes fought their battles with wit, cunning and a little bit of deception (Nájera-Ramírez 5). Real-life charros were outraged, calling the scripts of such movies “glaring misrepresentations of the authentic charro’s moral character and tradition” (9). Not limited to film, the perversion of the pure nationalistic hero spread into the discourse of the working class — the concept of “charrismo” referred to “corruption, violence, and anti-democratic behavior,” and a charro came to mean a tyrant in everyday political dialogue (10).

The aura of the charro was further tainted by celluloid idealism because it removed the macho from the arena of the charreada, a showcase of talent that, in its early days, welcomed even the lowest laborers in the working class. In the charreada, the point of the competition was to “display abilities of strength, independence, and bravery. Consequently, charreadas were a means by which men of any social class might prove themselves to be worthy charros and thus greatly enhance their status as real men” (Nájera-Ramírez 3). By transforming the charro into a womanizing rogue who dominated both women and the Mexican audience, the nationalist films of the 1940s changed the requirements of the macho character and restricted those in the lower class from living up to the expectations of their culture’s overarching machismo.

Unlike the ambivalent middle class, who may not live in total comfort but are at least eligible “to carry a gun” in the literal and metaphorical senses, the Mexican lower class is not only subjugated by dominant nations but by dominant classes. Peña’s assertion that machismo folklore among the lower classes — which consists less of romantic, melodramatic national heroes and more of stories of women who get their just desserts — “legitimizes the oppression of women [and] plays an ideological role in class conflict” (Peña 30). In other words, lower class Mexican men, aware of the pressure to be macho but lacking the charm of the charros cinemáticos, affirm their dominance over women (and other men through games like “the dozens”) much more harshly and coarsely than Jorge Negrete’s firm yet noble grasp.

Charritas coloradas, or “red jokes,” cut to the heart of the lower-class Mexican man’s degradation of women in order to stress the superiority of his gender. The folkloric portrayal of women in the men’s jokes is entirely the opposite of the idealized faithful mother figure whose love will never expire. The treacherous women of machismo folklore are bold and licentious, characteristics strictly reserved for the unsatisfiable sexual dervish that is the Mexican man. The men lament that Chicanas are especially wild and “not even blows” could control them (33). One man states that “Chicanas are worse whores than hens,” evidence of a long-standing idea of superiority over Mexican-American women (33-34). Like Mexican men, Mexican women have their own culturally-dictated ideal to follow. Hembrismo, or extreme submission by females to males, is at work at the same time machismo urges men to seize power and show off their Mexican virility (Station 1972, Arrizón 1998). However, Peña suggests that there is more at work in the culture of charritas coloradas than gender dynamics. Insults, half-playful duels, fights and other characteristics of macho humor “could be interpreted as expressions of sexual deviance, interpersonal hostility, or even the psychocultural inferiority that Ramos and others have attributed to Mexican Men” (36).

The machismo culture, and often Mexico as a whole, is often diagnosed with an inferiority complex (Peña 38). Adler claims his diagnosis based on his assertion that “Mexico has copied indiscriminately American, French and British institutions and ideas without taking into account the Mexican circumstances of her mestizo culture” (Phelan 1956: 311). In the case of Dromundo’s Adelita, the gender dynamics of the play can be seen as a metaphor for “the manly power of a nation” subjugating the untamed wild (female) colony — i.e., the Spanish conquest or the United States’ dominance of the politics of North America (Arrizón 93). Samuel Ramos’s “mestizo psychology” presumes the existence of such a pathology as a national inferiority complex, evidenced by “[people] who take vital interest in all things and situations that signify power, and who demonstrate an immoderate eagerness to excel, to be first in everything” (Tuohy 1974: 293). However, a nationwide diagnosis of “the Mexican condition” in psychoanalytic terms such as “inferiority complex” or “reaction formation” may too easily ignore the historical and political conditions for the development of identity in Mexican men.

