Machismo and the Cost of Culture

Joanna Psaros

3 April 2020

Photo by Danielle Psaros, 2015. Guatemalan ‘chicken’ buses..

Sometimes, being a woman in Australia can unequivocally suck.

There’s the gender pay gap, domestic violence rates, sexual harassment- and having to engage in the same tired debate with a certain class of man about whether these inequalities even exist. 

None of these problems are to be discounted or minimalised. But most of us are privileged enough to never experience the reality for women in Guatemala; a country where it is so dangerous to be a woman that a U.S court considered the question of whether Guatemalan asylum seeker Lesley Perdomo should be allowed to remain in the US on the grounds that women in Guatemala were a protected social group with a “well-founded fear of persecution.” For context, this standard of persecution would be met by the social group of LGBTQI people in Iraq, where homosexuality can be met with torture and murder.

Antigua, Guatemala’s old capital and cultural hub, is one of the most strikingly beautiful towns in Latin America. Host to almost two million tourists per year, the town is characterised by its Spanish colonial architectural that contrasts with the brightly coloured traditional textiles laid out for sale at the steps of crumbling churches. A triad of volcanoes tower behind the surrounding mountains and sometimes on a clear night lava can be seen emitting from Fuego, the most active.

Roxana has lived here her for her whole life. She is 41 years old, works full time, has a husband and “four beautiful children.” But Roxana is aware of her good fortune. When asked what dangers Guatemalan women are faced with, she lists domestic violence, kidnapping of children and rape. 

“The first male chauvinists in Guatemala are women- we poorly educate our children by telling them that man is the boss, that the woman must serve him, and that she must put up with everything.” 

What Roxana describes can be summed up in one word- machismo.

It’s difficult for Australians to understand exactly what machismo culture means, and how pervasive it is. It is not a direct translation of the word macho, nor is it exactly our stereotypical view of masculinity (though there are certainly overlaps). It is also difficult to generalise local attitudes towards machismo. The reactions of women asked ranged from outrage to casual acceptance. 

What’s simpler is to describe the behaviours- incessant catcalling, public groping, flirting with young girls in school uniforms (a practice which, it was observed, was enthusiastically adopted by an American expat). 

These were incidences witnessed firsthand in the wealthiest, safest, and most tourist-friendly part of Guatemala. But like most abuse, the worst of machismo’s effect is far less overt. 

“Most of us have to live in silence so when someone hits us or screams at us we just close our eyes and let it go,” says Guatemala City’s Rebecca Lane (quoted in BBC News)

“We are being killed by our own fathers, brothers, stepfathers…the very people who are supposed to care for us.”

This is no exaggeration. 

Guatemala has the third highest rate of female murder (or femicide) in the world.

It’s predicted that 21.2% of women in relationships will experience physical or sexual relationship from a partner in their lifetime. 

Finally, within what are known as the Northern Triangle of Central American countries (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala), a staggering 95% of homicides are estimated to go unpunished. 

It’s difficult to reconcile these facts with the overwhelming amount of kind, respectful men encountered in Guatemala. It would be absurd to suggest that the existence of a machismo culture means that Guatemalan men as a group are more likely to be violent or misogynistic. What it does suggest is that culture- part of which being the way we judge the behaviour of offenders and respond to the needs of victims- shapes the way society functions. Machismo culture promotes the dominance of men over women, thus subtly encouraging a lack of consequences for men that hurt women, and a lack of visibility toward women hurt by men. 

And if that doesn’t sound familiar, you haven’t been paying attention. 

In response to a 2005 newspaper survey, half of all respondents answered that their ideal women was “meek, docile, sweet and submissive.” Unfortunately for them, Guatemalan women are anything but. In October 2020 a breaking point appeared to be reached. Women led protests against gender violence sparked by the death of university student in Guatemala City, which quickly spread across the country. Elsewhere in the country’s northern highlands, indigenous rural women are fighting to enforce the land rights they have been denied for decades.   

Maria, 35, believes that the culture is improving as society, especially in the cities, changes and more women enter the workforce. “That helps to fight machismo, because they [female workers] can understand there is more to life.” But essentially it’s Guatemalan women’s own cultural that is the most powerful force for change. What makes Guatemalan women unique, says Maria, is “their strength to overcome hardship.”

Finally, what is the bets piece of advice that Maria’s mother gave her?

“Don’t get married to a machista guy.”


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