Latinos redefine what it means to be 'manly'

Behind the small tract house, a yellow dog barks from a pen scrawled with graffiti. Through a screen door to the front come noises of cars and trucks whooshing by on a major thoroughfare.

Oblivious to intrusions, seven Latino men sit in a darkened living room with a box of powdered donuts, hot drinks steaming from Styrofoam cups, and a seashell filled with burning sage. "If I do the dishes while my three daughters do their homework, that's not so wrong is it?" asks Manuel Gallardo as three compadres listen "My relatives from Mexico say it's not manly."

The question is one of dozens of social, domestic, and political issues that are being puzzled over in a small but growing Latino men's movement.

Known as circulos de hombres, the groups have been steadily growing for about 15 years, now numbering between 2,000 and 3,000 men in mainly Western cities from San Francisco to Albuquerque to San Antonio.

Meeting regularly in homes like these - or any space they can find to be separate for a few hours - they wrestle with everything from the personal (husband/wife relationships) to the political (pros and cons of bilingual education) to the philosophical (What can be learned from racial conflict?). They share their angst, bewilderment, and triumphs in a changing American society they believe offers few guidelines and little support to men in general, and even fewer to minority males.

Meaning of machismo

The movement is also taking a head-on look at a key element of Latino cultural identity: machismo.

"There is a whole other side to the word than a womanizer who talks big and wears neck chains," says Alejandro Moreno, a gentle giant of a man who in 1986 helped begin the National Compadres Network. "It means a man doing right by his wife, children, and companions. We are trying to take the word back and teach it to all who will listen."

The house-by-house reexamination of machismo comes at a time when Latino men in the United States are grappling with a host of challenges and opportunities.

Problems such as alcohol abuse and domestic violence crop up at very high rates among Mexican-American men, for example. Meanwhile, those who migrate from Mexico or elsewhere face the stresses associated with a new culture and upward economic mobility. And increasingly, Hispanics - recently certified as having surpassed blacks as the nation's largest minority - feel pressured to take a higher political profile in their communities.

"How Latinos have been traditionally taught to relate to themselves, their families, and communities is different from the wider American society that they now see themselves ascending into," says David Abalos, an author of several books on Hispanic assimilation and a professor of religious studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

They have been taught to "use masculine energy to dominate women and children," but also to confront injustices in the community and create social institutions, he says. "Now they are trying to figure out how to allow themselves to be critical of the old ways."

At a recent meeting here, Mr. Gallardo, Moreno, and two others talked for 2-1/2 hours about events and challenges from the past month. One speaks of a daughter who wants to make him more prayerful. Another expresses chagrin that the Mexican government gave hundreds of Spanish-language books to his local school specifically for Mexican families, but the school sold them in a fund-raiser. Gallardo himself talks about the challenges of being a dad.

"I needed a context for what it meant to be a father," says Gallardo, who grew up in Mexico, moved to the US about 12 years ago, and has been attending monthly meetings on Saturdays at Moreno's house here for several months. "We learned to father from our fathers, but I didn't have a father and most of my friends had fathers who hit them. We are trying to move beyond that."

In most urban and suburban settings, the National Compadres Network has settled on simple meetings, usually in homes, in which Latino men can simply hear from and be heard by other Latinos. The network also convenes larger annual gatherings.

Latino Robert Bly?

The inspiration, for Moreno, came in the mid-1980s, when as a community activist he attended national conferences on issues ranging from domestic violence and teen pregnancy to substance abuse. He noticed that the efforts to correct such problems focused mostly on women and children.

"If a man is being abusive or if a family is caught in a web of domestic violence, the mother and children leave and the services given are directed at them," says Moreno. "The fathers are sent to jail, and a far more limited range of services is offered."

Struck by the success of men's gatherings led by white men such as Robert Bly, Moreno and several colleagues began considering how to help Hispanic men, with their additional challenges in American society.

"One of the key elements of these groups is to talk about the how and why of feeling lost," says Professor Abalos. "On the one hand they feel a sense of guilt that they are breaking away from their own cultural heritage, and on the other they are not fully accepted into American culture, so they need to talk that out."

Tenets for a 'noble man'

Moreno and other organizers contacted elders from Mexico and from Central and South America. They started meetings with various Indian ceremonies that ranged from purification rites in sweat lodges to listening "councils," in which men are encouraged to speak from their hearts.

Sometimes topics are planned, such as how to bond with males of other races or how to develop inner spirit. Other times, the men discuss what's on their minds. Over the years, the network has developed seven principles of the "noble man" that it tries to foster among circulo attendees. The tenets say a noble man is a man of his word; should have a sense of responsibility for his own well-being and that of others; rejects any form of abuse: physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual; should take time to reflect, pray, and include ceremony in his life; should be sensitive and understanding; should be like a mirror, reflecting support and clarity to one another; lives these values with honesty and with love.

"I've learned to be a better father, husband, and member of the community," says artist Francisco Ramirez. "Sometimes when I don't feel like doing it anymore, coming to circulo gives me a boost."

Wives, too, see the circulos as a boon.

"My husband has become much more in touch with the family," says Maria Gallardo, who is married to Manuel. "All the guys are learning to put macho behind them, stop being so demanding and becoming more cooperative."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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