When social order breaks down and political institutions betray Mexican men who depend on their patriarchal society’s rationality to retain power, machos may return to the unconditional love of the pure, faithful mother figure, idealized in machismo (MacCoby 1967: 72). With the breakdown of formal order, the political macho, whether he plays Russian roulette, gambles on horse races or argues in court, must retreat — against all teachings of self-righteous, self-sufficient machismo — to the female, domestic aspect of society. Once thrust into a space with which he is unfamiliar how to control, he releases his aggression on his family, much in the same way as Peña’s orchard workers.

Peña theorizes that, “as a signifying system unique to working-class male culture, the folklore of machismo symbolically conflates class and gender by shifting the point of conflict from the public domain of the former to the domestic domain of the latter” (30). In other words, machos take it out on women because they cannot adequately take it out on their own corrupt political system. Another example is that of the patriarchal hacienda system, which “united men in their domination over women and fostered a paternalistic attitude towards those in lower levels” (Nájera-Ramírez 3). The Mexican government, one could say, is, in the eyes of a poor Mexican man, full of charrismo.

Still, while some authors make no distinction between lower- and middle-class machismo and others like Peña and Paredes take opposite sides as to the origins of the macho concept, through history appears two distinct kinds of machismo — what Mendoza calls “authentic” and “false” machismo, the former cast in courage and heroism, the latter in bombast and “supermanliness that conceals an inferiority complex” (Paredes 216). Even assuming the existence of these two types of machismo, there is disparity between the manliness of the middle class and that of the working class. The middle-class machos, who have the means to emulate the charming, educated charros cinemáticos, who always get the girl without even having to try but are also at the mercy of woman’s beauty, are the macho respetable. They represent the nation as an unquestionably proud Mexican man, skilled with wordplay and dominant in and out of his household (as long as he does not deign to cross the northern border) These are Paredes’s middle-class intellectuals who grapple for a national identity under the unofficial servitude of the United States; they build it through their own personal acts of machismo.

In the case of working-class Mexican men, the macho concept is more complex because, in addition to national and gender struggles, they are fighting class inequalities as well. Through their macho acts — cracking misogynistic jokes, pretend-dueling, insulting each other’s manhood — they create for themselves a position of power that their national folklore expects them to hold. Peña’s interviewees may take offense with Mendoza’s intellectual grandstanding — their machismo, while it may be an offshoot or completely different altogether from the chivalrous machismo of yore, is no more inauthentic than Negrete’s. In fact, they may argue that their own manly posturing is based more in reality than the folkloric aphorisms of courage, heroism and bravery on the imagined battlefield — they live the hard life of a Mexican peasant and have first-hand experience of what macho truly is.

Peña’s interviews with undocumented, working-class Mexican men in a California orchard embellishes the conscious struggle of lower-class men to assert their dominance over anything they deem less worthy than they, including women and Chicanos. Peña’s argument differs from Paredes’s in that Peña dismisses the idea of machismo being born and bred in the middle class through resentment toward American hegemony. “[T]he style of discourse in which macho folklore best flourishes … is more characteristic of working-class men than their middle-class counterparts,” systemic of a bully culture which fabricates its dominance over the weak in order to allay its members own feeling of powerlessness (Peña 31). Both theorists find evidence of bullying among competing social groups — Paredes between Americans and Mexicans and Peña between Mexican men and Mexican women — but the rough nature of modern machismo seems more comfortable growing in the field of Mexican laborers than in a bourgeois’s garden.

