By Nacha Cattan in Mexico City and Steven Bodzin in Santiago
Ernesto Vargas spends most of his days taking his 12-year-old son to and from junior high, helping him with homework, and cooking dinner while his wife works as a full-time nurse.
The part-time house painter grew up in a traditional home. His father worked while his mother was a homemaker. “My parents did not raise me this way – to wash dishes or do housework. My mom did all of that.” But when he got married 24 years ago, at age 21, he adapted to his wife’s hectic schedule.
“I’m not being forced to do this. It’s just what needs to be done,” says Mr. Vargas, who lives in a low-income suburb of Mexico City.
The reversal of traditional roles might not sound edgy elsewhere in the world. That it is happening in Latin America, long caricatured as a hotbed for machismo, is even odd to some of Vargas’s friends, who urge him to be the breadwinner.
Yet Vargas is one of a growing number of Latino men bucking traditional roles. The macho man – stereotypically stoic, male chauvinist, and violent – appears on the run, a trend exemplified by Vargas and amplified by a regionwide wave of anti-machismo ads and campaigns, including government-sponsored commercials and independent television shows, that are attempting to redefine what it means to be Latino.
Ad campaigns region-wide challenge machimso
In Mexico, a new soap opera suggests women dislike macho men. In Chile, a current ad campaign attempts to appropriate the derogatory word for a gay man and recast it as a critique on machismo, saying: “A maricón is someone who mistreats a woman.” Meanwhile, an ad in Ecuador quotes men saying: “I wash, cook, iron…. My wife earns more than me…. Sometimes I cry.”
“What of it?” each says.
The Ecuadorean ad, which ends on the line “machismo is violence,” was credited by broadcast network Teleamazonas with a 25 percent increase in accusations of domestic violence last year, which often goes unreported. That’s because one way to curtail domestic violence, experts say, is to attack machismo.
Signs of changing attitudes
Men who mistreat women have “a misunderstood idea of masculinity,” says Bernardita Prado, director of domestic violence prevention at Chile’s Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs. Her group ran the recent campaign to redefine the word maricón. Their next campaign, Ms. Prado says, will encourage men to take more responsibility in childcare.
She and others already see signs of changing attitudes.
Matthew Gutmann, an anthropology professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I., and author of “The Meanings of Macho: Being a Man in Mexico City,” says he has noted signs of this trend.
“The ads, the TV shows,” he says, “are a sign of ongoing ferment about what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, relations between men and women.”
That “ongoing ferment” is fueling, and being fueled by, rising female participation in politics and labor as the evolving role of men frees up opportunities for women.
Rising female participation in labor, politics
Four decades ago, many men told Mexico City car dealer Antonia Suaste that they wouldn’t buy from a woman. Today, she says, more men are willing to trust that a saleswoman knows her cars. “There’s less machismo, although it hasn’t disappeared,” she says.
Within the past five years, Argentina, Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil, Chile, and Costa Rica have all elected female presidents. Women doubled their presence to 19 percent in the region’s legislatures between 1990 and 2009, according to the United Nations. And in 2009, women took home more than a quarter of all university diplomas awarded in the typically male-dominated fields of engineering, manufacturing, and construction in Brazil, Argentina, Panama, and Uruguay.
Big players are stepping up to keep that trend moving. Chile’s National Mining Society said in January that increased hiring of women is a top priority. (Four percent of miners in Chile are female.)
New television shows ‘promote distinct view’
As machismo comes under attack in popular culture, shows are cropping up with themes that challenge stereotypes. “The Weaker Sex” (“El Sexo Débil”) a telenovela launched this month about macho men abandoned by their women, has the slogan: “As long as we remain macho, we’ll always be the weaker sex.”
Epigmenio Ibarra, general producer of “The Weaker Sex” and founder of Argos Comunicación, says there are still not enough outlets for the growing number of producers trying to fight male chauvinism. “We think it’s urgent to promote a distinct view because this country has machismo as a second skin,” he says.
To be sure, police in the region are rarely trained to take domestic violence seriously, wage disparities linger, and ads for office jobs still specify “good-looking young women, no experience necessary.”
But after decades of battling sexism, says Professor Gutmann, Latin America may now actually be ahead of the United States. “Much of Latin America has been making tremendous strides,” he says.