Machismo: Flattery or Threat?

By Danielle Carson

Editor’s Note: November 25th is International Day For The Elimination of Violence Against Women. This story is part of a series that looks at violence against women at the intersections of travel. Learn more about this day, and 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.  Donate to UN Women here.

As a solo female traveler, I never thought that machismo would be what pushed me a couple steps back into my comfort zone.

Merriam-Webster defines machismo as “a strong sense of masculine pride: an exaggerated masculinity.” It is, by definition, aggressive. With “macho” at its root, machismo is masculinity manifest, but translated, it's the Spanish word for male chauvinism. 

My first encounters with machismo could very well have been in Mexico or East L.A., but the first time I allowed it to impact my mobility was in Quito, Ecuador.

For those cautious females that do research before traveling to a foreign country, a Google search about travel to South America will warn gently about the special variety of chauvinism. 
It's not a reason to avoid the continent altogether, but it exists, and as evident from the laissez-faire attitude about machismo, it won't disappear anytime soon.

For a female traveler for whom Spanish is a second language, the cultural barriers can twist something as simple as a cat-call into something dark and intimidating, even though it happens in the light of day, in a public place and often among company.

After one day out running errands by foot, alone, and encountering several situations that made me feel surprisingly uncomfortable, I felt a rush of relief when I entered my host family's house.

Upon recounting my frustrations to my host mother and her daughter-in-law, my complaints spilling into the silent room, I felt a little dramatic. They responded with blank stares, agreeing after a moment that yes, the harassment is quite bad in Ecuador, but all the while their expressions explained that it's simply a part of reality that women must learn to deal with.

It is worth taking into consideration that though a female traveler does not dress suggestively or behave submissively—in fact, she often makes an exhaustingly deliberate effort to walk everywhere as if she knows exactly what she's doing—foreigners will forever be an interesting sight. Aside from being the object of rubbernecking, during an hour-long solo walk through a non-touristy barrio in Quito, it's not unusual for a woman to be followed, approached, waved at several times and hissed at. 

On some occasions, I would be called “preciosa,” or in passing a man would whisper “hola, princesa” in my ear so only I could hear. Some men would say things that in any mutually-consenting conversation would illicit a response, such as asking, in a brief passing, if they can help me with my packs as I'm en route to the metro—although they would probably be surprised if I accepted the offer.

I reconsidered why it suddenly made me feel so uncomfortable to be hit on. I remember the coming-of-age summers of nearly a decade ago, when my best friend and I would put on shorts and eyeliner and take long walks, giggling and rolling our eyes when boys in passing cars would honk at us. Although some situations made us uncomfortable, we both knew deep down that we liked the attention.

As I got older, I experienced more aggressive forms of cat-calling, staring and even the occasional purposeful ass-grab. I would normally deal with these situations by making ice-cold eye contact, pretending as if I didn't hear them, and the occasional punch in the gut. When I worked on my college newspaper, I even argued against the battalion of my discontent female peers and wrote a steadfast piece about why women should simply suck it up and deal with catcalling, because men are actually, evolutionarily incapable of controlling themselves. Even when I traveled in Bolivia a few years back, when a young, dirty-faced shoe shiner swiftly reached under my friend's skirt as we passed, I hadn’t felt as uncomfortable as the relentless verbal abuse as made me feel.

My experience in Ecuador so far has been much more daunting, so much so that I am struggling to counteract my feelings with logic. I have observed men of all ages behave in a way quite obviously aimed at intimidating or scaring women, not enticing them to reciprocate interest. These men are not interested in a pursuit, but only a momentary power play, in which they are acting while seated in their own barrio, in a position of power. The man knows that I can hear everything he is saying, that the hissing and tongue-clicking sends chills down my spine, and that I am ignoring him and picking up my pace because I am intimidated. He enjoys the idea of intimidating a woman that, upon approach, appeared so strong and independent.

According to an article written in 1972 by Octavio Giraldo of the University of Cali, Colombia, machismo is a psycho-cultural response to child-rearing practices. In the groundbreaking study, the author argues that a young boy develops insecurity due to the affectionless, distant and domineering upbringing from his father, which then results in him overcompensating as a machista when he is old enough to pilot his own relationships. This, in combination with a systematic praise of female submission in upbringing, originates in child rearing practices before the boy even feels a sexual attraction to the opposite sex.

Machismo is engrained in Latin American culture in many ways that some foreigners aren't comfortable with. Culturally, women are expected to be homemakers or at least be in charge of the house and meals. This role in Spanish is defined as ama de casa, or one that loves the house. The ama de casa is expected to have meals completed when her husband is hungry. If something as simple as patacones, or fried plantains, are prepared with lackluster, it is not abnormal for the males at the table to comment. She is hassled for putting too much salt on her food, forgetting to put the cheese on the table or leaving food crumbs on the counter after fixing the meal and doing all of the dishes. 

In rural areas, the approach is more indirect and less aggressive. Machismo exists behind the scenes, evident mainly in rumors about men having mistresses in nearby towns, openly expressing interest in recently-blossomed young women and pursuing others despite having a full family at home. According to the book Life is hard: Machismo, Danger and the Intimacy of Power in Nicaragua, men in the Central American country often maintain more than one household; machismo is a culture in which informed polygamy simply exists.

The dynamic that I have observed, although briefly, in a typical Ecuador household exemplifies a hegemonic, or systematic, comfortability with machismo, but behind what is seen day-to-day on the streets is a darker reality. According to a BBC article on the subject, 38 percent of women in Ecuador have said wife-beating is justified for at least one reason.

Ecuador is leading a campaign, endorsed by President Correa himself, against machismo. Named Reacciona Ecuador, El Machismo es Violencia, the campaign is pushed by a 180-page qualitative analysis of machismo across the largest cities and cultural centers in the country. The study found that shouts and other verbal abuses are most common in the urban Sierra (such as Quito) and the urban Amazon, while physical abuse is more common in rural areas. Less offensive acts such as the use of pick-up lines are more common on the urban coast, in cities such as Manta. The vast majority of female informants attributed the harassment to machismo rather than it being the female's fault or due to alcohol or drug consumption, and most of the informants said that they did nothing in response to the abuse, instead ignoring and hoping it would pass. 

The other night I asked a young Ecuadorian male friend what he thinks about some of the aggressive male tactics in the street. 

“A lot of the guys see foreign girls and just like to joke with them,” he said, shrugging, and with a laugh: “It's not my style.”

Though machismo is considered an embedded part of Latin American culture, it is encouraging to know that its debilitating effects on female social lives have not gone unnoticed.

Published: 11/21/2016

Danielle Carson is a bilingual journalist partial to anthropology. She is from the small town of Big Bear Lake in Southern California, but a piece of her heart stays in Long Beach, CA where she studied. 

Danielle is most alive when the snow falls, as she teaches skiing and snowboarding, but when traveling she's drawn to lush cloud forests and coconut palm-lined beaches. Danielle has spent most of her time abroad in Central and South America, where she has had the opportunity to learn about environmental and social issues through living with locals and participating in community projects. 

She's currently couch surfing through Ecuador, seeking salsa dancing and eating a bit too much. She hopes someday to be a self-sustaining travel writer, if such a job exists, and work with youth in outdoor education and sustainable travel. Follow her blog at Danielleacarson.com or on Instagram @danidigs.