Being Macho: A Defense
When someone says, "He's so macho!" are we supposed to consider this a compliment or an insult? While the Village People sang the praises of having a manly body in "Macho Man" the feminist movement has given us permission to belittle any man who has more muscles than brains, and sitcoms continually laugh at men who still stubbornly refuse to ask for directions.
In truth, we have mixed feelings toward the men in our life. The Spanish-derived term "macho" or "machismo" has ambivalent connotations. We like our men to be strong, but not abusive. We like a man who takes control, but we don't want him to be too controlling. The Urban Dictionary defines machismo as "having an unusually high or exaggerated sense of masculinity." So if you feel that a man shows an exaggerated attitude of aggression, sexual bravado, or control, then calling him "macho" is probably tainted with disapproval. On the other hand, if the attitude isn't exaggerated, but rather if a man exhibits an authentic sense of confidence based on his ability to protect his family and provide for their needs, then calling him "macho" could be considered a compliment. We may prefer to use the term "Daddy" or "Papi" but these are terms of endearment that really admit to our attraction to true masculinity in our fathers, our husbands, and our leaders.
As I study the role of Kevin, the father figure of IN THE HEIGHTS, I will no doubt draw from my experience with my own father, whose confidence as a provider and protector has been painfully diminished by old age and the mismanagement of never ending debt. In my opinion, the negative traits of machismo, the controlling, stubborn nature, the aggressive anger, come out only when a man's sense of confidence or usefulness is threatened -- when he feels useless.
As owner of a taxi company, Kevin Rosario is obviously a leader in his community. When he left Puerto Rico, his goal was to surpass the frustrating and backbreaking occupation of his father and grandfather -- that of a farmer -- and he can claim some pride in being called "boss". But all these accomplishments are always on the brink of being lost because running a small business is stressful with lots of ups and downs and usually built on a lot of debt. He's recently had to lay off three drivers, the mechanic won't repair any more taxis until he gets paid for the last job, and they may need an emergency loan to cover payroll again. Nevertheless, Kevin stays optimistic through it all. Staying calm and collected is his way of saying, "I'm still in control. I will not fail." I definitely recognize my own father in Kevin. One of my father's first jobs was picking onions and cotton in the fields of South Texas, but he "moved up" to become a truck driver and then the owner of a Trucking company. Later, the business expanded to Guerra Construction, which paved a lot of parking lots and driveways all around Corpus Christi. I remember being given small chores around my Dad's shop, sweeping, cleaning the trucks, getting my hands greasy handling tools and truck parts, and then learning to do payroll and a little accounting. But being the boss of all that did not interest me at all. I preferred books and music. Besides, I saw how much it stressed my mother out. She often complained about how my father took risks and made decisions without her, and how there wasn't much left over after everyone else got paid. She knew, more than he did, that this could all be over in an instant, and sure enough, my father lost it all in the recession of the 1980's. Ever since then, he's been doing construction jobs on a smaller scale but always in debt and always in search of that next big project that will pay everything off. Through all this, my father remains calm and optimistic -- almost blindly so. I never saw him raise his voice or get angry or abusive, but he was passively aggressive anyway because he rarely followed my mother's advice or pleadings. In the end, he believed that he knew more about how to run a business than any woman could despite all evidence to the contrary. Nearing 80 years old now, we've been begging him to retire, but I know in my heart that he will be working until the day he dies. To retire now would be to admit failure because there are still bills to pay and men who call him "boss". As my grandmother used to say, "Los Guerras son muy mandones!" / "The Guerra men like to give orders!" Having the last word, making decisions about business, having someone to give orders to, these things form the basis of his identity as a man even more than bringing home a profit. He's still stubbornly determined to prove my mother wrong. He will not be the reason that his family can't succeed.
Kevin and my father can both claim more success when it came to raising their children. All good parents want their children to reach a higher level of education and prosperity than they did, and they will sacrifice whatever it takes to help their children reach their goals. The fact that Kevin raised a daughter who was smart enough and disciplined enough to get into Stanford University is testament to his role in building her up to fly higher than he had ever reached. Some lesser Latino men might see this as a threat to their masculinity -- especially when it comes to their daughters, but Kevin need not exaggerate his masculinity by keeping his daughter down. She's going change the world, and he's going to help her do it. My father graduated from high school and did some military service, but that was considered "success" for most men of his generation and in his barrio. I remember my parents working extra hard to make sure we went to the best schools, and three out of their four children finished college with a Bachelor's degree and my brother and I went further and completed Masters Degrees as well. But we had to "educate them" about the costs and perils of going to college. We could not rely on any guidance from them because we were forging new ground they had never trod. Nevertheless, we scrapped together scholarships, grants, and loans, and we achieved our goal with their blessing and prayers. My parents rarely traveled, but some of the few road trips they ever took in their life were to drop us off at university and to witness our graduations four years later. Our success was their success, and my father still loves dropping names like Notre Dame and Harvard when talking to his compadres.
When it came to the matter of who their children chose to date, both Kevin and my father's experience was no doubt bewildering and a "little bit racist," as they say on Avenue Q. Our director's choice to cast Benny as a white boy rather than black feels a lot more familiar to me. In South Texas, we had little encounters with African-Americans, but we were sort of taught to be wary of white folks, not so much because they were better or worse so much as "different". So Kevin's concern that Benny knows "nothing about our culture" is in part protective because paternal instincts say that our children will likely be most happy with someone who shares our culture. In the end, it's Camila, his wife, who makes the final call about whether Benny is good enough for their daughter. When I was dating girls in high school, my parents always wanted to know the last name of my girlfriends, trying to ensure that I was dating someone Hispanic. And by golly, they had better be Catholic! My father may have been a little bit racist, but thankfully not very homophobic. Both my brother and I identify as gay, and even though my parents probably grieved silently about expectations for big Mexican weddings that never happened and the expectation for lots of grandchildren, they have shown nothing but love and acceptance for us and our partners, even my gringo partner, Bill! In my opinion, those men who are most comfortable in their masculinity are the least homophobic. When it came to my sisters, my parents had to stretch their tolerance even more. One sister never married, and my other sister’s husband is surprisingly not Hispanic, but rather Lebanese and Muslim! Sometimes, I am tempted to lament the grief and worry they must have suffered for their children’s choices in life and love, but truth be told, they are very proud of our courageous willingness to be fully who we are, bi-cultural / tri-cultural, and proud that we have flown further and broader than the small world of South Texas where they raised us. Even more importantly, they have been happy to see us fulfilled in stable long-term relationships. My sister gave birth to four beautiful daughters, and my brother and his partner will soon be adopting their first child. We are blessed. We are grateful.
|From left to right: Martin Antonio Guerra, Tio Eli Guerra, Tio Mando Guerra, My Father, Zaragoza Guerra, Jr. and my younger brother, Zaragoza Andres Guerra, III|