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Machismo is a word the English speaking world often hears when studying the Latin American world. The connotation is usually negative, its etymology traced to the Portuguese word, “masclo,” that derives from “mule.” The word is obviously a synonym for stubborn or foolhardy behavior, particularly in heterosexual activity. The “macho man” is regarded as a peacock, when he spreads his tail you must notice him. Once viewed with apprehension in the West, “macho man” is now more an object of ridicule than a man to be feared.
To understand machismo, you must examine the “exaggeration” involved in the machismo personality. Machismo-masculinity is often represented by a hairy chest creased by a gold-chain necklace, accompanied by none too subtle aggressive behavior backed by potential violence. The machismo man lets you know he can’t be intimidated. His bulging biceps and form-fitting T shirts tell the story. If you are unimpressed by his exaggerated male presence, the firmness projected in his clearly hostile eyes clarifies the matter.
Within his dim mentality, the machismo man has a flimsy conception that he represents the Don Juan of Spanish legend. History is not, despite the twisted form he takes, unknown to him. As did the ancient Mediterranean man, the modern Latin American machismo man supposedly believes in legal rights granted under Roman law: potestas (paternal power), manis ( women subordinate to a husband’s power), and tutelo, (guardianship.) In today’s world many Latin American nations still operate under one form or another of this heritage. The men have their place, the women their place. As the Spanish saying goes, “Men rule the street, women the home.”
To many historians, “machismo” can be traced to the Spanish Conquest. Undoubtedly, the Conquistadores introduced the good and bad of European chivalry; one reason a large percentage of those Conquistadores born along the Portuguese border in a dry inhospitable region named Extramadura, dreamt of an unsubstantiated idyllic New World. These daydreams helped them escape the dullness of a homeland of dirt and rocks, sprinkled here and there by a few huts. But it was not easy traveling to the new land of the West. A Conquistador, unless pursued by police, needed stoicism and endurance. Whatever the Spanish Conquistadores lacked, it was not toughness and endurance. Even for those raised on Hollywood films, the evidence of a hard, cruel man, such as Hernando Cortez (Cortés), leading a tiny band that brought to heel the Aztec empire, staggers the imagination. Despite little compassion and evident cruelty, Conquistadores, as a group, were as impressive as they were historically important.
The Spanish influence on machismo is a nuance of Spain’s long reign (and it was long. Cortes landed in Southern Mexico in 1519, and the last Spanish Viceroy left Mexico in 1821, meaning Spain ruled for over three centuries). But much of what the Spanish brought had already arrived in the New World, namely, feudalism. The great tribe of Mexico in the early l6th century was the Aztec, and they, like the Toltecs before them and the Mayans to the South, were feudal in structure.
The feudal native lords of the New World, although intensely religious, existed without interference from a central-like Papal power. Aztec rulers did not carry in their veins royal or divine blood, their aristocracy of nobles, warriors, priests, merchants, (they had many slaves, but they did not count as influence) earned by merit (merit is a dangerous word to use when interpreting those long-gone days, because the definition must include a major role played by astrology. What sign you were born under decided your future) There was not even a glimmer in Aztec culture of a definitive concept such as The Enlightenment, a set of ideas that soon altered every aspect of European society. The result, European hierarchy became more acceptable to the Aztecs than might otherwise been true.
Thanks to the copycat behavior of the common people, another value aiding the Spanish conquest was the Aztec noble’s rapid conversion to Christianity. The average Aztec imitated the nobles. For years religion had saturated Aztec life. Human sacrifices occurred on a daily basis. In fact, those human sacrifices well-known to modern man, have over-shadowed the rest of Aztec society. An example: Catholicism forbids men having mistresses, and yet after the Conquest, Aztec nobles continued collecting women, thus incorporating in an inverse time ratio what today is called, in so many words: “trophy wives.”
