Culture is an immensely vital factor in determining and shaping identity. However, the role of culture and identity is complicated when there are elements in the culture that can be harmful. This is particularly true when it comes to Latinx culture, which embraces machismo and has a detrimental relationship with mulataje identities. If the toxic elements are continually accepted into the culture, it can lead to an unhealthy environment for the future generations.
The works of Elizabeth Acevedo and Junot Diaz both explore the experience of individuals of Dominican descent navigating American society. Both authors explore the role of mulataje and machismo in an American society in order to convey the ways that toxic elements of culture can affect one’s identity. Although both discuss the same topics, their confrontation and assessment of these topics are vastly different. Through Diaz’s plot and characters, the insecurities of machismo and mulataje identities are implied, and this reflects the culture and raises awareness of the internalized misogynist and racist qualities. In contrast, Acevedos’s poetry directly addresses the misogyny and multaje suppression in Latino culture, and combats it by positively re-affirming the multaje and female identity. Thus, Diaz reflects the culture, but Acevedo actively shifts the narrative into a healthier and more inclusive environment. This contrast displays the consequences and the benefits in the ways that artists face when confronting these issues through their art.
Machismo is one of the core pillars of Latino culture, it is encompassed in its history and supported in its religion. As written about in Veronica Linda Ortiz’s article, “The Culture of Machismo in Mexico Harms Women,” machismo usually consists of three variables: violence being equated with manliness, a welcoming of hypermasculine attitudes, and having an abundance of sexual experiences with women. She states that machismo “reinforces the idea of women as second-class citizens whose rights and opportunities” (Ortiz) and perpetuates a system that is built upon stark power relations and social inequalities. She states that machismo is deeply embedded within Latinx traditions and history, which protects and enables toxic attitudes with women such as catcalling, harassment, or treating them as sexual objects. She suggests that the strength of machismo being a part of the culture can only further damage chances of women being involved in the political and social spheres of their culture.
A study done by the Department of Psychology at the University of Fordham, “Factors Influencing Masculinity Ideology among Latino Men,” elaborates on the development of machismo in Latino men and the consequences that result from it. The study found that some factors that aided in the development of machismo were through “childrearing practices” (Saez, Casado, Wade), and emphasizes that Latino families tend to raise their children with their cultural values at the center “regardless of the norm of the dominant culture” (Saez, Casado, Wade). Furthermore, in Latino American men, they found that the stronger the identification with the individual’s ethnicity then the higher tendency to engage and endorse in behaviors that are an “exaggerated form of traditional masculinity” and “endorse some of the negative stereotypes” (Saez, Casado, Wade) associated with machismo. Some of the negative stereotypes of machismo include alcoholism and the objectification and dominance of women. The study concludes with the statement that the research is evidence that “men receive powerful messages regarding gender role norms from their ethnic group” (Saez, Casado, Wade). As exemplified in this study, elements of culture can profoundly affect an individual’s character, and if the cultural element is machismo then it can have a consequential effect in producing toxic masculinity at the expense of others.
Though, there are some that argue that machismo also contributes positively to Latino culture as the article “Machismo and Marital Satisfaction in Mexican American Couples” explains. The article details the positive characteristics of machismo that are often forgotten such as promoting the “notion of gentlemen” (Pardo, Weisfeld, Hill, Slatcher), being nurturing and respectful, as well as ensuring that his family should be his utmost priority. Contrary to Ortiz’s article, this article shares that most individuals in the family recall the positive aspects of machismo rather than the negative ones. Thus, the authors in the article explain that there is much more nuance in a concept such as machismo than just dismissing it as a completely negative contribution to Latinx society and culture.
In the primary topics in Diaz’s work, he embeds the machismo characteristics through his characters. This is exemplified in his text, “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie),” the protagonist, Yunior, shares his different instructions for dating and seducing multiple girls with different ethnicities. The misogyny is apparent in Yunior’s character; his perspective of the girls is limited to seeing them as as sexual conquests rather than individuals: this is demonstrated through the women’s nameless identities and the protagonist’s fervent response when asked if he was “waiting on that bitch” (newyorker.com). Diaz suggests that this machismo is rooted from the culture through Yunior’s interactions with other Latino individuals: his Tia measures his growth by squeezing his testicles and his Puerto Rican neighbor demeans the narrator’s date by referring to her as a “fuckbuddy” (newyorker.com). His narration of the story anticipates how he can remain in control of the seduction and by extension, maintain power over the girl: “During the next hour, the phone will ring. You will be tempted to pick it up. Don’t” (newyorker.com). As Yunior anticipates that the girl will be in the restroom after intercourse, he ponders the possibility of bragging to one of his friends about their sexual relations, which is one of key components of machismo. The misogyny in this narrative is evident, and suggests to the reader that it is problematic, but the author does not explicitly state this.
