"Many Worlds of Women: Mexico," (draft for publication with comments by Janet Giele) May 14, 1975 (17 pages)


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"Many Worlds of Women: Mexico," (draft for publication with comments by Janet Giele) May 14, 1975 (17 pages)
Series Title:
Series 2: Early Career and Women's Studies
Physical Description:
Mixed Material
Elmendorf, Mary L. (Mary Lindsay)
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University of Florida
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University of Florida
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Within Latin American cultures, Mexico falls into the Indo-

Mestizo grouping along with the Andean countries. On the other

hand, "The only countries where the feudal class system, and

more particularly feudal class attitudes, have disappeared to

any extent are the European countries and Mexico" (Beals 1965:355).

A cultural pattern, similar to that of countries with strong

Indian heritages but with European overlays persists with more

vertical and horizontal mobility than most other Latin American


The Mexican Revolution and the War of Independenc 00

ye rs earlier, accomplished many things including new image

of the Mexican peasant as hero and heroine to' some bJ any
Mexicans ong the growing Mestizo class assumed much of the

rigidity of t stratified class system/of the colonial period.

Mexico still has eas in which Indians and non-Indians interact

in what have been te ed caste systems (Stavenhagen 1971)., te.
Meic stl ha a ... .. whchIn

Mos -cnfge. MAWt The domestic ser\,

uniform for her day off can become


or Indian, depending on her plans. And the Indian can stubbornly

remain Indian even as she enters the commercial life of Mexico

Cit if it suits her (Arizbe 1972:18). IWO among the lar

peasan or rural lower class which is defined as mest o- there

are many ltural patterns particularly within t home and

v/ family which e Indian.

Somehow Mexi o does not eem to hav welded he wo dominant

cultural heritages he Indian an e Spanis for the Spanish

/"woman is a domesticated ld an' al, lec ous d sinful from

irth, who must be subdued w' a stic and guided by he 'reigns

f religion'". From the reat pre olumbian Indian religions

based on nature which are a goo deal re pagan than the

Catholicism of tho Spaniard c me an accept ce of the natural

world. "Sexu love is no tinged with grief a horror..."

(Paz 1961:.). There is still the mystery of sex a ng some

of the ndian cultures with accompanying patterns of beh vior

(P 1 1974, Elmendorf 1975).

In fact, in Mexico we have "centuries of womanhood" in the

jgj se-ene- as we laok at the many Mexicost the primitive, the

r archaic, the historic, modern and contemporary. As the woman

relates-to her family, culture, religion, and to her own feel-

ing of self freedom and pride she is a part of an evolutionary

j6 process, which is in some ways giving her more freedom to have

a larger part of her behavior not determined by her sex (Giele 1972:99).

But in Mexico the evolutionary process is not a single continuum.

Families and even individuals find themselves living in different

historical periods.

In understanding Mexico today with rapid modernization and


economic development we must be aware of the growing middle class

family and of pressures for change on the roles of both men

and women. We must question whether this modernization brings

new freedom and economic opportunity for women or is it going

from bad to worse? (Chaney and Schmink 1974, Elmendorf 1971,

Stavenhagen 1972, Illich 1968).


Despite the Revolution in Mexico, there have been no

successful efforts to sweep from the feminine mind the pre-

conceptions about her incapacity, her dependence on man,

and her absolute need for resignation that traditionally

has weighed her down for centuries (Maria Elvira Bermudez

1950 quoted in Hanke 1968:221-222). Despite the many drastic

changes brought about in the last fifty years, the Mexican

woman is still expected to realize herself to receive

honor and pride through the accomplishments of her family;

really those of the males. "What greater ambition does the

Mexican woman have then to assure that her sons, her husbands,

her brothers realize themselves as 'persons'" (Augustin

Yanez quoted in Punto Critico Vol. 8 1972:27). Thinking of

this in the Mexican framework, for her t6 do otherwise would

make woman a less "superior being" in the Zea sense because

Mexicans, both males and females, are "motivated not to satisfy

personal needs, including economic ones, but to satisfy the

desires of others with whom they are united by ties of respect,

friendship, affection or love" (Diaz-Guerrero 1972:6).


At the same time through the Mexican woman shame is brought

to the male members of the family if her reputation is be-

smirched. "The male of the family, as father, husband, or

brother is responsible for guarding the female's sexual honor"

(Youssef 1974:83).

