Latin American Theatre
Stephany Slaughter
The Ohio State University

"Performing Gender in Mexico City: The Evolution of Machismo"


Contemporary performance art has created a space for proposing non-essentialist view of gender norms that also allows for gender negotiation. Male artists perform traditionally female archetypes such as Malinche or Guadalupe while female artists perform "macho" male icons from the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. Considering the implications of the appropriation and negotiation of these gender marked figures lead to a consideration of the concepts of gender itself, concepts riddled with ambiguity and contradiction (consider the typical virgin/whore dichotomy). Mexico's contemporary concept of masculinity is as problematic and ambiguous as that of femininity, though often simplified into the essentializing term macho or the concept of "machismo." Scholars such as Carlos Monsiváis, Matthew Gutmann, Américo Paredes, and Charles Ramírez Berg have investigated the evolving meanings of these terms and posit their etymology in Mexico's Golden Age cinema of the 1940s and 50s, linking actors such as Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante to the popularization of machismo through their songs and films. Although one may expect to find a discourse of the macho in the charro films of Jorge Negrete, it is also prevalent in films less obviously positing a reflection on masculine gender roles, such as the melodrama-a genre considered by some to be a "women's genre" (Hershfield 42) . In order to appreciate the pervasiveness of the macho discourse in the cinema of the Golden Age, the spectator must consider the messages regarding masculinity present in films that don't claim to address such issues. Nosotros los pobres (Ismael Rodríguez 1948), overtly a melodramatic meditation on class difference, posits an ambiguous representation of the macho figure in the protagonist Pepe el Toro. A close analysis of this film will reveal ideological messages with regard to gender roles within the discourse of class difference.

Machismo, Cinema and National Identity
Before an analysis of the representation of macho or machismo is possible, one must first consider the meaning(s) of the terms. There is no concise definition, as macho means different things to different people of different classes at different times in different cultural contexts. Matthew Gutmann, Charles Ramírez Berg, Américo Paredes, Violeta Sara-Lafosse, Rafael Ramírez, and Stephen O. Murray all comment the dangers of essentializing the meaning of macho (often citing Samuel Ramos and Octavio Paz as exemplary essentialists) and the predominant use of over-generalizations of the terms in various scholarly writing.
Gutmann, Berg, and Paredes emphasize the terminology macho and machismo as relatively recent linguistic inventions. Paredes explains that prior to the 1930s and 40s the terms did not appear in popular speech (22, also referenced in Gutmann and Berg). Gutmann reminds us that though concepts of manliness connoted by words such as "hombría", "ser hombre", and "hombre de verdad" circulated during the Mexican Revolution to refer to concepts of the valors of masculinity, neither macho nor machismo appeared in social lexicon until the 1940s (224). Paredes examines the masculine traits espoused in corridos, referencing the studies of Mendoza (as do Gutmann and Berg), and finds the words absent until the corridos that circulated during World War II during the administration of Manuel Ávila Camacho: "¡Viva el pueblo siempre macho! ¡Augustín el general! y ¡Viva Ávila Camacho y la vida sindical!" (Paredes 22). Paredes also links the coincidence of the word macho within the president's name, a fact that was emphasized in a nationalistic song that included "Ca….MACHO", to the circulation of the concept in popular culture. Before president Camacho, "macho had been almost an obscenity, and consequently a word less used than hombre or valiente. Now it became correct, acceptable. After all, wasn't it in the name of the president himself?" (23, also referenced in Gutmann and Berg). Relating the term macho to the president is one of the ways that the concept became fused with national identity:
An equation of machismo with Mexican culture as a whole has occurred well beyond the confines of mere social science; it has also been common in the stories Mexicans tell about themselves, both in daily discussions among Mexicans and in the grand proclamation of the scholarly elite. Stereotypes about machismo are critical ingredients in the symbolic capital used by ordinary Mexicans. Even if verbally denigrated by many, machismo is widely regarded in Mexico as constituting part of national patrimony in much the same way as the country's oil deposits are considered a source of national if not necessarily individual self-identity. In this manner machismo has become part of the more general political economy of cultural values in Mexico (Gutmann 27).
Gutmann links the concept to the "national patrimony", not only through political discourse, but also through popular discourse in the way Mexicans speak about themselves. He later states even more clearly that "Mexico came to mean machismo and machismo to mean Mexico" (224).
