The Meanings of Macho: Being a Man in Mexico City / Edition 2

The Meanings of Macho: Being a Man in Mexico City / Edition 2

by Matthew C. Gutmann
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University of California Press


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The Meanings of Macho: Being a Man in Mexico City / Edition 2

In this compelling study of machismo in Mexico City, Matthew Gutmann overturns many stereotypes of male culture in Mexico and offers a sensitive and often surprising look at how Mexican men see themselves, parent their children, relate to women, and talk about sex. This tenth anniversary edition features a new preface that updates the stories of the book's key protagonists.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520250130
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/16/2006
Series: Men and Masculinity Series
Edition description: Tenth Anniversary Edition, With a New Preface
Pages: 362
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.88(d)

About the Author

Matthew Gutmann is Professor of Anthropology, Ethnic Studies, and Latin American Studies at Brown University and is the author of The Meanings of Macho: Being a Man in Mexico City (Tenth Anniversary edition, 2006) and The Romance of Democracy: Compliant Defiance in Contemporary Mexico (2002), both from UC Press.

Read an Excerpt

The Meanings of Macho

Being a Man in Mexico City

By Matthew C. Gutmann


Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-93353-8


Real Mexican Machos Are Born to Die

Imagination can't create anything new, can it?

Tony Kushner, Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches


In this book I examine what it means to be a man, ser hombre, for men and women who live in the colonia popular of Santo Domingo, Mexico City. The ethnographic focus of this study is on understanding gender identity in relation to the changes in cultural beliefs and practices that have occurred in urban Mexico over the course of several decades of local and global upheaval. By looking at how gender identity is forged and transformed in a working class community formed by land invasion in the Mexican capital in 1971, I explore cultural categories in various incarnations, some relatively fixed, others shifting. That is, I look at how cultural difference and similarity are constituted by diverse social actors who in turn limit and expand the meanings of gender identity.

While the cultural and political issues raised in this ethnography are necessarily sweeping, the events, sentiments, and activities described here have occurred, as often as not, on a far smaller scale as part of the daily lives of the residents of one neighborhood in the Mexican capital. As a prelude to the discussion in the chapters that follow, it may be helpful to first clarify certain questions related to gender and cultural identity in Mexico and to explain the underlying theoretical and methodological framework of this study.

If we understand gender to refer to the ways in which differences and similarities related to physical sexuality are understood, contested, organized, and practiced by societies, then we should expect to find a diversity of gendered meanings, institutions, and relations within and between different social groupings. At the same time, more than is commonly acknowledged, what it means physically to be a man or a woman must not be taken for granted but must be explained. As will be seen in chapter 5, an understanding of the body and sexuality requires an examination of cultural and historical factors and not simply an inspection of genitalia. Regardless of the importance of gender and sexuality in many aspects of human existence today and historically, the gendered character of social life is never transparent.

In my own case, I did not so much set out to find gender as a topic of study as gender found me. Serendipity initially drew me into thinking about Mexican men as fathers. In the spring of 1989, while walking through downtown Mexico City, I took a photograph of a man in a musical-instruments store who was holding a baby as he talked to a customer; the reactions of friends to this photo provided my first impulse to study Mexican men as fathers. (We will return to the photograph in chapter 3.) Later, as I reviewed the social science literature on Mexican men and masculinity, the topic of my research became clear: widely accepted generalizations about male gender identities in Mexico often seemed egregious stereotypes about machismo, the supposed culture trait of Mexican men that is at once so famous and yet so thoroughly unknown. Even when I read of individuals and groups who for some reason did not fit a pattern of machismo—which, however it is defined in the social sciences, generally carries pejorative connotations—those cases were routinely judged to be unusual. Nor did such views come from academia alone. In casual conversations in working class areas of Mexico City over a period of years, I was often told, "Well, you know what Mexican men are like, but my husband [or brother or son or father] is different." It appeared that there were a multitude of exceptions to the rule of machos.

Is this study, then, designed to deconstruct a unitary meaning of Mexican masculinity into multiple Mexican masculinities? In part it must have such limited and negative aims. However, my overall purpose is greater than this. The book is indeed concerned with meanings and understandings, but it is also a study of expectations, judgments, and actions. Most of all, this book is an examination of the dialectic between engendered meanings and social power.

Seen in this light, another goal of this study—beyond the deconstruction of hollow cliches of Mexican masculinity—is to contribute to the theoretical and empirical reconstruction of gender categories in their constantly transforming and transgressing expressions. While not directing himself to gender studies in particular, Néstor García Canclini (1989:25) infers such reconstructive intellectual work when he observes, "The totality may be forgotten when one is interested only in differences between men [people], not when one is also concerned with inequality." Certainly questions of inequality, identity, and power are of interest and importance not only to social scientists and their kin, but also to the ordinary people who constitute the subjects of most ethnographies.

