Friday, April 2, 2010

Deconstructing "Marianismo"

Cross posted from my rh Reality Check Blog

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 bringing 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.


  1. Bianca, I really appreciated this post. Starred it and read it twice, in fact! I work on teen pregnancy, not HIV (tho I was an HIV counselor specifically working with Spanish-speaking immigrants for a few years), but, of course, all the same descriptors come up there too. Marianismo explains why girls are having unsafe sex, familismo explains why they are okay getting pregnant, etc. I'm sure you've read it all before too. It's pretty gross, and in the work that I've done as a researcher (I'm an anthropology grad student), not borne out. That said, for all the MAJOR issues with her book, Jennifer Hirsch's A Courtship after Marriage: Sexuality and Love in Mexican Transnational Families had me rethinking the ways that such a framework might be worth some more thought. Obviously, even if informants find those to be relevant discourses, it doesn't mean they are solid analytical categories, but ...

    Second thing: it seems like you are taking issue with the risk framework, which I really appreciate, but then you return to "the real risks." What are the "real risks" for you? Why do you think that the risk framework is productive? Is it just because it continues to dominate the public health approach? How do you think about behavior change as a goal of health education?

  2. HI Sam, thanks for your comment! I’m familiar with Hirsch’s text, and honestly I really can’t stop talking about the amazing text from Latina scholar Gloria Gonzalez-Lopez Erotic Journeys: Mexican Immigrants & Their Sex Lives. Shes a sociologist but uses ethnographic research methodology.

    Yes, you are correct I’m taking issue w/the “risk” framework and how it is applied and used over people, especially poor people, people of Color, people with disabilities, etc. etc. Honestly, for me a “real risk” is acculturation and assimilation. There has yet to be a discussion of these in a sexuality space as I mentioned in the other “risk” article I linked to in the text. I also find colonization as a real risk. NOBODY is talking about that when it applies to Latinos or Caribbean people. Decolonization efforts and how they may transfer over to working with those communities is a space I’m interested in but have a hard time finding information on (if you know of any please let me know!).

    I think the risk framework works for some people, especially when doing harm reduction. Meeting people where they are. I recently did street outreach in east Harlem w/young women of Color focused on decreasing HIV rates via encouraging condom use. The young women provided fe/male condoms for free. It went fabulous. So I’ll also argue that from a positive youth development perspective, risk frameworks are great to engage and train young activists to do sexuality work.

    I think the framework is still productive because in US society we tend to still use that Kinsey approach to defining people by their behaviors which put them at risk. I appreciate it to an extent. I do not appreciate this approach, for example, to apply to men who have sex with other men because I find it condescending to speak to them in the same way we speak to youth (if that makes sense). What if we allowed people the agency to define themselves and confirm those identities? What if we did that so early in our lives that have youth who are loving their bodies, aware of them, how they work, and are confident in them and what brings them pleasure? I think our convos would be VERY different.

    What do you think? How do you see the risk framework mis/used?

  3. Bianca, I can't believe it has taken me this long to reply! Thank you for your response and your recc (I've looked at your reference reccs before, too, and am currently reading the Erotic Journeys, tho I've also read articles by Gonzalez-Lopez).

    Your point about the risk model being used against poor folks and POCs resonated loud and clear (did you read the 1993 article by Deborah Lupton on morality and risk in the International Journal of Health Services? awesome breakdown of the stratified moralizing of public health discourses). I especially like to think about it in terms of ideas about "sanitary citizenship" and "unsanitary subjects" that Briggs & Mantini-Briggs break down in Stories in the Time of Cholera: Racial Profiling during a Medical Nightmare. I mean, essentially, the problem is that risk models are a deviance approach, right? So there's a point at which it is overdetermining the moral failure of the people its targeting (and thereby justifying the denial of future services to those people).

    I think about it also in terms of the young pregnant and/or parenting women that I've been talking to over the last 10 months of interviews. The risk model is inescapable for them, of course, and some of them are using it to try and be good moms - so they'll go to sex ed classes as an example and tell the other kids how hard it is, how awful it is, even though they love being parents, don't regret their children at all, and say that becoming parents has made their lives better in myriad ways. In other words, it means they perform being failures as young women in order to prove that they are cooperating to be good moms.

    This reply comes during Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, a month that is, in essence and name, all about risk. I appreciated your wishlist for the inclusion of Latin@s, but worry about what they are being included IN.

    The question of "how do we make sex ed more effective for Latin@s" was definitely a starting place for me in my research, but the answers I have found in my research go back to the importance of moving away from a risk approach. So many kids talked about including access to local resources as crucially important, they talk about teaching about the body changes and expected steps in a pregnancy, they talk about other forms of contraception - like FAM and withdrawal - and moving away from chemicals and consumption. I hear this and I don't hear the risk model that suggests there is a way to avoid risk, instead they are talking about living in a world where there is ALWAYS risk, and where sex ed should be about negotiating it as an individual and as a daughter and as a young person and as a lover.

    So, yeah, I'm with you. Our convos would be very different. It's hard to talk about pleasure and loving your body when you turn it into a clinical statistic, and it is up to us educators to create a space for those conversations.

    I'm commenting here, but I continue to enjoy your new posts, too. (Love the FUCK YOU vid!)