Although feminism in the Dominican Republic is not completely absent, it is not necessarily held in the highest regard. April Mayes’s article, “Why Dominican Feminism Moved to the Right: Class, Colour and Women’s Activism in the Dominican Republic, 1880s-1940s,” shares how feminism in a Dominican society was viewed as a luxury afforded only for the elite and privileged. Rafael’s Trujillo’s regime in the 1940s had numerous bourgeois and light-skinned women, who advocated for feminism but also “allied themselves with […] right-wing politics” (Mayes). Though there were initially diverse and left-leaning feminists in Dominican history, they were overshadowed by the elite and higher ranking women in power. This led to Dominican feminism from the 1880s-1940s representing only the interests of the elite class which were much more focused on ensuring pathways that elite women could be represented in cultural and political spaces rather than understanding the origins of women’s servitude which stem from stark racial and class divides.
In Elizabeth Acevedo’s work, Poet X, she writes about the role machismo plays within the protagonist’s culture, particularly in her religion. The protagonist of the story, Xiomara, reflects on her relationship with her church as she begins to question her faith. As a child she reminisces about the musical components and witnessing her mother become emotional at the sermons. However, as she listens to her pastor’s lecture, she disengages from her religious classes, due to the bible’s portrayal of women, emphasizing how girls are held to unrealistic standards: “the only girl I’m supposed to be / was an impregnated virgin” (58). Furthermore, Acevedo writes how the church encourages girls to be submissive: “To wait. To stop. To obey” (58) and the complications of illustrating God as male: “I’m told to have faith / in the father the son / in men and men are the first ones / to make me feel so small” (59). One of the components of the factors of machismo is because Christianity is a central aspect to Latino culture, and in Christianity numerous men are illustrated with power and grace, whereas there are few women in the religion that share those characteristics. Thus, by upholding men in a power of superiority in a cultural setting, it re-affirms the inequality between the two genders and the lack of power women possess.
Both portrayals of machismo in Diaz’s and Acevedo’s works, display the ways that this component interacts with Latino culture. Diaz displays how it is perpetuated with Yunior’s peers and family members, and how this perputation has a profound effect on the way that Yunior objectifies women and values sex. Similarly, Acevedo exhibits how the church also supports notions of machismo: a confirmation of men’s dominance and a promotion of women’s purity and obedience. Acevedo shows that Xiomara’s loss of faith directly correlates with machismo, therefore displaying how machismo can isolate and be detrimental to some of the members in the Latino community. In contrast, Yunior’s sexism is emphasized, it is not necessarily explicit or demeaned by the author; this can unintentionally create a sense of support or sympathy towards Yunior’s toxic characteristics. Though these authors approach machismo differently, they both display the harmful outcomes that can result from it.
In contrast to how machismo is profoundly embraced in the Latino community, mulataje identities are often suppressed or ignored. In the Dominican communities this is largely due to historical events as explained in Lorgia García-Peña’s journal, “Translating Blackness: Dominicans Negotiating Race and Belonging.” In 1844, the Dominican Republic gained independence from Haiti and needed to negotiate economically and politically with the United States and Europe. At the time, blackness was often associated with slavery and in order to gain favor with the western world and re-assert its independence from Haiti, the republican writers drafted ideologies that “erased blackness from the national rhetoric” (García-Peña). García-Peña shares how this would have detrimental consequences socially, leading to the massacre of Afro-Dominicans and Haitians, and the ban of their religious and cultural traditions. If a Dominican was to have features of African ancestry it was equated with foreignness. García-Peña explains that a part of the reason behind this mulataje suppression is that being black is “admitting one’s relationship to colonial oppression and slavery” (García-Peña). Thus, in a Dominican culture there are complications with accepting or identifying one’s mulataje identity.
The complication of a mulataje identity is prevalent in Diaz’s “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie).” Throughout the poem, Diaz reveals elements of insecurity within the protagonist: “Hide the picture of yourself with an Afro” (newyorker.com) and “you love [her skin] more than you love your own” (newyorker.com). This demonstrates his insecurity of his mulataje ancestry, and how it generates feelings of shame. In the scenario Yunior pictures seducing awhite girl, he imagines meeting her mother and “run[ning] a hand through [his] hair like the white boys do, even though the only thing that runs easily through [his] hair is Africa” (newyorker.com). This exemplifies his insecurity of the texture of his hair, since he feels that acting like he has a white boy will put the girl’s mother at ease. This is quickly followed by Yunior admittance, “White girls are the ones you want the most, aren’t they?” (newyorker.com). This reveals how the internalized colonialism of Dominican history has translated into his beauty standard and perception of women, and it also suggests that he finds mulataje features unattractive. Thus, through Yunior’s actions, Diaz reveals the ways in which Dominicans feel insecure and ashamed about their mulataje ancestry in an American society.