While certain notions of innate and essential male sexuality are being deconstructed every day in the colonias populares and the halls of academia in Mexico City, other sexual meanings, identities, and power relations are emerging in novel configurations. A central conclusion of my research in Colonia Santo Domingo, Mexico City, points to the creativity and capacity for change with regard to gender on the part of numerous actors and critics of modernity, an epoch, Giddens (1990) points out, that is characterized by the progressive socialization of the natural world. These circumstances make it all the more incumbent upon anthropologists and other scholars to imagine and invent new ways of describing, interpreting, and explaining cultural emergence and variation.

This process requires cognizance of both general and particular cultural mores and practices associated with gender relations. For example, if a man walking down the street alone at midnight in Santo Domingo hears footsteps rapidly approaching him from behind, the possibility of assault and robbery will usually cross his mind. A woman in the same circumstance will generally worry about assault, robbery, ... and rape. Men from the colonia are rarely concerned about being raped, except when they are in circumstances such as prison or the army. For all practical purposes, men and women in Santo Domingo share many concerns and experiences, while at the same time there are distinct gendered differences in their daily lives.

Yet even to formulate the issue as one of similarity and difference can fatally skew any attempt to penetrate beyond superficial gender identities in Santo Domingo. If you ask people in the colonia about the differences between men and women, for example, they will invariably respond with pat answers of the opinion-poll variety and, not surprisingly, highlight differences between men and women. That is, simply by couching the issue in these terms you can usually get predictable answers of some sort, but this does not mean that these people necessarily see gender differences as interesting or worth talking about, much less as paramount.

There is not a Mexican or Latin or Spanish-speaking cultural system of generally agreed-upon gender meanings and experience. Not only is there tremendous intracultural diversity with regard to gender in colonias populares in Mexico City, but there is wildly uneven knowledge and power in the field of gender relations there. Gender identities in Colonia Santo Domingo, as elsewhere, are products and manifestations of cultures in motion; they do not emanate from some primordial essence whose resilience bears testament to perpetual forms of inequality.


One of the key theoretical concepts employed throughout this study is that of contradictory consciousness. In an attempt to explain the often conflicting influences of practical activity and self-understanding on individuals, and to get beyond mere acknowledgment of confusion, Antonio Gramsci developed the formulation of contradictory consciousness. While Gramsci's references to the term were quite brief, what he did write can provide us with a starting point from which to develop a fuller understanding of how male identities develop and transform in societies like Mexico's today. Specifically with reference to "the active man-in-the-mass," Gramsci explains:

One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow-workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed. (1929–35:333)

As employed in this book, contradictory consciousness is a descriptive phrase used to orient our examination of popular understandings, identities, and practices in relation to dominant understandings, identities, and practices. For instance, with regard to the practices of Mexican men as fathers, many are aware of a social science image of poor urban Mexican men typified by the Macho Progenitor. Yet whereas the beliefs and practices of many ordinary men do not accord neatly with this monochromatic image, ordinary men and women are themselves often acutely aware of and influenced in one way or another by the dominant, often "traditional" stereotypes about men.

That is, these same working class men and women share both a consciousness inherited from the past—and from the experts—that is largely and uncritically accepted, and another, implicit consciousness that unites individuals with others in the practical transformation of the world. (To speak of traditions and inheritance should not be misconstrued to mean that the world was changeless until the contemporary era. Tradition and past customs provide questions and characterizations that confront every generation anew.) While there are historic, systemic, and bodily facets of machismo, figuring out exactly how the pieces fit together is another matter. With respect to some of the attributes frequently cited as manifesting machismo on the part of men—wife beating, alcoholism, infidelity, gambling, the abandonment of children, and bullying behavior in general—many men, and more than a few women, in Santo Domingo exhibit certain of these qualities and not others. Some alcoholic men are known as good providers for their families; children in Santo Domingo are said to receive more whippings from their mothers than their fathers; most public violence in the area has as much to do with unemployment and youth as it does with gender itself; adultery and drunkenness among women are becoming increasingly common; some husbands who abstain from drinking nevertheless brutally batter their wives, sons, and other men; and gambling is not a common activity.

Distinguishing inherited from transformative consciousness has been one of the urgent tasks of feminist anthropologists over the past twenty-five years, a part of their efforts to reveal the relevance of gender where often it has been overlooked or marginalized. Through ethnography and theoretical debate, anthropological gender studies have documented male biases in research results, detailed the salience and the changing nature of gender (variously defined) in social formations throughout history, and challenged notions of universal male authority. Taken as a whole, gender studies in the last two decades make up the most important new body of work in the discipline of anthropology overall.

