In the first part of this essay, ( Dilley in Retrospect, part I ) I addressed the humanitarian needs of Women on the Run, as a recent report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has recently described female victims of domestic and gang violence in Central America seeking refuge in the United States. Here I address the emotional effects of machismo, the name given to the power differential between men and women in that part of the world. I observed these effects during a visit to the South Texas Family Detention Center in Dilley, Texas, which is also described in the first part of this essay.
On the other side of the political situation that women fleeing Central America represent for the United States are the individual stories of the women and children who populate the prison in Dilley Texas. As a psychoanalytically oriented clinician, I was struck by stories I heard, one after the next, each reflecting the long-lasting effects of trauma that could hardly be explained or understood other than as outcomes of the culture of machismo. So often the rape, physical abuse, and murder of loved ones the women had endured had been acceptable to some degree at home, for long periods of time, simply as threads of the cultural fabric. Machismo, it seemed, made it difficult for women to take their own rights seriously and to demand better treatment, even when their very own lives had been in danger.
In the prison in Dilley, the culture of machismo seemed to have an extraordinary hold even on the few women who had been educated. For example, one of the women I saw, Rosa, who said she had a “problem,” was a pretty, articulate young woman who seemed very good humored for someone who, with her nine year old son, had recently completed a journey which she described, in passing, as “hard: it was very cold; we had little to eat; we slept in caves.” We met (she, I, and my translator) in an undecorated prison office, crowded because it contained a huge metal desk, five chairs, and three stacks of large, unopened boxes. This room, perhaps one of ten such rooms, led off a large main space, where other women and children sat at small round tables, also for interviews.
As her story unfolded, we learned (again, only in passing) that Rosa came originally from the countryside from a large family. Her parents were dead. She was the only one in her family who had sought education beyond elementary school. After high school, using some of the proceeds from her job as a sales person, she had managed to complete three years of university.
But her “problem” concerned none of the above. Her “problem” concerned her relationship with her nine year old son. His father had beaten her, and the son, too, week after week while they were still at home. When finally, she, her son, and her sister (who had been living with them) had daringly moved to an apartment of their own, the boy’s father had broken in. He threw their new furniture into the street, claiming he owned it, claiming he owned her as well. Finally (the epitome of humiliation for her, she acknowledged) he had shown up at her job on his motorcycle and dragged her into the street. There he had beaten her publicly, leaving her lying wounded on the pavement as he rode off. Her co-workers, none of whom had dared intervene while the battle continued, had taken her to the hospital at its end, where recovery had been slow. This event was the last straw for her. It convinced her to leave. She knew (she said) that her partner was crazy and that nothing she could do could help him.
Once she had decided to flee, she continued, her son seemed glad to be going. He would be safe, finally, from his brutal father. But at the same time, perhaps to hold onto his father, to diminish their separation, perhaps to right the wrong of the beatings he himself sustained, he began to play the role of humilator himself. He appeared to be using the age-old mechanisms of shame and humiliation (devastating tools, notoriously wielded in the denigration of women) to control and manipulate his mother, just as his father had done. When she refused to give him the things he wanted, her boy would threaten to tell the other women prisoners all about how much she had been the victim of his father’s abuse. At age nine, apparently identified with his father the aggressor, he already knew just how much these stories would humiliate her, just how powerful humiliation could be when used by a male of any age to control a woman.
Her “problem,” she said was how to handle this. So far, whenever her son had used this shaming device to manipulate her, she had not given in. Instead, she had told him that she was proud of what she had done. His father was wrong to have abused them, she had said. Coming to America was a good thing. She had done it to save them both.
BUT, she wondered, was this the right thing to say? She wasn’t sure. Would it be better for him, whom she had deprived of his father and his home, to be able to experience some machismo at least, the easy power available to him, the power of humiliating her? Should she, in fact, be giving in to his demands, or should she not?
My response was perhaps a little extreme for a seasoned therapist. Instead of asking more questions, I raised my voice in unusually loud response: “Yes!” I affirmed, “Yes, you are doing the right thing! You were enormously brave in fleeing as you did! You saved him and yourself. You are right to tell him how proud you are of what you’ve done, proud that you stood up for yourself and for him! Maybe someday,” I added, by this time out of breath, “he will understand.” I was shocked at the intensity of my own reaction, the volume of the words that emerged. She wept in response. “Thank you,” she said. “Others, some of the women here with me, see it differently. I am glad we met.” I said I was glad to have met her too. At this point her son, who had been attending the prison’s school, burst into the room, glared at us, and ran over to stand in front of his mother, in a position that seemed protective to me. She stood up to leave and hugged us goodbye. They left together, holding hands.
Machismo, in a recent review, is defined as a “sense of masculine pride so embedded in culture that it is not only accepted, but often expected” (E. Mendoza, 2009). Needless to say, the discrepancy in power between men and women is notoriously present in cultures worldwide. Just how it became so extreme in Latin cultures in the West, however, is not entirely clear. The customs presently identified by the term, which itself was coined only a few decades ago, might have had pre-Columbian origins, or have begun when the Spanish invaded Central America, either because it existed already in Spanish culture or because it evolved as a compensatory effect of the “deep feelings of inadequacy” (Mirandé, 1997, p. 67) caused in men as a result of the Spanish conquest. Although originally it may have been associated with positive characteristics (courage, bravery, responsibility, honorableness, protection of family, etc.), these days it is more likely to be associated with negative traits such as bravado (see the photo below) cowardice, violence, etc.