Gutmann, Paredes, and Berg all relate the dissemination of the concept of macho and its connection to national identity to the popularity of corridos and of "popular singers like Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete" (Paredes), both of whom gained fame as actors during Mexico's Golden Age of cinema. For Berg, the popularization of these concepts can be attributed to popular culture:
Macho was therefore a term popularized through mass media: songs such as the corridos Paredes mentions, and films, the comedias rancheras [Western comedy-musicals] which served as vehicles for some of the popular male singers of those very same corridos, such as Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete. Whether or not machismo is as historically ingrained in the Mexican consciousness as Paz, Ramos, Reyes, Nevares, Ramírez, and others believe, or is a more modern construct, the fact remains that the term denotes a distinctive male way of being. In Mexican society machismo has both cultural currency and psychological potency, and is intimately connected with the Mexican subject's self-image and with national identity (Berg 70).
Both Gutmann and Berg asert that in spite of its ambiguous definitions and regardless of its origins, machismo is an integral component of Mexican individual and national identity.
Gutmann agrees with Berg's relating the popularity of machismo with mass media and cites Carlos Monsiváis, who links "the emegence of the ethos of machismo especially to the Golden Age of Mexican cinema in the 1940s and 50s" (Gutmann 222). Gutmann expands upon the interconnection between representations of masculinity on the cinematic screen and the creation of a Mexican concept of identity:
The consolidation of the Mexican nation, ideologically and materially, was fostered early on not only in the gun battles of the wild frontier, not only in the voting rituals of presidential politics, but also in the imagining and inventing of lo mexicano and mexicanidad in the national cinema…Although there were female leads in the movies of the period, on the silver screen it was the manly actors who most came to embody the restless and explosive potential of the emerging Mexican nation" (Gutmann 228)
Gutmann not only connects cinema with emerging concepts of machismo, he specifically refers to the "manly actors" as representative of the "emerging Mexican nation". Although Gutmann especially considers Jorge Negrete as representative of these "manly actors", films starring Pedro Infante also esemplify the connection between masculinity and national identity.
Representations of Macho in Nosotros los pobres
From the title, Nosotros los pobres posits class difference as a central theme. Unlike other melodramatic films of the period such as Dona Bárbara, Aventurera, and La Negra Angustias, the rico is not the idealized man, but rather the pobre. Director Ismael Rodríguez draws attention to this in an "advertencia" that begins the film:
En esta historia, ustedes encontrarán frases crudas, expresiones descarnadas, situaciones audaces…Pero me acojo al amplio criterio de ustedes, pues mi intención ha sido presentar una fiel estampa de estos personajes de nuestros barrios pobres-existentes en toda gran urbe-en donde, al lado de los siete pecados capitales, florecen todas las virtudes y noblezas y el más grande de los heroísmos: ¡el de la pobreza! Habitantes de arrabal...en constante lucha contra su destino, que hacen del retruécano, el apodo y la frase gruesa, la sal de la vida que a veces les falta en su mesa. A todas estas gentes sencillas y buenas, cuyo único pecado es el haber nacido pobres...va mi esfuerzo. Ismael Rodríguez.
Rodríguez makes it clear to the spectators, largely middle class (Paredes 24), that he intends to portray the heroism, virtue and nobility of the lower class, the pobres. Addressing the spectators as "ustedes" contradicts the indication of the title that we, the spectators, are to consider ourselves part of the "nosotros" of the title. He places us outside of the action while at the same time he invites us into it. This leads the spectator to question to whom the "nosotros" refers. Although a reading based on class difference is certainly valid, the spectator should consider that "nosotros" may also refer to we, the gendered male spectator, as "pobres".
The names of some of the characters, displayed on the screen before the "advertencia" in the pages of a book and accompanied by drawings of the characters, introduce gender stereotypes into the film. Several characters are listed solely by nickname: La Tostada, who along with La Guayaba is drunk for most of the film; La Paralítica, the mother of the protagonist whose name describes her state; La Tísica, Pepe's sister Yolanda who dies of consumption. Even more telling are the names of two female characters: La Que Se Levanta Tarde, who is not otherwise named in the film and whose name suggests not only that she gets up late, but that she goes to bed late-implying that she is not a "good girl"; and finally La Romántica, the love interest of Pepe, also named Celia. Though some of the male characters also have nicknames, they are not as gendered-with the notable exception of "Pepe el Toro," the protagonist of a film which through him meditates on the concept of the macho gender role within the class construct. Riddled with ambiguity, the conflicted and contradictory representation of masculinity as manifested in the character of Pepe el Toro suggests the difficulty in an essentialist definition of macho characteristics.