Within Mexico, as in most of Latin America, the family

is the basic structure, which in spite of pressures toward the

nuclear family, still holds on to many of the traditional

forms of the extended family. It is the woman who often

wields great power, status and influence within the kinship

networks, th marital-compadra o alliances, and geographic /

and/ r patria-chic s extending from rural to urban areas. T

The stereotype of "the woman in the home" remains even among

many intellectuals and professionals. Women may add new

roles, but to shed their child-bearing, child-rearing ones,

or to have them shared by Mexican males is only gradually

being explored (Elu 1971:34 ).

In this world of home and family, the woman often holds

decision-making prerogatives. New research is revealing

many hitherto unexplored areas of family relationships by

analysis of roles in the public/private, formalized/non-

formalized domains (Chinas 1973), where women exercise power.

There is great diversity among the family structure

in Mexico. The results of a national investigation of the


Mexican family carried out* in 1966-67 in the Federal District

and 14 states involving 2,457 men and 2,953 women by a team

of social scientists pointed out the dichotomies between

old and young, rich and poor, rural and urban and between

r various regions as they came under differing foreign in-

fluences. -for example, the states bordering the United States

and the more isolated--very religious families and less religious,

traditional and progressive, ignorant and educated, integrated

and marginal to the social organization (Lenero 1968:32-33).

The myth and the reality are often at variance, with religion

playing a strong part in defining the roles within the family


-. Mexico is in a period of great change with the loss of

values of the old cultures and a rejection of many of the

values of the modern, as Mexico looks for its own reality.
and family patterns vary greatly
Mexico is not an homogenous country/(Llenero 1968:194).

The same research showed that the average size of the

Mexican family has increased in recent years. During 1966-67

the number of children born to a Mexican couple during 20

'years of marriage averaged 6.9, with the possibility that

by the end of time of fertility, 7 or more would be the average

(Elu 1971:17). The large size of the Mexican family relegates

most Mexican women to a life dominated by child-bearing and

child-raising, with the absence of the father in the home

considered normal (Elu 1971:34). In the absence of labor

saving devices or services, or cooperative attitudes on the

*by Instituto Mexicano de Estudios Sociales (IMES)


part of the husband, the poorer women in both rural and urban

areas spend most of their time in arduous, repetitive work, while

in the urban upper class women continue in absolute economic

dependence on the man, with nearly complete responsibility for

the children even when she has servants who help under her super-

vision (Elu 1969:33). The classic, but still controversial

study of Five Mexican Families by Oscar Lewis points out the

mal 'se, the lack of "love" or demonstration of affection among

the rur 1and urban poor caught in "the culture of poverty" and

most shocki ly, among the nouveaux riches Castros, aspiring for

Q the North Americ material culture (Lewis 1959:294-350). The

ironic commentary writ n by an outstanding Mexican economist

on this work was a critique the values of upper middle class

Americans and "the culture of wea (Urguidi 1963:359). Other

social scientists though not questioning the authenticity of the

data of the abused and colorless females in wis' ethnographies,

have questioned how representative they were.

The Latin American family organization in general and the

Mexican family structure in particular have been described

qM ( as a patriarchal institution emphasizing male supremacy and

\ female subordination (Youssef, 1974:83). Two types of explanation

have been employed to account for the Mexican family pattern; one

is basically historical and the other cultural. One approach

traces the origin of the family relationships to the conquest

of Mexico and the concomitant sexual exploitation of Indian women

by Spanish men. According to this theory, the woman became the


symbol of the conquered subdued Indian and the man the symbol

of the conquering, demanding Spaniard. The mestizo child born

of this union looked down upon his mother as a devalued person

and his father as an exploiter. Nevertheless, when he became

an adult the mestizo male child emulated his father's treatment

of his mother and a distinctive family pattern was then passed

from generation to generation (Penalosa, 1968:682).

The second and more common approach analyzes the Mexican

family pattern in the framework of deeply embedded cultural

factors, perhaps best summed-up in the concept of machismo.

Machismo refers to a sense of exaggerated masculinity or a cult

of virility, the chief characteristics of which are extreme

"aggressiveness and intransigence in-male-to-male interpersonal

relationships and arrogance and sexual aggression in male-to-

female relationships" (Stevens, 1968:315). It is generally

agreed that machismo is a Latin American phenomena, with roots

in old world culture, some people say Ibero-American, some say

the Mediterranean, including Mozarabic influences. Many of the

constituent elements can be found even today in Italy and Spain,

but the most complete expression occurs in Latin America (Stevens,

1973A:91). Moreover, of the Latin American nations, Mexico has

been described by Latin Americans as the nation most afflicted

with the machismo syndrome, with Peru and Colombia also important

Spanish seats of control, vying for second place (Saffioti and

Bunster 1974, 1974 WCA panel in Rio).


Some social scientists believe that machismo is primarily

a lower class phenomenon (Kinzer, 1973:302-303); others say that

it cuts across all class lines. Male-female relationships may vary

by culture and class but "the large residual status factor of

sex is more important than either culture or class in determining

female status characteristics" (Flora, 1973:60).

The male pattern of behavior has its corollary in reciprocal

female traits variously referred to as hembrismo (Bermudez, 1955:

93-94) or marianismo (Stevens, 1973A). While the traditional

stereotype of the man envisions him as a strong individual, a

conqueror, dominant, and argumentative, the woman is pictured

as dependent, conformist, unimaginative, and timid (Elu, 1969:25).

At the same time, perhaps as a derivative of the religious move-

ment in Roman Catholicism that accords special veneration to

the figure of the Virgin Mary, women are considered to be morally

superior to men and spiritually stronger (Stevens, 1973A:315).

With regard to the institutionalization of the machismo syndrome,

it is important to note that the worship of Mary has developed

further in Mexico than elsewhere in Latin America. Thus although

the cultural definition of masculinity demands the subordination

of women and their conformity to behavioral norms that protect

and enhance male honor, the norms of the society also reward

women by conferring prestige and high esteem to qualities such

as purity, patience, humility, sacrifice those same qualities

sought by nuns. Men put women on a pedestal and simultaneously

relegate them to a life of suffering through their inattentive-

ness and unfaithfulness. To comprehend the implications of



marianismo it should be understood that far from being a standard

imposed by men, marianismo has received considerable support from

women themselves. Some scholars even have claimed that Latin

American women have consciously contributed to the perpetuation

of the myth of male dominance and the concomitant sexually

defined division of roles because it offers them many advantages.

After all, machismo is borne of male insecurity rather than

strength and this affords many possibilities for feminine

control behind the scenes. These analysts also have disagreed

strongly with the usual portrayal of Mexican women as passive,

arguing, that these women manipulate and maximize the existing

values to achieve their ends (Stevens, 1973A:316).

The.key to understanding marianismo is the role of children.

A man's masculinity is demonstrated largely by his ability to

make sexual conquests; since boasting is easy the only real

proof of virility is the repeated pregnancies of a wife and/or

mistress. To have children, especially sons, is to affirm one's

understood role as a male. As for the woman, she is compensated

through her children for the life-long burden of multiple

pregnancies and a husband who must be unfaithful to her in order

to assert his masculinity. Machismo carried to its logical

conclusion excludes woman from the sphere of public affairs

but it also enables her to reign supreme in her own household.

"Not to have children is a tragedy for a woman, and among

women there exists the conviction that to have children, above

all boys, is part of 'salvation,' an expression which apparently

is religious but refers more accurately to social acceptance..."


(McGinn, 1966:305-13, Punto Critico 8, 1972:28).

For the great majority who do bear children, however, the

status they enjoy as 'mothers' is very high. More than 40%

of the Mexican women in a national survey considered 6 8

children the ideal number (Elu, 1969:89). To become a mother

is in many ways a rite of passage to adulthood. "A wife's

status increases as her family grows, reaching its highest

when she herself becomes a mother-in-law to her sons' wives"

(Chinas, 1973:59). ,-To a large extent, the love and even

reverence accorded to mothers in Mexico results from the

negative impact of the fathers' machismo role in childhood.

This ties in directly with another facet of the marianismo

complex, the role of the madre abnegada or mater dolorosa

who exhibits her spiritual strength through humility and

sacrifice. Here, it is necessary for the husband to play

out all the irresponsible and even cruel manifestations of

the macho personality in order for the mother to fulfill her

long-suffering, self-sacrificing role, which she believes to

be her destiny. In this sense, the woman in her role as

mother may be said to profit from the dichotomous nature of

machismo which establishes a positive role for negative values

in the eyes of masculine society. The man may succeed on one

front only to lose on another, for in seeing how he treats

their mother, his children's sympathies can lie only with her.

Sons rather than endorsing the patriarchal pretensions of the

father retain a primary attachment to the mother as the only

L 9

person who loves unconditionally (Fromm and Maccoby, 1970: 16).

As a consequence Mexican society may be viewed as a patri rchy

interwoven with a matriarchy, with the main figure of a tach-

ment for individuals, regardless of age, as the mother (Fromm

and Maccoby, 1970:114). Men, it appears, have the toward and

visible" signs of power, women rule through the ack owledged

superiority of their "inward and spiritual grace." As the

Mexican psychologist Diaz Guerrero summarizes:

"In the Mexican family for one reason or other,
it appears that it was decided that the f their
should have the power and the mother sho uld have
the love (and the power of love..." (St ens 1973C:63)

as quoted in Society.