Machismo in men is supposed to be mirrored in women by marianismo, a set of characteristics modeled on fantasy qualities that are presumed to have existed in Mary, the Virgin Mother. In line with this tradition, women are required to sacrifice themselves totally to the “needs” of their men. Although as a result, the Latina woman may perceive herself as morally superior to her husband (Mendoza, 2007), in actuality, she occupies an inferior social position in which her labor is exploited. She is expected to do all the chores and to bear and care for the children, as many as possible, to prove her husband’s machismo. The Catholic church has supported this female role and may well have participated, not only in keeping fertility rates in Central America high, but in telling women that maintaining the family unit is more important than their own well being (Torres, 1995).
In Latin America ethnicity plays a huge role in social, economic and educational prospects of all kinds. As for education, men are preferred in this universe as well, particularly light skinned men — the elite — who are presumed to be descendants of the Spanish. According to one source (Navin, 2004, p. 2) education is “seen as an elite right, more than a human right, and more than an elite right, a male right.” Although this situation may be beginning to change — according to a report in the Huffington Post , families headed by women have increased dramatically in the past two decades (Forman, 2014) — traditional views of the place each gender should occupy still control access to well-paying jobs and education.
For women who do obtain education, machismo is no less in effect. In contrast to Rosa (described above), I want to describe a woman who, for years, lacked the confidence to stand up for her rights against the culture of machismo, even to protect her child. How to contend with this aspect of her life was the “problem” for which she sought consultation. This woman was well educated, having completed a university degree and two years of post university business training. She was an altogether intelligent and appealing individual. Despite this, however, she had been unable to free herself of her abusing husband until her father had died. She had married “late,” she told us (at thirty), because singleness was unacceptable to her family. Although she had been popular with men and had dated a lot, only one man had presented himself as a possible spouse. At first she had disliked this man, but after awhile she had married him anyway, having convinced herself that, because her father liked him, she liked him too. Based on the fact that his father and hers had served together in the military, her father had concluded that he was appropriate for her.
Her father himself had been an upstanding, successful businessman, previously high ranking in the military. At home, in keeping with his culture, he had badly mistreated her older siblings and yelled regularly at their mother, insisting that without him, she would have had no life. Their mother meanwhile (a very religious woman) had raised her children to believe it was the wife’s duty to serve her spouse, no matter what. My client had followed her mother’s agenda to a tee, despite the fact that once she was actually married (the marriage took place during a visit the couple made to the U.S, an extended visit in which they both worked), her husband, far less intelligent and less educated than she, had reduced her to working as a domestic, had taken all the money she had earned, had isolated her from others and had begun to beat and sexually misuse her on a regular basis. She, meanwhile, had been too ashamed of being his victim to get any help, even from a priest in her town whom she knew fairly well.
Later, when they returned to their home country, her husband continued to abuse her on parts of her body that, when they bruised, she could hide underneath clothes. He also manipulated her in order to secure loans from her well-to-do father. Much of the money he garnered this way he spent on alcohol, while she worked hard in order to support their family, which at this point included a daughter. All the while, she told no one about what she sustained at home, even though, to her despair, much of it took place in front of their daughter. To tell anyone would have been too humiliating, she said, to her and to her father as well, a man who had always presented himself as the patriarch of a large, well-run, collaborative family.
It was only once her father died that she felt she could liberate herself. Since he was gone, she knew she would no longer humiliate him by divorcing. At this point, however, her husband felt liberated too, but in a different way. Once his father-in-law was dead, he no longer had a reason to contain his abuse because the promise of more money from his wife’s family was gone. Consequently, his abuse became so severe that she began to believe that her life was in danger. Gradually, after failed attempts to escape him in her home country, this young woman finally got up the courage to come again to the United States, bringing her daughter along. Once here, she had applied for political asylum from Dilley, the prison site in which she was placed.
During her interview with us, this young woman expressed great regret about her past willingness to put up with her husband’s abuse. Above all, she regretted the fact that her daughter had regularly been witness to it. But she was also terrified of the future. Eventually, she said, she knew she would want a new relationship with a man, one that would be free of abuse. But her problem was that she did not know if she would be capable of judging who a non-abusing man might be. Having had no experience with men who were actually respectful of women, she did not trust her ability to judge which man would treat her well and which would not. For help with this, her attorney had suggested that she see a “counselor” when she got free. Did I, she asked me, as the representative “counselor” from the United States, believe that seeing a “counselor” would actually help her become a woman who could judge?