The relationship of the spectator to the male protagonist defies conventional gender roles. Contrary to the image of the macho portrayed in many films of the era in which the heros are presented as narcissistic extensions of the ego (Mulvey, Neale), Pedro Infante is clearly established as a sexual object. Sometimes referred to as Pepe, el Toro, Pepe el Toro, or el Torito, the connection between Pepe and the figure of the bull emphasizes his sexuality. The reactions of the women in the film situate him as the diegetic (within the film) object of the feminine gaze, contrasting with many films of the period in which women are the passive receivers of the gaze and men the active owners of the gaze (Mulvey, Neale, López). The flirtatious facial expression of the barmaid when Pepe enters the local bar for a phone call is not met reciprocally. She follows her line of sight physically, walking over to him and leaning into him, her gestures and mannerisms clearly indicating romantic (or at least sexual) interest. In the opening scene, La Que Se Levanta Tarde stands in the doorway of Pepe's carpentry shop and blows him a kiss. Later, she waits for La Romántica to leave, then stands seductively in the doorway. The framing of her body and her manner of standing suggest she is the object of the spectator's gaze, however, she does not receive Pepe's gaze. On the contrary, he is the object of her scopophilic pleasure. Like the barmaid, she follows her gaze and approaches him, though he turns away-effectively inverting gender roles by establishing her as the pursuer rather than the pursued. To explain his rejection, Pepe refers to fatherhood and manhood: "es por la niña. Yo nada pierdo en hablar contigo-soy hombre" (Nosotros...). She leans into him while he leans back, then she draws his head towards her breast under the pretext of helping him put on his medallion (a gift from his mother). Instead of the macho stereotype as the man who actively pursues many women, Pepe is passively pursued.
Camera angles and wardrobe choice further establish not just Pepe, but Pedro Infante as a sexual object for both the women on the screen and the spectator. His clothing contrasts with that of those around him: he is less disheveled than the men on the street (including his friends Topillos and Planillos), which according to a classist reading suggests that although poor, one can still be clean and neatly dressed. His wardrobe further distinguishes him by emphasizing his body. Tight t-shirts with cap-sleeves draw attention to his muscular arms . In several scenes, his striped shirt (different from the prison uniform of the other characters) is so form fitting that his pectoral muscles are visible. In a fight scene in jail, his opponent rips his shirt from him, exposing his bare chest. However, his body as object of scopophilic gaze (Mulvey, Neale, de la Mora), is mediated through pain. Neale examines this need for suppressing a potential homosexual voyeurism:
…in a heterosexual and patriarchal society, the male body cannot be marked explicitly as the erotic object of another male look: that look must be motivated in some other way, its erotic component repressed. The mutilation and sadism so often involved in Mann's films are marks both of the repression involved and of a means by which the male body may be disqualified, so to speak, as an object of erotic contemplation and desire (258).
If we are to assume that the ideal spectator is male (Mulvey, Neale), presenting a male as the object of the male gaze creates a threat of homosexual pleasure. Neale suggests that injuring the male body aids in the aversion of this threat to masculinity. Through most of the film, and especially in the fight scene with the most homo-erotic potential, Pedro's body is wounded as the result of violence.
Frequently associated with the macho image, violence emerges as a repetitive behavior in Pepe's character. Several times this violence is a result in a breakdown of communication: twice he breaks wood on his workbench when frustrated with a conversation. He lashes out against his daughter physically when she accuses him of having killed her mother. Though the spectator doesn't know at the time, later we learn that his silence protects the secret of Chachita's mother's identity. His violence stems from frustration at not being able to defend himself without revealing that he is not actually her father, but that he has raised his sister's daughter as his own-a secret that would threaten the patriarchal fantasy that Chachita is the product of heterosexual matrimonial union. He is immediately repentant at having hurt Chachita and reacts masochistically, beating his hand against the wall until bloody. Having lashed out in masculine physical behavior, Pepe contradicts this action by crying, something taboo in the macho world. Invoking a message that his violence towards his daughter is unacceptable, the bandage he wears on his hand throughout the rest of the film reminds him (and the audience) of his transgression (he looks at it in shame when Chachita touches it, then smiles when she indicates forgiveness). At the same time the bandage presents an injured body to the spectator, following Neale's assertion for the need to mediate the homosexual gaze.
