Yosimar Reyes began to notice machismo when he was a young man being raised by his grandmother.
“I saw it was my grandma who was always doing everything,” he says. “She thought that was her role.”
Now, he challenges this kind of repressive masculinity in his poetry. “Everything that I write is celebrating masculinity without being in an oppressive form,” he says. “It’s a burden. Sometimes you don’t want what comes with this privilege. When it comes to growing up as a boy, there’s a blueprint to how men should act. I reject that.”
Many young Latino men like Reyes are both exploring and challenging traditional masculinity through their work and their art. Abraham Velázquez Tello became interested in the different manifestations of machismo in Latino culture and began documenting them through photographs. His photographs in his series titled “Machos” were taken in various Chicago venues. They are intimate glimpses into the lives of vaqueros, indigenous dancers, low-rider groups, wrestlers, and men at gay clubs.
“A lot of images I sought out to make were a mixture of cultural traditions,” he says. “You can embrace your masculinity and embrace your culture. You just have to get rid of sexism.” As the editor of the Chicago culture website, Gozamos, Tello also encourages conversations about machismo. The column “Modern Macho” is one example. “As media makers, we have a responsibility,” he says.
Pablo Valeria Tachiquin Paredes, youth mentor at 67 Sueños, makes an analysis of machismo a priority when working with migrant youth. “We try to have a privilege critique early on,” he says. “It’s an ongoing conversation.”
In 2011, 67 Sueños created a mural to document the migrant experience. The project began with chronicling the stories of undocumented youth– many of whom had experienced rape, domestic violence, and other kinds of abuse. They discussed these kinds of issues at their unveiling event. “We were highlighting stories and had a whole session discussing toxic masculinity,” he says.
Most conversations about machismo are centered on the experiences of women, though it also affects men negatively. “One of the pillars of machismo is that men are stronger than women and it pushes men in a robot-like way of dealing with trauma. Young men have a hard time telling their story and allowing themselves to be vulnerable,” Paredes says.
This kind of guarded behavior, say some experts, can be contributing to the Latino male achievement gap. According to the 2011 census survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center, 17 percent of Latinas (ages 25-29) have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 10 percent of Latino males.
Victor B. Saenz, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Texas at Austin, has been researching the causes behind this disparity. “A big part of machismo is the kinds of identities that they need to take on,” he says. “They can be at odds with academic success. It manifests itself with help-seeking behavior. They may not see a counselor because it’s a sign of weakness.”
A lack of male role models can also contribute to this problem. “Urban youth– the majority are without fathers and won’t find male teachers who will be an early influence,” Saenz says. “They find it in gangs and social groupings that affirm their values as young men.”
To address this problem in education, Saenz and his research team launched a research and mentoring effort called Project MALES, which is composed of two initiatives– a research project focused on Latino males in higher education and a pilot mentoring project. Part of the program also includes a monthly Pláticas series that features prominent Latino male speakers who facilitate small group discussions among mentor participants.
Reyes also believes in the need for dialogue and safe spaces where men can discuss how patriarchy has affected their lives. “We’re not used to having conversations about our deep wounds,” he says.
For Paredes, discussions are more fruitful when they are focused on solutions, which is how he approaches his community work with young men. “Across the board, sexism and male privilege is alive and ripe in every community. Offering alternatives is more important than offering critiques.”