The clarity of her thinking about all this surprised me, which I acknowledged. But when it came to her question, I said I could not answer it. I said I could not know if, in fact, counseling would help to develop in her the kind of judgment she desired. But, I said, at its best, it might give her the opportunity to have a relationship with someone (the counselor) from a world in which machismo, and its extended intent, in the exploitation and abuse of women, would be considerably less insistent. Thinking together with this imaginary “counselor,” I said, might help her at least to begin to understand this different way of thinking. She might get help in other ways as well, I added, in trying to understand her own reactions to the new world she was entering. I said I hoped she would follow her attorney’s advice, once her plea is approved and she is free.
What does happen to women who come to the United States from cultures in which their labor is grossly exploited by men and they cannot claim their rights, not even the right of protection from brutalization in their families? Do their views change after they arrive here and if so, how does this take place? How pervasively do the customs they came with, in regard to gender and power, get transferred across generations? What is required to diminish these customs? Although many disciplines seem to be aware of this problem (see, for example, Gurvinder & Bhugra, 2013), none seems to have studied the changes that occur across generations in any depth. Perhaps it is too soon to have done so. Perhaps the question is compounded because violence against women is succinctly present still in our culture here in the United States. With all this in mind, in completing a brief scan of bibliographic resources online, including those in law, psychology, med-line etc., I only found machismo-related studies (very few) that focus on the immigrant women themselves. In the legal profession, for example, there are laws that protect women/families from spousal abuse, but their success, according to attorney Jaqueline Valespino (2012), is defined “in terms of what the client wants.” And what the client (the woman) wants, is determined by the culture of machismo, which forecloses women’s taking self-protective measures. For instance, Valespino reports that for Latina clients (refugees, immigrants, etc) a restraining order against an abusing husband is in direct conflict, for the wife, with her identity as wife and mother and her duty to care for and keep the family together. .Similarly, professionals who run family planning focus groups for Central American women, recent immigrants to Midwest America, found customs regarding condom use to be determined by “machismo” (referred to specifically as such; see Sable, 2009): Their men, these women said, determined whether or not and when to use condoms. Moreover, in order to preserve the unity of the family for the sake of the children, these women also accepted the infidelity of their husbands, as well as their abuse.
Among psychoanalysts, only Katie Gentile (2013, 2015) has addressed the effects of culturally based systems of power (specifically machismo) transferred across generations. In these papers Gentile describes a single Latina client, a first generation American, whose father physically abused her mother and sexually abused her, multiple times over the years, all with the complicity of the family, all supported by the culture from which the parents came. In describing how this happened, she refers to patriarchal violence in the culture of mankind generally, calling it “slippery,” and “difficult to recognize and name” because of the way it is “central to the formation of identity,” (2015), male and female alike. She, along with Apprey (2010) and Donald Moss (2010) underscores the necessity of considering the ways in which culture (society) carries these values. Moss, in turn, describes his difficulty in differentiating internally between his identification (when observing scenes of violence) with the victims on the one hand, and with the perpetrators on the other, implying (perhaps) that, in willingly observing cultural violence, each of us must, to some degree, identify with the aggressor. We must do this in order to register our sympathy for the victim. Perhaps the nature of this kind of confusion, which I read as characteristic of the human mind, creates the “slipperiness” to which Gentile refers. At any rate, in addition to our lack of knowledge about the individual mind, we have much still to learn about just how such “slipperiness” gets transferred across generations in the larger social milieu. Perhaps the new wave of Central American refugees will help us with this.
Apprey, M. (2010). Repairing history: Reworking history transgenerational trauma. In D. Moss (ed.) Hating in the first person plural: Psychoanalytic essays on racism, homophobia, misogyny and terror. New York: Other Press. p 2-28.
Gentile, K (2013). Bearing the cultural in order to engage in a process of witnessing. Psychoanalytic Psychology. 30:456-470.
Gurvinder,K. & Bhugra, D. (2013). Sexual violence against women: Understanding cross- cultural Intersections. Indian Journal of Psychiatry.55:244-249.
Mendoza, E. (2009). Machismo literature review. Center for Public Safety Initiatives, Rochester University Working Paper. Available Online.
Mirandé, A. (1997). Hombres y Machos: Masculinity and Latino Culture. Boulder, Colo.: Westview.
Moss, D. (2003). Hating in the First Person Plural. New York: Other Press. p. xvii-xxxiv.
Navin, C. (2004). Female education in Honduras: The creation of a community of congruence for women.
On-line at: http://www.macalester.edu/educationreform/reformcomposition/CinthiaSR.pdf
Preston, J. (2015). Number of migrants illegally crossing Rio Grande rises sharply. New York Times, at:
Preston, J. (2016). Surge of immigrants complicates Obama’s plan. New York Times, at: http://www.adn.com/article/20160108/surge-immigrants-complicates-obamas-plans
Sable, M.R., Having, K. Schwartz, L.R. & Shaw, A. (2009). Hispanic immigrant women talk about family planning. Affilia. 24:137-151.
Torres, S. (1995). Hispanic-American battered women: Why consider cultural differences? In Family Violence and Religion, (Ed. B. Ogawa), 167.
Valdespino, J. M. (2012). Cultural considerations in domestic violence/abuse cases. Unpublished paper.