At other times Pepe's violence seems to be excused by the film as befitting a macho. He defends the honor of a woman, his sister. When Antonio refers to his "aventura" with Yolanda, Pepe hits him declaring, "a una mujer no se habla así, desgraciado" (Nosotros...). The most spectacular display of macho violence occurs in defense of his own honor. In jail, three men attack Pepe (the same three men who had framed him for murder, which resulted in his arrest), the leader suggesting that they will settle things "entre machos" (Nosotros...). Although the three men separate Pepe from the others by locking him in a cell, the event is still clearly a spectacle for the other prisoners as evidenced by their faces framed in the window of the cell, the crowd that gathers, and their cheers. The fight becomes the object of the diegetic male gaze.
Although three against one, Pepe dominates. One man under each arm, he repeatedly beats the heads of two opponents against the wall, knocking them unconscious. In a one on one wrestling match with Ledo in which Ledo rips Pepe's shirt, baring his chest, Pepe impales (penetrates) Ledo's eye with a phallic piece of wood from a broken chair. Though shot in the arm by a guard, yet another wound to his body, Pepe throws Ledo against the door and forces him to confess. In what can be read as a homoerotic sequence, Pepe stands directly behind Ledo and repeatedly thrusts forward while wrenching Ledo's arm behind his back. The camera alternates between focusing on the mid-section of the two men and Ledo's face framed in the window on the other side of the door. Pepe is clearly in the position of power, the position of the "active" penetrator and would suffer no harm to his masculine image as macho. Ledo, however, in the "passive" position suffers the humiliation of being symbolically penetrated and of being forced to confess, "yo soy el asesino", in front of the other men in the prison.
In a flash forward, the film draws to a conclusion with an image of Pepe holding an infant, his son-a symbol of his virility. La Tostada and La Guayaba tell us that he and Celia have been married for a year, thus establishing parenthood within the socially sanctioned bounds of matrimony. The film ends with the portrait of a family with Pepe as its pater familias. As having fathered his own child and having adopted Chachita, Pepe is portrayed at once as virile and self-sacrificing, the latter a role often reserved for the mother in melodramatic cinema. In contrast to his potential violence, Pepe is portrayed as a devoted son (he escapes jail to hold vigil at his mother's death bed) and father (caring for his sister's child as if his own). The spectator sympathizes with his struggle fulfil his masculine role of economic provider for his family, while at the same time caring for Chachita and his paralitic mother. As both provider and care-giver, he fulfils both a male and a female role.
The director reminds us of the class distinction with the narration at the end of the film: "El rico no quiere al pobre; el pobre no quiere al rico; porque no se conocen" (Nosotros...). Framed within clear references to class, the spectator again ponders the intent of the film. These final words posit the goal of the film as explaining one class to the other-specifically explaining the poor to the rich since the cinema is more available to those with money to purchase tickets. This explanation centers on the character of Pepe el Toro and emphasizes his masculine identity. The film excuses Pepe's violence and highlights his honesty and honor-at no time does he steal or transgress societal law, even in the interest of supporting his family.
Within the frame of a class discussion, the film presents an ambiguous picture of the ideal man in the image of Pepe el Toro: at once active male, and passive sexual object; at once violent and able to cry; at once virile father and suffering/sacrificing father/mother. These contradictions underline the assertion that even in the cinema of the time period that, according to some scholars, popularized the concept of macho, there is no clear-cut simple definition and that what definitions exist are malleable, changing with time, perspective, socio-economic conditions. What are the implications of this ambiguity and malleability? How might we re-conceptualize popular concepts of pleasure derived from the macho figure? If the pleasure we derive from "macho" figures such as Pepe el Toro comes not only from the stereotypical ideal, but also from the deviations from that ideal embodied in his character, how should we read the appropriations of his character in contemporary texts/performances? The ambiguous nature of the macho as represented in Pepe el Toro has led me not to a conclusion, but to a beginning of further investigation.



Appendix:
Jesusa Rodríguez as Pepe el Toro
from www.elhabito.com


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