Deconstructing “Marianismo”


A short documentary about Latinas living with HIV created and directed by a young filmmaker in Houston was screened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. What fascinates me about this film by Erica Fletcher is her area of focus, which is “cultural factors that affect the disproportionate spread of HIV among Latina women living in Houston.” It is from this idea of “cultural factors” that she named her film “Marianismo.” Ahh, that phrase “cultural factors” is really loaded when applied to Latinos.

Fletcher, a 19-year-old college student, did a survey of research and literature about Latinas and HIV transmission and infection. What fascinates, and saddens me at the same time, is that when I was an undergrad like Erica, back in the early 1990s, my research on HIV infection/transmission and birth control options among Latinas living in the US was heavily laced with “cultural factors” among Latinos. Everything from “machismo” (the expectation of masculinity, which I have long argued Latinos do NOT have a monopoly on, machismo is in every culture), “familialismo”  (a value of the family), “simpatia” (a value of having smooth and non-confrontational exchanges/relationships) and of course “Marianismo” (the expectation of femininity for Latinas). I’m disappointed that nothing has changed in the research in over 15 years about Latinas and sexual health and HIV infections and transmission.

I admit that when I found these “cultural values” I ate them up too! That’s what you are trained to do as an undergrad at a research institution: see peer-reviewed journals as valuable and useful versus examining them with a critical eye (which I learned in graduate school). I wrote papers and even my first book, discussing these “cultural values” and how they affect Latinos living in the US. What I didn’t realize until earlier this decade was that many of these “cultural values” have been ascribed to us by outsiders. These outsiders are often anthropologists or sociologists who “observe” communities and spaces of which they may not always be a member. Fletcher said “A lot of times there is that huge fear in anthropology or sociology when one is doing research of not wanting to peg people into a certain role.” Yup, that sounds about right.

I then began to realize how many of these foreign ideas and “cultural values” that were applied to us (many of them stemming from a legacy of colonization, specifically “Marianismo”) were internalized by Latinos. When I read Latino researchers discussions around Latino sexuality, they too often engaged with “cultural values” found among us. It was rare to find a Latino doing research and/or publishing on the topic to challenge these “cultural values” that were assigned to us.

Instead of debunking all of these “cultural values,” as that can take a very long time, I’d like to tease out part of what Fletcher said in an interview: “There is so much of the Latino culture that is diverse” yet that is often not what we hear in the research or media. I want to deconstruct “Marianismo” for a moment and encourage a dialogue about this specific “cultural value.”

Historically, “Marianismo” was a term coined for the expectation of femininity for Latinas that is connected to Catholicism (enter colonization via religion). The term refers directly to the Virgin Mary (hence the term Maria-nismo), who was considered selfless, enduring sacrifice for the family, being “pure,” and thus spiritually stronger than Latino men. The problem that first arises, for me at least, is that this is connected to a specific religious belief and value system. It is a hasty generalization to assume that all Latinos are Catholic. We are not. Please believe this–we have a diverse range of belief systems as a community–something about which I wrote earlier this week.  Assuming all Latinos are Catholic is a disservice and a stereotype.

Another issue for me is that this is one of the only “cultural value” connected to religion. After all, Latino males are not expected to be like Jesus via “machismo.” However, I recognize that some can make an argument that this may be true, especially if we realize that Latino men have stated that they define masculinity as brining honor to the family, and being responsible.  Read more about machismo by Chicana feminist Maxine Baca Zinn’s  early work on Chicano families in the late 1970s and 1980s. She was one of the few who spoke out against these assigned “cultural values.”

Another issue about the term “Marianismo” is that if it does exist for some Latinas, it is a result/reaction/outcome of colonization by various empires (Spanish and Portuguese come to mind, but historically several countries in the Americas have been colonized by various other empires). Often people forget how engrained we are generations after colonization has “ended” (I don’t think it really has for many countries, including my own Puerto Rico) yet these “cultural values” remind us of this history. I also see these “cultural values” as a new form of colonization. Maintaining that what was originally forced upon communities remains. This scares me. Accessible texts that I have found useful about this idea and fact include: Americas: The changing Face of Latin America & the Caribbean, and Latino USA: A Cartoon History.

The final point I want to make about “Marianismo” is that there is a connection to remaining a “virgin” (no oral, anal or vaginal sex) until marriage. This idea perpetuates aspects of “machismo” where a Latina is to learn about sex and sexuality via her male partner. It is also very heterosexist as there is no room for anyone to identify as anything other than heterosexual. Thus, this “cultural value” is problematic on numerous levels.

I would love to see the film Fletcher created. I’d also love to begin to see more research that moves us away from assuming these static “cultural values” and creates conversations about actual activities and behaviors that people engage in versus focusing on assumed “values” Latinos have and thus not being very effective. How about we not assume these “cultural values” exist within a community until that community can confirm or deny them without our prompting them. If we do not take a different approach we will end up with the same problematic and ineffective programs for Latino youth based on research that identifies our youth as “risk takers” yet doesn’t actually identify the real risks.

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