Either version of machismo nevertheless traps the Mexican man into a cycle of stereotypical behavior; that is, if a young Mexican receives praise by his colleagues or his culture when he debases women through words or action, he will most likely continue the behavior (in psychology, called social learning theory; Tuohy 296). This explanation of macho behavior gives a broader, psychosocial base to Paz’s idea of the solitude of the Mexican. Paz supposes that the Mexican traps himself in his own labyrinth through a denial of both native blood and conquest — he wishes to be born neither his Spanish father’s infiltrating seed nor his Indian mother’s racially-weak lineage. He is alone, without a family or heritage outside himself, the lack of which created through sheer denial. With no father or mother, the Mexican is autochthonous and an abstraction (Hoy 1982: 372). From a psychohistorical point of view, the macho’s behavior is reinforced by centuries of folkloric heroes, including Negrete, Cuauhtémoc and José Mosqueda (Tuohy 295; MacCoby 67; Paredes 191).

Peña offers an explanation that differs from the widespread psychoanalytic diagnosis and presents the condition of lower-class machismo as a reaction to the hegemonic political and social structures around them. From the injustice that male Mexican workers to which were victim and witness flowed resentment “like a powerful undercurrent in the stream of these undocumented workers’ culture. … I am not pointing here to inferiority complexes born of the rape of ancestral mothers by Spanish conquistadors … but to the daily adversities thrown up against the workers by an economic system that condemns them to perpetual struggle, impoverishment, and alienation” (Peña 39). These Mexicans in particular “view life as a scene of combat; the Mexican machismo is an armor of invulnerability to an alien world” (Hoy 372).

If Mexicans see life as a scene of combat, then it would perhaps be beneficial to explore a deliberately constructed arena suited for exactly that. Levi’s account of the world of lucha libre, or Mexican professional wrestling, echoes the behavior patterns of machos through masculine melodrama. If one were to ask the public what the archetypal figure of the American “macho” would be, many would answer that the bulky frame and arrogant, peacock-like parading of a professional wrestler would fit the bill. Despite the scripted, “fake” nature of the origins of the events in professional wrestling that keep its audience captive, many may ignore the fact that the participants are acting in a drama when assessing how manly they are. Are not all classifiable social roles scripted in the first place anyway?

If one is to assume so, then the idea that professional wrestling is corrupt is laughable at best — how can a play be corrupt? Instead, Levi posits the lucha libre as a drama about corruption. She goes on to claim that “the fundamental difference between professional wrestling and, say, soccer is not that one is drama and the other sport, but that as sports they represent different types of drama” (Levi 1997: 57). Lucha libre expresses sport — that is, competitive physical activity for the sake of entertainment — as melodrama, as opposed to the drama of the soccer match which, while it may produce a mildly interesting commercialized industry, has no overarching stories or personal vendettas between its “characters.”

The luchadores fit into one of two categories: rudos, the bad guys, and técnicos or científicos, the good guys. The folkloric aspect of the lucha libre is apparent — Barthes’s forays into the study of wrestling as a social phenomenon led him to treat it as a “demystified cultural form” (Levi 58). The rudos, who win the matches as often if not more often than the técnicos, are characterized by their gusto and passion and their willingness to break the traditional rules of the fair fight. Técnicos, on the other hand, tend to be seen training at the gym more often and defer to the authority of the referees. (The terms técnicos and científicos, when not applied to wrestling, are loaded with meaning; the former is a term for members of the technocratic wing of the PRI, the ruling governmental party in Mexico, and the latter refers to the “antinationalist villains” of standard Mexican history texts.)

Despite the ostensible civility of the técnicos, Levi says that the Mexican middle class is more likely to scoff at the melodrama of lucha libre than to be absorbed in its folkloric framework. “As representatives of the bourgeoisie,” she writes, “scholars and journalists alike refuse to recognize wrestling for what it is for the same reason they cannot afford to recognize the labor process in all its brutality” (60). However, Mexican laborers certainly understand the brutal nature of the labor process and thus are much more likely to respond to the violence, physical and verbal, of the wrestling ring. The gruff version of machismo is more readily available in wrestling than the smooth, womanizing type of the silver screen; the middle-class macho of Paredes and Mendoza simply does not understand the vulgarity of Peña’s working-class macho.

