In the 1970s, The Village People sang about being a “Macho Man.” In the 1980s, Saturday Night Live parodied gameshows with “¿Quién es Mas Macho?” ¿Quién es mas macho, it would ask, Fernando Lamas o Ricardo Maltalban? ¿Desi Arnaz o Orlando Cepeda? These pop culture moments could not have occurred without an interest in masculinity, an obsession, perhaps, by many Americans. That curiosity, that need to define what makes a man masculine and macho followed me to Mexico. What is Hispanic machismo? How does one acquire it? Why do we consider one nationality or race more manly than another?
In the US, the stereotype of masculinity is the strong silent type, the unanimated “tough guy.” Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Vin Diesel. But does that image match the expectations south of the border, in Mexico, where visitors and émigrés witness machismo from the front row. Is it different from American manliness? If so, how? What is machismo’s elusive quality?
To begin exploring those questions, one must look at the body types and physical qualities of most Mexican men. They may be dark and they may be handsome, but most Mexican men are not tall. Therefore, it is clear that one need not be “tall, dark, and handsome” to be masculine. Since most Mexican men are not tall, they generally fall in the short-to-medium height range. In addition, there are two common, basic male body types here. One is a thicker frame, stocky, often with a “spare tire” mid-section. The other is slight, slim, with lean arms and legs reminiscent of chenille stems, and pipe cleaners. But what these slender men lack in bulky muscles, they make up for in firmness. Both body types, obviously, are the result of generations of handed-down genetics, either purely native, and there are a variety of native groups in Mexico, or influenced by European immigrants.
When one looks at these slender men, one doesn’t automatically think “macho” or “manly.” One probably doesn’t feel intimidated or threatened by them. But, let me tell you, these men, along with their thicker, heftier counterparts are men. They show their manliness, their machismo, in numerous unexpected ways. They exude real manliness, not the cartoonish characterizations seen in American film or imagined in the American mindset.
To witness a prime example of a real man, watch a Mexican father, whether young or older, with his children. These dads are loving, tender, gentle, caring, patient, playful, and nurturing role models. They show the next generation what a good father should be by example. If I had a peso for every time I have watched a Mexican father lovingly care for a baby or small child, I could buy each dad a Father’s Day tie.
I also am quite aware how animated Mexican men are when they talk, smile and laugh. They are not restrained or guarded like American men, worried that showing emotion might make them appear weak. Mexican men seem more alive, more vibrant than their counterparts from the north. Their culture seems to free and unshackle them from the crippling norms that imprison many American men and this freedom allows their natural, unstudied, masculinity to flourish.
Riding the bus, as I frequently do here, I am able to observe Mexican men while they are simply being themselves. How many times have I noticed a man, dusty and dirty from a day’s labor, sweaty from physical work, oozing pride and confidence as he sits cradling, or stands wearing, a Barbie, Hello Kitty, Star Wars, or Sponge Bob backpack? The packs often are pink, lavender, or another soft pastel color, not a dark-colored butch hiker’s backpack. He bought what was available at the store, what he could afford, or what had been handed down or gifted to him. No self-consciousness. No embarrassment. No excuses. That is a man. That is machismo.
Bus riding also provides me with an excellent opportunity to study faces. A common trait among Mexican men that I have noticed are beautiful, long, curved eyelashes. I don’t go around looking for eyelashes. I have no real interest in them. But when breathtaking lashes are fluttering near me, I notice them. And, even though these unadorned eyelashes have a mascara-eyeliner-eyelash curler quality about them, they flutter with natural machismo. Now, I will be the first to say I am no expert on eye make-up … I haven’t worn any in, oh, two, maybe three weeks now … but I know when a man’s eyes are alluring, seductive, and macho.
I am ashamed to admit this, but I periodically find myself falling back on old American standards of masculinity when I see a slightly built, short Mexican man. My God, he’s tiny, I think. He couldn’t beat his way out of a wet paper sack, I hear a long ago voice bully. That guy is skinnier than a Q-Tip! I’ll bet a Q-Tip could pound the shit out of him. I hear judgmental me think. Then I remember… and I kid you not…I have watched several Mexican men try to beat themselves out of wet paper sacks. All were successful. I have also watched two Mexican men actually fight Q-Tips. One won handily. The other was winning, but left in the middle of the fight to attend to his adorable, curly-lashed infant son.
Having the right priorities is very masculine. Lying about wet paper sack and Q-Tip fights isn’t.