Aztec society suffered from Spain refusing to legalize their mistresses. Since most Indian marriages were political and economic in origin, this created identity confusion among the Aztecs. Despite this, the Aztecs stuck to their old system, something that encouraged machismo. The strong shall rule. Another example aiding the Conquest: homosexuality had been historically allowed within the Aztec priest caste.
Politically, the Aztec Emperor was chosen by the city council, a more up to date way of deciding a major political question than traditional European accession to a throne. The Aztec concept of empire was also not the same. Their Empire a system based on tribute, be it money, crops, or livestock. There were no fiefdoms. This had not exactly been the European experience.
The Colonial period abounds with paradoxes.The Spanish organized the "ecomiendas" where Indian men were assigned to do formerly female tasks. Instead of raising respect for women, the “ecomiendas” resulted in devaluing tribal women that had gained prestige by their skills, for instance women who wove textiles.
Generally, ideas emanating from “ecomiendas” confused the Aztecs. It encouraged them to ask: what is expected of us by the Spaniards? Confusing them as well were the often Spanish hypocritical sanctions against liquor. Moderate drinking had been an integral part of the Aztec belief system, and long before the Spanish arrived, according to Franciscan Friar Bernard de Saltagun, drunkenness incurred heavy penalties. The Aztecs did not need to be lectured about this. Something else they didn’t need, although the priestly case was exempted, there were laws against sodomy.
There were important restrictions against women, however, most were not allowed to serve in the military, nor become priests. In the school system, women in Aztec society, unless extremely gifted and of noble blood, were discriminated against by exclusion. The “calmecac” school trained priests and government officials, and did not train women. The school, “telpochcalli,” an important military academy, instructed future warriors, women were also not among them. However, a young warrior that failed to capture and hold for sacrifice an enemy, became castigated by the society’s young women, something that gave them a feeling of importance. The adults encouraged their mockery.
It must be stated that at the beginnings of the Colonial period, Aztec society had not become infused with machismo values, the immediate post-conquest period more ambiguous than clear cut. The Aztecs, working as farmers, merchants, and warriors, would later show by imitation how much Spanish romantic, sexual mores and folkways, impressed them. It took them awhile to realize the grace and lyricism of Spanish courtship, as well as the beauty and the romance of the Spanish ballad. What they did do when the Colonial Period began was seize upon the silly Spanish simplistic dichotomy of the two sexes: that there are two kinds of women, the mother, a Madonna like figure, and the whore.
The Aztecs came to believe absolute good and evil must be considered when evaluating women. The man is to look upon the mother (or a woman soon to be the mother of his children) as helpless and pristine. She must be watched over and protected. Other women, potential mistresses for example, are in essence, ladies of the evening.
Such an attitude, a machismo not tempered by Spanish grace, eventually took hold . Yet, as we have seen, the Aztecs did not discriminate against women nearly as much as did many societies. Women could still own real estate, make judicial appeals based on the need for justice, obtain divorce because of cruelty, and, although they were forbidden to remarry if the husband died, they could marry following a divorce.
There are theories that traditional Aztec sexual mores, in many ways, even favored women over men, a woman’s womb considered a magical instrument. Life began in the womb, to penetrate the vagina was similar to entering the world of the Gods. The sexual act, therefore, bordered on rape. This, according to the theory, meant machismo originated after the Conquest, when children of mixed blood began appearing. The children, called mestizos, were discriminated against by native and Spaniard alike. They had no identity. They were disowned, forced to make their own way by bravado. Those responsible for these births had to act defensively, minimizing the importance of the mestizo by trivializing its biological cause as a by-product of their superiority.
To sum it up, the machismo as is known in today’s world stems from the Spanish, and not the Aztec culture. Because of their many ritualistic deaths through sacrifice, the Aztecs have been reduced in the modern mind to blood thirsty savages. Movies and cheap fiction that portray religious rituals, do not delineate an accurate picture of Aztec daily life. This has led to a slanted view of women and men’s roles, that woven together, achieved a complicated society, one made all the more complex after the Spanish Conquest.
© James Morford April 2013
More on Cortes here
jamesmorford at hotmail.com
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