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Mexico's Machismo Machine

Monica rummages frantically in her bag as we dine at a Mexico City restaurant. She pulls out her cell phone and checks for messages. "Is anything wrong?" I ask. "No, it's nothing," she smiles, "just my husband. He becomes upset if he calls and I don't answer. I'm always supposed to have my cell phone on--he likes to know where I am." "You mean he likes to keep track of you," I say, and she laughs.

As Monica explains, sheepishly, that Esteban is actually open-minded, it dawns on me that I've been hearing a lot of similar stories recently, from female friends and patients. The cell phone has become a new way for men to keep tabs on their wives, calling them and pressuring them to come home as soon as possible. Machismo might be out of fashion in today's Mexico, but control is definitely in.

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You rarely hear of men not allowing their wives to study, work, or go out during the day. Almost 40% of working-age women hold jobs, school and university enrollment is evenly split between the sexes, and the average wage differential, whereby women earn about 70% of what men make, is comparable to that of industrialized nations. Women are increasingly aware of their rights, demanding equal treatment in the workplace and in politics.

Under these conditions, machismo mutated. Nowadays, it relies more on psychological coercion and control than on discrimination or physical constraints. In a sense, machismo has gone underground. Deeply buried within our daily customs, it is all but invisible among the educated classes--invisible, but ever present.

Women may be considered equal in many areas, but men remain more equal. In Mexico, women's time is not their own. When they go out, spend money, see friends, they are still expected to render accounts. Fathers, brothers, boyfriends, and husbands feel entitled to a detailed explanation of their everyday activities--but refuse to be questioned about their own. At home, men can say, "Don't bother me now, I'm watching TV"; women can't, because they are expected to be available, day and night, for their husband and children.

These double standards form a pillar of today's machismo. Of course, it is far more evident in the privacy of the home than in the workplace or in public. Surveys show that men are willing to go to the supermarket once a week or mind the children for a while; but they refuse to iron, sew, chop vegetables, or clean the oven or toilet, because these tasks are considered unmanly. Men help out, but within rigidly defined parameters.

This division of labor in all areas of life means that men and women remain surprisingly inept at tasks assigned to the other sex. We see educated men who don't know how to make a cup of coffee, and professional women with no idea about how to change a fuse. Men know little about babies; women know little about checkbooks--because they aren't supposed to. So machismo creates people with only half the skills that modern life requires. Far from creating a healthy complementarity between the sexes, it perpetuates dependence on both sides and creates widespread inefficiency.

Part of the problem is the deep-seated assumption that women are meant to attend to men's needs. From the moment of their birth, men are surrounded by the constant care of women. Mothers, aunts, grandmothers, sisters, and later girlfriends, wives, and daughters are expected to fulfill--even anticipate--a man's every desire. Mothers tell little girls to "attend" their brothers, while little boys are instructed to "watch over" their sisters.

This non-stop pampering is aggravated by female domestic servants, ranging from the high society governess to the part-time maid of a middle-class family. Servants, indeed, are a bulwark of Mexican machismo. Though they allow women to go out and work, they ensure that men continue to be pampered like oriental potentates, never lifting a finger in the home. Where wives and daughters now refuse to drop everything to prepare lunch for the man of the house, the maid takes up the slack.

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The implications of these attitudes and behaviors go beyond the domestic sphere. Pampered Mexican boys grow into men accustomed to being obeyed instantly, who feel entitled to special attention, refuse to negotiate with those whom they consider inferior, and reject any form of criticism. The men who dominate public life often fit this mold: they are demanding, impatient, intolerant, and self-centered.

There is an inescapable contradiction between machismo and our supposed transition to democracy. As Monica sums it up with mock exasperation after our lunch, twice interrupted by her husband, "This machismo business doesn't make sense any more. How can we continue to be governed by men who have never set foot in a supermarket?"