The connection to the mythology of machismo is apparent in the tenets of lucha libre: a folkloric battle of good against bad, posturing an exaggerated and extreme masculinity, and following a prescribed script are requirements of the luchadores as well as the charros and of Mexican men displaying their own overripe masculinity for friend, foe, woman and nation to see. The tension of the melodrama, and the tension between Mendoza’s two warring types of machismo, the authentic and the fake, comes from a classist assumption of a culture-wide inferiority complex. “In Latin America … the devaluating of melodrama is explicitly class-based rather than primarily gendered,” writes Levi (61). “The pleasure for the audience lies not in the triumph of good but in the representation of their worldview” (62-63).

So it follows from Levi’s and Barthes’s suggestions that if the status quo of the Mexican and/or Mexican-American labor and social systems are corrupt, those affected — especially machos — enjoy a fantastical representation of their world as opposed to an escapist view on entertainment. In other words, the Mexican concepts of lucha libre and machismo include an inversion of reality, but not in the way Americans and Europeans are used to seeing. While the higher-class intellectuals of America are praised when they create reality out of fiction (recall any movie, TV show or play that forms “reality” out of a scripted situation, such as the gamut of so-called reality TV shows), the luchadores create fiction out of reality, taking the class struggles of everyday Mexican men and fictionalizing them to a script only slightly more overt than that of a game of the dozens played by the most macho men in all of Mexico.

Even the men most representative of authentic machismo, whether the sophisticated middle-class type or the brutish working-class version, are wracked with a loneliness Octavio Paz and other researchers have elaborated all too eloquently. “[T]he distinguishing characteristic of machismo is not violence but intransigence. … he may, of course, have to resort to violence to impose his criterion. But men customarily take precautions against this eventuality by avoiding intimacy with others, abstaining from discussion controversial matters and leading a rather lonely life” (Stevens 849).

Men, and in particular macho Mexican men, are lost in the labyrinth of solitude, a ripple effect they must endure as victims of struggle between socioeconomic classes and between nationhoods decades after the Mexican Revolution and centuries after Spanish conquest. But why continue with the cycle of scripted machismo if the script is not true to the ideal Mexican man? Simply because the complex social world of men dictates that such scripts be played out for all to witness and judge. Machismo, like lucha libre, is a sport and a melodrama. “I believe one does it all for the sake of machismo,” states a working-class Mexican man who, in addition to working to sustain his family, must sustain himself in the constantly competitive sociopolitical world of men and nations. (Peña 43). “[It is] as if we have to prove that we are men.” And — through their everyday battles to be the best men they possibly can — they prove that they are not only men, but machos.

Arrizón, A. (1998). “Soldaderas” and the Staging of the Mexican Revolution. The Drama Review, 42(1), 90-112.

Hoy, T. (1982). Octavio Paz: The Search for Mexican Identity. The Review of Politics, 44(3), 370-385.

Levi, H. (1997). Sport and Melodrama: The Case of Mexican Professional Wrestling. Social Text, 50, The Politics of Sport, 57-68.

MacCoby, M. (1967). On Mexican National Character. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 370, National Character in the Perspective of the Social Sciences, 63-73.

Nájera-Ramírez, O. (1994.) Engendering Nationalism: Identity, Discourse, and the Mexican Charro. Anthropological Quarterly, 7(1), 1-14.

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.

Peña, M. (1991). Class, Gender, and Machismo: The “Treacherous-Woman” Folklore of Mexican Male Workers. Gender and Society, 5(1), 30-46.

Phelan, J.L. (1956). Mexico y lo Mexicano. The Hispanic American Historical Review, 36(3), 309-318.

Station, R.D. (1972). A Comparison of Mexican and Mexican-American Families. The Family Coordinator, 21(3), 325-330.

Stevens, E. (1965). Mexican Machismo: Politics and Value Orientations. The Western Political Quarterly, 18(4), 848-857.

Tuohy, W.S. (1974). Psychology in Political Analysis: The Case of Mexico. The Western Political Quarterly, 27(2), 289-307.

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