On Machismo
Ana Lydia Vega
Translated by Cecile Williams


Spanish has a knack for creating words that fill conceptual voids in other languages. Fiesta, guerrilla, and machismo are eloquent cases in point. Before the incorporation of those three words into the English vocabulary, parties were just boring and colorless reunions; small defensive forces were crushed by the sheer insignificance of their name; and female subordination was just the way the earth revolved around the sun.

The word machismo has been by far the most successful of the trio. Not only has it picturesquely christened the party in power ever since Adam and Eve kept the doctor away from the Garden of Eden, but it has also adroitly placed the blame on foreign shoulders. The forceful, primitive specimen that has come to be known as the macho is as far removed from civilized society as the monkeys that frolic in the darkest corners of the Amazonian jungle. Such socially undesirable behavior is more comfortably thought of as something that mostly happens elsewhere, preferably in remote countries that teem with guerrillas and indulge in wild fiestas when they are not in the midst of a coup.

Exhibited by men (and, for that matter, women) of all classes and origins, machismo is as multicultural and international as sex. However, one must, in all fairness, admit that, among an astonishing variety of ethnic styles, a distinctively Latin brand stands out. Take, for instance, the tender habit of serenading a wife with heart-wrenching boleros and rancheras on the night following a beating. Or the chivalrous tradition of the piropo, in which a woman is relentlessly followed [End Page 58] around by a gentleman and regaled with compliments, a courtship rite that in other latitudes might pass for harassment or even stalking. With their heartfelt devotion to motherhood and their equally heartfelt refusal of fatherhood, Latin machos have made lasting contributions to state-of-the-art machismo.

While recognizing those who have elevated machismo to the rank of a social grace, let us not underestimate the creative input of some First World countries. Although serenading and piropos may not be common outside the Hispanic world, wife beating and witch burning are almost institutional hallmarks of the global village. While mating rites such as catcalls and whistles may be less prevalent in less extroverted societies, other, more secret dangers lurk around the corner. From Jack the Ripper to Ted Bundy, the folk appeal of those avenging angels known as serial killers--apparently a specialty of Anglo societies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean--has lately increased to epic proportions. The number of these cunning predators is on the rise: solitary, anonymous infantrymen, they march on to wreak random havoc on unsuspecting womankind. Of course, such psychos do not fairly represent the rather harmless, even charming chauvinist antics of the general run of homegrown male piglets. But isn't the serial killer really the ultimate macho lover, the contemporary caveman who, not content to pull hair, collects women's body parts as keepsakes of his undying passion? Isn't he the sickest, most sinister of clandestine guerrillas, the most morbid reveler at private macho fiestas?

Yes, Spanish truly has a knack for creating words that cross over into other languages, maybe because its words can designate realities too universal for local recognition, too close for comfort.

Ana Lydia Vega, a native Puerto Rican, is author of Encancaranu-blado y otros cuentos de naufragio (Antillana), Pasión de historia y otras historias de pasión (Flor), and Falsas crónicas del Sur (Editorial Universidad de Puerto Rico). The London publisher Serpent's Tail Press released True and False Romances: Stories and a Novella, translated into English by Andrew Hurley, in 1994. Vega's work has also appeared in French, German, Dutch, and Japanese. She is professor of French at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras.