The High Price of Machismo During a Pandemic

Welcome to the second post in my series, WE CAN DO THIS: A Latina's Guide to Mindful Presence During Stressful Times.

My friend Carlos, who works as a school groundskeeper, texted me this morning, to express his frustration with being “locked up at home.” Like many Latinos, Carlos, a Hispano from northern New Mexico, is sheltering at home in confined quarters with multiple generations under one small roof. In his 40s, Carlos lives with his mother, who is ill and nearly 70. He does her shopping and cleaning, she cooks and decides what they’ll watch on TV. Their apartment is small; he sleeps on the sofa and she takes the bedroom. And, just as she’s done all his life, she tells him when to eat, what to eat, how to sit, etc.

“I’m losing my mind,” he said.

At the start of the lockdown, Carlos was escaping through his daily solitary walks around Rio Rancho, and through taking drives to the mountains - even camping out under the stars for relief. Then his car broke down. Now, he only has his walks, and, he says, he’s starting to feel so cooped up he’s invited some of his old high school buddies to come pick him up for a joyride. Before the lockdown, Carlos and his longtime friends often got together every few days, to play pool, drink beer, listen to music or share a meal, and understandably, Carlos misses that. For decades now, for every tug his controlling mother gave in the direction of his insanity, his compadres have pulled Carlos an equal distance in the direction of peace, with their raucous support.

Carlos’ feelings of being “a caged animal” are familiar to many of us, maybe all of us, as we continue to shelter in place in hopes of flattening the curve of new coronavirus cases. But, as I told him in our conversation, Carlos’ impulse to break the rules of lockdown, just for a little bit, are wrong-headed. He responded by telling me that he doesn’t want to “live in fear,” and I reminded him that informed self-care is not fear, it’s protective. He scoffed, and waved off my concerns, saying, “I’ll be fine,” to which I said, “Maybe so, but your sick, elderly mother won’t be, if you bring the virus home. Continue to isolate, for her sake.”

That’s where our conversation stopped. I’d offended his masculinity.

Like many traditional “machista” Latino men, Carlos has been conditioned to never back down, to view “fear,” any fear, as a sign of weakness. This is why public health campaigns like the one around coronavirus are doomed to fail in traditional Latino communities. So far, all the public health outreach about sheltering at home has played to people’s very justifiable and wise fear of this highly contagious and incurable disease sweeping the planet. For macho men like Carlos, for whom the notion of “bravery” is so tied into their sense of self it is psychologically unbearable to see themselves as backing down, the messaging will have the opposite effect: It will make them reckless.

All the Asian, Middle Eastern and American restaurants in my diverse immigrant neighborhood in Albuquerque have closed down, following state orders to do takeout only. But two restaurants remain defiantly open for business, with their loud neon signs blazing and their parking lots jammed with big pickup trucks - La Michoacana, a Mexican paleta bar, and the Sanchez taco truck across the street from it. Those who dine out in these crowds are men like Carlos, following their psychological conditioning to proudly “stand up” to the virus, as though it were nothing but another macho man leering at their girlfriends from across a bar. Unfortunately, many of them drag their families along with them.

As a community, we need to reach out to men like Carlos, and we need to do it now. We need to reframe the threat of coronavirus, so that it is not seen as something for our men to fear for themselves, but rather, so that they will see social isolation as a way to do the manly thing in protecting their families. Sure, jefe, sure, you won’t get sick (eye roll) but your weak mothers, wives, girlfriends, sisters and daughters will, through you, unless you protect THEM. That message might work.

Though Carlos has stopped responding to me (he sees my insistence that he stay home as me calling him weak) I will nonetheless wait a while and then send him another text, reminding him of the old Zapotec saying, “If you can’t have what you love, try loving what you have.” What he has, right now, is a small apartment, and his elderly mother; and if he can't figure out how to love them, he's likely to lose both.

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