Machismo:  Is this the beginning of the end?

Ada M. Wilkinson-Lee, Ph.D., is a Mexican American Studies professor at the University of Arizona.

For generations, the term machismo has been widespread and instilled among Latino families.

This “norm,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “an exaggerated or exhilarating sense of power or strength,” is accepted and expected from men. But critics say it violates women’s educational, political and sexual rights.

Often, Latinas are expected to fulfill and prioritize their roles as wives and mothers, accepting the machismo role from their fathers, brothers and husbands.

Latinas are no longer staying quiet, and being treated as a second-class citizen is not an option for many women fighting for equality.

How machismo it starts?

Machismo is instilled in children at a young age.

“The sense of self that we have as adults is really, deeply shaped by our experience in early childhood and our attachment to our mother,” said Brian D’Agostino, communications director of the International Psychohistorical Association.

“The way sex-typing works is that earliest infant care is assigned to females,” he added. “For both boy and girl infants, their earliest experience of reality, of their own self reality, comes from interaction with a female, and with a feminine female because, that is they way society constructs the mothering role.”

According to D’Agostino, the sex stereotyping comes in as soon as a child reaches elementary school.

“Society is telling girls, you’ve got to be like your mother … for boys, something else happens, where society says, ‘You’ve got to be not like your mother.”

As children become adults, sexist behaviors are set norms. An adult male is expected to provide for his family, hiding any emotional vulnerability and being the “man” of the house – the leader.

The expectations are that men mandate the rules. The concept of their control includes the woman’s body. Discord can often lead to domestic violence.

According to the National Latina Network, 1 in 3 Latina women in the U.S. have experienced “violence by a partner at some point in their lives,” and they are less likely to seek help compared to other ethnic/racial groups. 

Because of machismo, topics such as, domestic violence, sexually transmitted infections — and even depression — may be seen as taboos in Latino communities. 

“In the Latino community, often times we’re not as vocal as in other communities to talk about those issues within our family,” said Ada M. Wilkinson-Lee, Ph.D., a Mexican-American Studies professor at the University of Arizona. “It’s important to provide women, but also even our children with the resources and the tools to be able to be more comfortable and opening about those things.” 

As a Latina and a border town native, Wilkinson-Lee has seen firsthand the challenges Latina women face.

Women are expected to respect family values and authoritative figures, which, most of the time are older males.

“If you (women) are demanding, we get labeled as being difficult, being irrational or emotional,” she said. “If they (men) question something or have a different opinion, often times they are seen as taking a leadership role.”

A generation of Latina women is working to change those social expectations.

Wilkinson-Lee said local promotoras, or community health workers, “train women to self-advocate” and understand that it is okay to question authoritative figures and decide what is best for themselves, especially with health-related issues.

According to Wilkinson-Lee, Latinas are “strategically” moving forward from the machismo mindset.

“For example, if a parent doesn’t want a Latina daughter to work outside of the home or something like that, (Latina women are) very strategic in going around that system, in order to get what they want, but in a respectful way,” she said.

Mothers are supporting their children, but carefully breaking the male’s ego.

“Latina moms are providing their daughters with more strategies on how to overcome that conflict,” Wilkinson-Lee said. Latina mothers, are now more involved in their daughter’s education and supporting their decisions of getting college degrees, working, moving away, and waiting to become mothers.

Most of the time, she said, mothers want their daughters to have a different life – a life with more opportunities.

Wilkinson-Lee said she’s never seen Latinas as empowered as they are today as this generation addresses the problems of machismo.

But, as D’Agostino puts it, “It’s still a long way to go.”

Julia Leon is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at 

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