Machismo (noun)— Having an unusually high or exaggerated sense of masculinity, including an attitude that aggression, strength, sexual prowess, power and control is the measure of someone’s manliness (touché Urban Dictionary).
When I was in my 20s, I had so-called balls. Big balls. The kind of reckless balls that were blatantly ignorant to all impending doom. I traveled that way. Alone. Often. Hitching a cargo ship to Tunisia and sleeping in steerage. Chopping my own wood to survive in Chile. Accepting a boat ride from random boys in Alaska. All before smartphones and Instagram could safely track my movements. It was wonderfully freeing. And maybe somewhat stupid at times.
These days, I step with considerably greater caution. I mean I still engage in “reckless” behavior I suppose, but I pair my hitchhiking and urban exploration with a side of 2017 know how. I also tend to travel with other crazy companions and haven’t been alone for more than a week since leaving Japan. But truth be told, I haven’t exactly wanted to be alone. This is mostly due to my overt introduction to machismo culture in dear Barranquilla, Colombia.
"Sexism is bad," he said, "but machismo - isn't. It's a way of protecting women."
I’m no stranger to sexual harassment, sexual assault, or even machismo culture. My past is littered with mini excerpts of man drama. A schizophrenic stalker in California. A man who announced his hatred of me on a train in Japan. A butt squeeze in Morocco. A boob squeeze in South Korea. And a rather aggressive assault by a group of men in Nepal. F*$%, a market plaza froze in time once because I was eating ice cream. (Control yourself, boys. It’s not your dick). And as if I really need to say it in 2017, none of these incidences were justified. I wasn’t even a “proper target”: not drunk nor alone. I was often in a crowd of people, with my boyfriend, or just minding my own damn business. Yay womanhood.
The machismo force is strong in many places around the world, due to religion, climate, select presidents. But the original concept derives from Latin and South America, dating all the way back to all those haughty Spanish conquistadors. These days, obvious signs of machismo include drawing attention to random women’s appearance or sexual allure on the street. Through looks, remarks, sounds, gestures. Many of the culprits honestly believe they are doing a favor to women: complimenting them to boost their self-esteem. But obviously the statistics say otherwise. Machismo culture is the gateway drug to many other injustices, including rape and homicide.
There are women pushing back here in South America. Ignoring the eye rolls of those whom believe that the machismo culture is just boys being boys. Movements like Hollaback! and my favorite, “Sibale a tu Madre” (“Harassing Your Mom”), are causing ripples. Maybe it’s working, maybe not. I was sure not immune.
Closer to the coast= manliness amplified
“Without a penis in my approximate vicinity, claiming ownership I suppose, the machismo began…”
I had been warned by a future coworker ahead of time that machismo was rampant in Barranquilla, Colombia where I was moving in September 2016. It’s blamed on a mixture of the Costeño culture, the heat, the physical beauty of Colombian women, Escobarian leftovers, and more. So along with the weather, it became something I dreaded. But surprisingly, no man so much as glanced in my direction for two weeks. Until Robbie left my side. Without a penis in my approximate vicinity, claiming ownership I suppose, the machismo began.
Most of the time it was harmless. A stare. A hello. A mild compliment about my appearance. But it often bordered on obscene: leers, lip smacking, sexual gestures. From what I heard from other ladies dealing with Barranquilla and beyond, I was lucky. One friend had a taxi driver pull up to her as she was waiting for a bus and mocked, er, fellatio before speeding away. Another proclaimed she wouldn’t dare walk more than two blocks without taking a cab having dealt with the harassment before she even hit puberty. “I just want a gun,” she told me over coffee once. “I just want to shoot one to teach them all a lesson.”
It was all very confusing. Does catcalling ever work? What one woman has actually turned around and decided she would sleep with the stranger on the spot, ruining it for us all? I’m in my pajamas. I just finished a work out. I just threw up all over the sidewalk on your shoes. How is any of this turning you on?!
Not being Latina— not that it should’ve mattered— I was not accustomed to this treatment and didn’t take it lightly. Despite the risk factor, I often made it my mission, as a pint-sized person, to give them a hell. There was even a point where I started being creative, taking some pointers of this list of tactics. My progression of defensive moves:
- Ignore them.
- Flip them off.
- Practice Spanish curse words and eventually learn to say something about their mothers.
- Act incredibly moved. “Me?! You think I’m beautiful??!! OHMYGODDDDDD!!”
- Keep saying, “What? Huh? SORRY I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”
- Carry a rock and consider throwing it at them.
- Bark at them.
Nothing worked, naturally. I learned to just deal with it. To this means, I changed as a female resident. When I went outside alone or with other women, I was on edge. I avoided passing by males over the age of 16. Cranked the music to tune the rest out. Puffed myself up to look bigger and gritted me teeth with distain.
“I just want a gun,” she told me over coffee once. “I just want to shoot one to teach them all a lesson…”
Varying degrees of machismo
When we left Barranquilla in early March to transverse around South America, I was still hesitant. My friend had warned me that along our travels—specifically i Buenos Aires— I would encounter worse machismo. But so far, it’s been a mixed bag, mostly because a male has been around. In Easter Island, I literally stepped out of the restaurant below where we were eating to take a photo of the ocean. With that step, a truck drove by and said some choice words out the window at me. Le sigh.
The real test came last week when Robbie left for a work thing for 8 days. I braced for impact. Surely, being left to my own devices in Uruguay would prove disastrous in the machismo department. But it hasn’t. I’ve walked all over this city— a coastal city mind you— as well as several other rural places and felt safe. Normal. Human.
Yet, some consider Uruguay the most machismo country in all of South America thanks to its underlining sexism. That despite legal abortion and gay marriage, issues affecting women are still problematic. In fact, Uruguay tops the list for the number of women killed by their partner or ex-partner. So it seems that walking the streets may be one thing, but a lot of the machismo is happening behind closed doors.
I am curious to see how it is— with or without Robbie— in Bolivia and Peru, countries I heard that machismo is running amuck. And I really don’t know what all I can do to prevent it given my historic attempts. I suppose I still have my know how. My mispronounced Spanish. My middle finger. And a penis to keep me company…