Some soc scienti s believe m chismo cuts ss

all cla ines an in fact most notice abl in the middle

c ss or the pperwardly mobile. Other s ve found that in

the remnants of traditional Indian cultures there is a striking

lack of machismo (Chinas, "73, Elmendorf'72, '73, Wolf, 1959).

Even though, of course, there is great variation among Indian

groups, in general it appears that the rural Indian woman enjoys

far more equality than her white or mestiza sisters (Wolf 1959:

220). This in part reflects the fact that, in Indian societies

marriage is a union of two specialists. Both men and women

are workers, and "the male being no longer the warrior of pre-

conquest days has lost some of the bright plummage which set

him apart" (Gruening, 1928:631). 9+e-study of the Isthmus

Zapotecs indicates that the roles of the sexes tend to be

.mutually dependent and complementary in terms of everyday


living in both the economic division of labor and in other

aspects of the social system (Chinas, 1973:1). Similar themes

appear as well in two other microstudies of mestizo villages
(Arnold, 1973; Schwartz, 1962). Among the Mexican non-Indian

peasant there are more signs of the machismo characteristics

and related alcoholism among the day laborers than the ejiditarios

- small land owners (Fromm and Maccoby, 1970:55).

In the barrios (shanty-towns) surrounding the metropolitan

areas the male-female relationship reflects the machismo -

marianismo dichotomy. The prescribed masculine role is one of

irresponsibility and the woman "feels the necessity of ennobling

herself by suffering even if she by temperament may be happy

and capable" (Lomnitz, 1973:6). The man looks to his male

friends for affection and pleasure, and the woman to her children

and brothers. The woman often depends more on her brother than

on her husband, reflecting the fact that the role of the brother

is the only one in which the culture permits the man to be

responsible without appearing weak Social organization is

based on units of four or five nuclear families family used

in the broadest sense which form extended and compound units

to make up a supportive network, serving as the basic security

for women and children. Male and female really have "segregated

conjugal roles" which other members of the extended family can

assume if it becomes necessary. Interestingly, in the Mexican

barrio the family appears to be relatively stable though with

changing partners. In those cases when a man deserts the family,

UF' - #


the woman frequently turns without much difficulty to a free

union with another man. This marginal woman of barrio perhaps

differs from her middle-class counterpart in that her.4suffer-

ing is joined with residual strength (Lomnitz, 1973:7). She has

developed coping patterns.

When we speak of family in Mexico, we must make it clear

we are referring to both legal and non-legal unions. As in
many parts of Latin America "a large number of women are forced

to substitute for marriage nonlegal living arrangements in the

form of transient relationships of short or ephemeral duration,

consensual unions of some durability, and polygamous concubinal

unions with married men" (Davis, 1964:37), as quoted in Youssef,


The prevalence of consensual unions and illegitimate

births provides a clear picture of many women completely dependent

on their own resources for themselves and their children without

recourse to rights and reciprocities of legal unions. Is this

also a part of the heritage from the Mozarabic cultures without

-the safeguards of legal polygamy?

All stereotypes should be continually questioned and re-

examined, including that of the relationships in the Mexican
family. In the recent IMES* study/5,413 parents a large number

did fit into the traditionally delineated patterns of role

playing, but the situation was not as closed as the machismo

stereotype would demand, with the husband refusing all responsibility

*"Instituto Mexicano de Estudios Sociales, A.C.


for household tasks and excluding the woman from important

family decisions. "From 25% to 60% showed egalitarian tendencies

With shared functions and decisions. One fourth could be

considered highly egalitarian"(Lenero, 1968:196). According

o women informants, decisions on where to live, what furni-

ture to buy, where the children should go to school, and whether

S or not to have more children were frequently made together

(Lenero, 1968:328-329). In another survey male and female in-

formants also related that the decision on whether or not to

have more children was reached jointly, although female infor-

mants more often described the decision as a mutual one than

their husbands (Elu, 1969:136).

C sidering the socio-cultural factors at work, it is not

surprising that couples who decided to marry in order to have

children tend o be more satisfied with their married lives

/ than couples who rried for conjugal affection (Elu, 1969:144).