Of particular interest for the present study is the fact that, following initial overgeneralizations in most feminist anthropology regarding the extent to which commonalties could be found in the status of women historically and globally, more recently emphasis has been increasingly placed on studying the particularities of gendered differences in diverse cultural processes and milieus. In like fashion, and flowing from the attention given here to the notion of contradictory consciousness, this book aims to contribute to the newer, emergent effort in critical feminist theory by emphasizing the variety, as opposed to the homogeneity, of masculinities among working class Mexicans.

As to the study of men as men, following in the wake of the second wave of feminist theory some male anthropologists began in the r98os to examine men as engendered and engendering cultural beings in various parts of the world. Customary anthropological practice had long entailed male ethnographers interviewing male informants, so there was nothing inherently remarkable about men talking to men about themselves. What was novel, rather, involved not the study of men but the study of men-as-men. Today gender studies have to include research on both men and women as engendered subjects, which is why examining masculinity in contemporary Mexico is thus both a methodological question and a cultural issue.

Although much more research and analysis is needed, important strides have nonetheless been made in gender studies in Latin America—for instance, studies on women and work, women and households and families, women and ethnicity and class, and women in social movements. But why is there virtually no scholarly material on men-as-men in Latin America? In the case of Mexico, we need to correct the fanciful and static portrayals with which even some of the best ethnographies of the region too often characterize men, if now less often women.

Overlapping with some of these examinations of gender, particularly as they relate to questions of inequality and difference, new theoretical work in anthropology has been produced in the past two decades that examines relations between power and agency on one hand and between hegemony and consciousness on the other, effectively building on classic earlier attention in the discipline to oppositional ritual and political organization. The emergence of this new work coincides with excited debate in the field concerning textual critiques of anthropology, and especially ethnography, which have been raised to counter idyllic notions of objectivity. The best anthropology today successfully navigates these invigorating though sometimes chilling currents.


"Identity is not as transparent or unproblematic as we think," writes Stuart Hall. He continues:

Perhaps instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact ... we should think, instead, of identity as a "production," which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation. (1990:222)

The concept of identity has a long scholarly history, and has been discussed in the modern era in the West by philosophers such as Locke, Hume, and Schelling. By the mid-nineteenth century, at least, the term had gained some currency in broader intellectual circles. Identity lies at the very heart of Marx's famous first chapter of Capital (1867). Here I adopt an explanation similar to that of Marx, seeing identity as an interminable process residing in the abstraction of equivalency. Because identity does not stand still or fall outside what it itself represents, this indeterminate understanding of identity allows for the nuanced appreciation of the elusiveness of gender identities that are constantly shifting in terms of both history and place.

My definition of male identities focuses on what men say and do to be men, and not simply on what men say and do. Male identities do not, for instance, reflect elemental or eternal cultural differences between men and women. If courage is an attribute that is valued in men by both men and women, is courage therefore masculine? What if courage is also valued in women by both women and men (or only women)? Are courageous wives to be considered only as extensions of their husbands? This would be a serious mistake.

Or what are we to make of the historical development in which many men who used to drink together in specific places at specific times in Mexico City are now more frequently being joined by women and are in fact drinking their Coronas, Vickys, and Don Pedros together with these women at these times and places? The specifically (essentially) male aspects of these activities and relevant attitudes will consequently have changed too. As we will see in chapter 7, this development does not necessarily mean that such drinking patterns are more degendered, less heavily associated with gender identities, though this may be the case. But it does often lead to changes in the gendered character and quality of drinking at such moments and in such locations, and may entail confusion on the part of the male and female drinkers regarding gender identities.


Excerpted from The Meanings of Macho by Matthew C. Gutmann. Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, xi,
Preface to the Tenth Anniversary Edition, xv,
Maps, xxix,
Introduction: Gender Conventions, 1,
1. Real Mexican Machos Are Born to Die, 11,
2. The Invasion of Santo Domingo, 33,
3· Imaginary Fathers, Genuine Fathers, 50,
4· Motherly Presumptions and Presumptuous Mothers, 89,
5· Men's Sex, 111,
6. Diapers and Dishes, Words and Deeds, 146,
7· Degendering Alcohol, 173,
8. Fear and Loathing in Male Violence, 196,
9· Machismo, 221,
10. Creative Contradictions, 243,
Notes, 265,
Glossary, 291,
Bibliography, 295,
Index, 323,

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