Within Diaz’s writing in this text, there is an immense absence of self-love and this is demonstrated through Yunior’s self-worth being dependent on whether he is accepted by each of the girls he dates. Yunior’s lack of belonging is exemplified through his ever-changing assimilation with his interactions of each girl. His own uncertain identity is a stark contrast to the clear stereotypical identities that he labels on each of the girls, which relates to the Dominican Republic’s own racially complicated history which produced people whose racial identity is a hybrid of indigenious tribes, African slaves, and Spaniards. Diaz’s characterization of this hybrid racial identity is subtle, and has an ambiguous connotation. It can be taken as negatively, with the reader’s interpretation of Yunior’s casual assimilation as emblematic of an individual that is lost in understanding his own identity which leads him to conform to what his environments demand him to be. However it can also be viewed as positive, with the reader interpreting Yunior’s observations about the girls as attentive and his social navigation through assimilation as intuitive and clever. This is one of the complications in Diaz’s writing being used as a reflection of the Latinx community, Diaz’s portrayal of these issues are often ambiguous. Although he alludes to the insecurities of mulataje hair and suggests that Yunior is bound by machismo and has been internally colonized, there’s the possibility that reader’s could interpret it as relatable rather than problematic. Thus, Diaz’s work could be unintentionally continuing to support and enable the misogynistic and colonist structures that are promoted through machismo and Dominican culture.
Elizabeth Acevedo’s spoken word, “Hair,” also examines the ways in which the mulataje identity is repressed and discriminated against in the Latino community. Her spoken word shares an anecdote of a mother telling the speaker to straighten her hair, which Acevedo translates as “whiten[ing]” (Slamfind, 0:08) her hair. Acevedo suggests that assimilating or transforming her mulataje characteristics contributes to the erasure of their African ancestors: “Trying to find ways to erase them out of our skin, iron them out of our hair” (0:23-28). She continues to endow the aspects of her multaje identity with historical allusions: “love like sugar cane” (1:15-16) and “children of children of fields” (1:20-22). Though both of these historical allusions were grim elements of African history, Acevedo associates them with euphoric imagery which conveys how there is beauty in African ancestry. Thus, Acevedo not only displays the discrimination against mulataje qualities, but confronts and combats that narrative through her poetry.
Furthermore, in Acevedo’s spoken word poem, “Afro-Latina,” she directly acknowledges her own complicated relationship with her Dominican ancestry. She recalls her insecurities of having dark skin, her mother’s “brokee inglee” (Slamfind, 00:38-00:40), and ensuring that she straightened her coily hair in order to imitate “Barbie” (0:36). Though she characterizes these thoughts with embarrassment, her tone shifts to one of vibrance and pride when she states, “So remind me where I come from” (1:00-1:02), and lists numerous inidgenious and African tribes, as well as the Spaniards. The tone shift exemplifies the remorse of her attempted assimilation in American society, to a declaration of self-love and sharing the importance of embracing one’s culture. Instead of dismissing the Dominican Republic’s racially complicated and historically oppressed past, Acevedo embues a sense of pride in it: “I know I come from stolen gold […] slaves and slave masters […] indigenious rape” (1:14-1:32). Thus, Acevedo re-brands what would be a solemn statement, and characterizes it as a source of her ancestors’ strength and ability to have their descendants survive despite these oppressions. Acevedo displays the hybridity of Dominican American identity as a “beautifully tragic mixture” (1:20-23), and the acknowledgement of their “forgotten” (1:40) and “undocumented” (1:42) stories of the past. This lack of belonging is explicitly stated, and instead of solely characterizing it as a insecurity, Acevedo recognizes it as an opportunity to honor and remember the hardships of her ancestral background. The final minute of the poem is dedicated to naming how Afro-Latinas are a part of aspects of everyday life, spanning from oceans to stars and backbones. Thus, Acevedo asserts the resilience and power of Afro-Latina women by metaphorically comparing them to the structures of our universe, and promoting an empowered and prideful image of the Dominican community.
Although, both Acevedo and Diaz explore similar topics, their execution of each topic within their writing has profoundly different effects on the reader. Since Diaz exemplifies the issues of Latinx culture through his plot and characters, these insecurities are implied, and it focuses on reflecting the culture and raises awareness of the internalized misogynist and racist qualities. Although raising awareness of cultural problems is a way to begin to encourage positive cultural change, it is not a productive solution. Diaz does not necessarily combat or refute the toxic cultural elements in his work, this can become problematic as it can unintentionally continue to perpetuate detrimental aspects. In contrast, Acevedos directly addresses the issues of misogyny and mulataje, and reclaims the often negatively connotated aspects of her mulataje identity. Acevedo encourages and promotes an image of Dominican culture where women are respected and Dominican’s history is embraced and acknowledged by its descendants. Diaz focuses on portraying a Latinx culture in the past and present, whereas Acevedo centralizes her work on imaging a welcoming and positive Latinx community. Therefore, when confronting the Latino community’s mulataje suppression and detrimental aspects of machismo, there must be ways to transform it, awareness is not the final solution.