47% of the women and .4% of the men found their major satis-

faction in having children even though 54% of the women and

47.2% of the men had sought conjugal affection. 65.3% of the

women and 55.7% of the men felt frustrated that their original

ideals concerning married life had failed. The Mexican man

typically distinguishes between his wife, who is meant for

procreation, and his mistress, with whom he expects to have a

physically pleasurable relationship. A "good" woman is not

expected to enjoy sex, nor is she instructed in it, and so

again it should not be unexpected that a full 50 percent of

the women interviewed regarded sex as a "painful duty." Another


50 percent of the informants believed marriage to be an obstacle

to their personal development (Elu, 1969:150-151).

It may be expected that this "perceived" dissatisfaction

among women may eventually give rise to demands for changed

patterns of relationships. One study of responses to a ques-

tionnaire by similar samples of girl respondents in c.o-educational

and all-girls schools in 1959 and 1970 shows a definite change

in attitudes over time. Among the girlsdinterviewed in 1970,

for example, significantly fewer accepted that "men are superior

to women." In both types of schools the female respondents

also believed that parents would be fairer in their relation-

ships with their children with the implication that parents

were abusing their socio-cultural power (Diaz-Guerero, 1973,

comment following presentation of paper at AAAS, June 1973).

Since the socialization of the Mexican woman has been shown

Kto take place primarily with regard to relationships with her

immediate family (Diaz-Guerero, 1967:139-141), a breakdown in

the present close and even formalized system of family relation-

ships would probably produce a profound alteration in the beliefs

and behavior of Mexican women.

Critics have begun to raisequestions about the Mexican

family and the restraints it imposes on its women. Maria Carmen

Elu de Lenero, a leading Mexican social scientist, has warned

that unless the nuclear family can be supportive of all its

members, allowing the wife as well as the husband and children

to find self-fulfillment, it will have to be replaced (Elu, state-

.ment at the American Association for the Advancement of the


Sciences conference, Mexico City 1973). Her statement may have

reflected the sentiments of some of Mexico's professional elite

group of women, but the vast majority of Mexico's women remain

too bound by traditional patterns of socialization to voice


Maybe some peasant women are speaking with their feet.

In he chapter on 'the abandoned spouse", Lola Romanucci Schwartz

found 3 cases of women who left men to 4 cases of men who

S left wome and 2 cases of mutually decided separation. Of

S the 23 case of women who left men, 20 of these are found in

the court reco rd with the man sometimes bringing suit to get

A ^ his wife to re rn..." (1960:81-84). Are these exceptions?

We still have th sex role stereotype of the passive female -

the child bearing/ otherhood syndrome which reinforces

attitudes antithecal to social change (Flora, 1973:60). This

passivity, a characteristic of oppressed groups, further

marginalizes the Mexican woman, many of whom "belong to the

'culture of silence', fatalists who feel everything we suffer

is God's will" (Sanchez, 1973:15).

SThe family as a primary socializing institution is a

key in changing roles for both men and women. But, in Mexico,

as in most of Latin America where family control has been

weakened, the institutional setting provides women with alter-

native satisfactions and activities beyond the traditional

ones of marriage and childbearing (Youssef, 1972:152).


In weakening the monolithic system of family authority

and, as a consequence, thwarting the institutionalization of

ideal family norms, family life presents itself in a different

structural framework to the individual according to his location

in the social structure. The two structural conditions have

resulted in considerable behavioral adaptations among family

members, in general, and women, in particular. In the case

of women, the breadth of latitude has ranged anywhere from

sexual promiscuity to professional emancipation. The crucial

factor is that situational circumstances have created a wider

range of alternative patterns of behavior for women to super-

sede the single trad'tjo al role circumscribed by culture and

sustained by family i eals (Youssef, 1972:346-7).




Percent Distribution
Total by Marital Status
Country Year Women Con- Legal- Sepa-
Country 15+ Sin- sen- ly lid- rated/ Status
gle sual Mar- owed 'Di- Un-
Union ried vorced
Latin America
Argentina 1960 6,936,304 30.1 4.4 55.7 8.7 0.8 0.4
Chile 1960 2,306,909 35.9 3.3 48.7 9.6 2.4 ---
Colombia 1964 .4,843,600 37.3 9.6 43.1 8.1 1.9 ---
Ecuador 1962 1,250,963 31.6 14.1 45.8 8.1 0.6 ---
Mexico 1960 10,287,908 29.3 9.4 48.1 9.7 0.8 2.9
Peru 1961 2,862,352 32.5 14.2 43.3 8.9 0.5 0.8
Uruguay 1963 938,500 29.0 4.5 53.9 10.5 1.9 0.2
Venezuela 1961 2,051,650 37.3 20.1 33.6 6.7 10.0 1.2
Average 32.9 9.9 46.5 8.7 2.4 0.6
Sources: UN, 1969:Table 7 Youssef 1974:69