One of the most ubiquitous attributes of our Latino society is machismo. Macho, a term that is often used to describe a man as aggressively virile, has noble roots in the Nahuatl language of the Indians of Latin America. In Nahuatl, macho refers to a wise, exemplary leader, with no reference to gender. In Iberia, macho has a long history referring to a brave, wise and strong leader. The Spanish “macho” is derived from the Latin “masculus” which means male. The suffix “-ismo” is the same as “–ism” in English, meaning a philosophical system or school of thought. The greatest ambition of all young boys in Spain and Portugal was to be macho. The macho ideal was to be a brave, strong, wise and courageous leader. The old Iberian term macho also refers to the supremacy of men over women.
Ironically, the indigenous people of Mesoamerica who spoke Nahuatl, a language in use as far back as 500 A.D., used the term “macho” to refer to one whom they honored as a wise and great leader. There was no gender differentiation in use of the Nahuatl term macho as it had no relation to the Latin “masculus.” In both the Iberian and the Nahuatl cultures, the term macho was a very positive term. After the Spanish invasion of the New World, macho became a new concept. The word macho evolved to refer to a masculine leader who was brave, strong and virile.
The macho ideal is one who lives the qualities of chivalry, honesty, responsibility and morality. The macho man provides for his family, adores his mother and displays all the traits of a good citizen of his community. The macho man protects and serves his wife (since women cannot take care of themselves). The macho man is a caballero, or gentleman.
The notion of machismo enlightens many facets of Latino behavior, particularly male sexuality. The concept is that macho males have an unquenchable and overwhelming sexual desire and are justified in trying to satisfy their desire in any manner that they wish. This machismo sexuality is a source of pride and must be sustained through sexual dominance. The macho man often proves his masculinity through adulterous affairs. This behavior has caused the term macho to evolve into a term with negative connotations.
In Latin America, at the encouragement of her impoverished parents, a girl may quit school and marry at a very young age to an older, more established man for security. This sets the wife up for lack of power and subjects her to domination. The husband is the head of the home and controller of all finances. The wife is immature and under-educated, lacking the skills of negotiation. Often, the wife cannot speak out against the husband’s affairs for fear of losing her home and security, especially after she has children. This puts the wife in a very vulnerable position.
The husband who has adulterous affairs to satisfy his sexual cravings is solidifying his macho reputation among other men. The macho husband may seek sexual satisfaction from prostitutes and homosexual men, both high risk groups for HIV/AIDS. The husband considers “safe sex” to be “not getting caught,” rather than using protection. The result is that the wife is in danger of exposure to HIV/Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases. The wife may even be physically and emotionally abused, so she dares not to speak out.
Machismo, a prominent characteristic of Hispanic culture, has an ancient history in Iberia and separately in the New World. Over time, the two separate definitions of macho developed into the concept recognized today as typical of Latin American society. The concept is that a macho man is one who lives a life of chivalry, honesty, responsibility, enlightenment and morality. The macho man is often stereotyped as hyper-masculine, oversexed, domineering, chauvinistic and even violent. Machismo is an amalgamation of all those qualities. As in all societies there are the good, the bad and the ugly.