Feminine Strength vs. Machismo

Image source: Ray Larabie

In high school we would have one week of gym class that we spent in the weight lifting room. It was in a dark, windowless room down a forgotten hallway. Students were allowed access to it after school but it was often forgotten, except by the jocks. The girls stood in a corner talking, watching the boys, examining their nails and refusing to do anything other than a minute on the rowing machine – preferring to take a zero for the day. I, however, loved our week in the weight lifting room.

Already known for challenging boys to arm wrestling contests at lunch time, (and sometimes winning), my reputation was further sealed by my behavior in the weight lifting room. The boys gathered around to see how much I could bench press, taking bets that I wouldn’t be able to do it each time the peg was moved lower and the weight got heavier. I fed on their pessimism. I loved being underestimated. I took a deep breath, felt the muscles ripping but pushed, pushed, pushed, my lips closed tight, my nostrils flaring. I heard them say knowingly to each other, “She can’t lift it” – as I struggled. My arms shook and I pushed harder still until I would feel the weight give way and my arms straightened above me in victory.

I didn’t care that I wasn’t the kind of girl you ask to the prom, but instead the kind of girl you ask to help push the car when it breaks down. I come from a family of strong women. My mother is well-known for re-decorating while my father is at work – sometimes moving heavy furniture up and down two flights of stairs by herself.

I associated femininity with weakness and wanted no part of it, but I realized how simplistic this point of view was when I gave birth to my first child. Giving birth is an act that is simultaneously the height of femininity and strength. Now, as the mother of two boys, the lone female in a household full of males, I value my feminine side more than I did growing up. Being married to Carlos though, has made me examine my femininity from a cultural perspective. It hasn’t been easy to sort out.

I will try to open a jar of pickles. Carlos will offer to help, reach his hand out for the jar, and I’ll turn away with the jar, stubbornly determined to do it myself. This is when Carlos will tell me I’m like my mother or say, “Why do you have to be so American?!” … to which I’d reply, “Why is it an insult to your manhood for me to open the pickles myself?!”

Over the years, I’ve learned to (usually), hand over the jar of pickles. It makes Carlos feel good to do it for me. I never pretend I can’t do anything, but if it’s difficult, why not give him the satisfaction of feeling that he takes care of me?

I thought that over the years, Carlos and I had mostly ironed out this one cultural wrinkle. We both have made compromises. I let him open jars of pickles that are difficult for me to open, (damn you, carpal tunnel) – and he doesn’t expect me to act completely helpless – fair enough… but at the grocery store while I was unloading the cart at the cash register, I retrieved the case of bottled water from the bottom of the cart and hefted it up and onto the conveyor belt. I thought nothing of it but Carlos whispered through clenched teeth, “Hey, you should have asked me to do it. You’re embarrassing me.”

Embarrassing Carlos was not my intention or even something I had considered – I just wanted to get the groceries checked out so we could go home, (and for the record, the cashier seemed completely unaware of the battle going on right in front of her.) I guess the lesson here is that Carlos and I will always have cultural issues to work on – nothing is ever resolved so completely that it won’t pop up again, so ingrained are the traits we bring from our two different backgrounds.

What is your take and your experiences on the topic of feminine strength vs. machismo?


  1. Wow amiga! This is sooo interesting!
    Primero que nada: you embody Venus in Aries (la bruja speaking here) – meaning strength, determination, independence while maintaining a feminine look and embracing softness as well. You are the real Mighty Aphrodity! ;D
    As to the cultural differences… si son culturales! I don´t have that with Toño. I know I can lift stuff and all, but I always let him do it. Jajajaja! Don´t know why, just do. Now you got me thinking!
    Gosh I missed reading you! Un abrazo Amiga!

    • Jajaja, gracias mi brujita linda! Me conoces muy bien! You described me exactly, as always :) … My month is coming up. Can’t wait to see what you share on your blog.

      It’s interesting you don’t have this issue at all with Toño… So maybe I am being “too American” as Carlos says.

      I’ve missed your visits! Thanks for coming by, comadre! Abrazos!

  2. My fiancé never acts all “macho” unless he wants to make me laugh lol But I do let him do most of the the heavy work at home, like lifting, opening jars and all that… I’m not that strong!!! :P

  3. I’m 125 pounds of strong, stubborn woman. LOL! It’s taken my husband 25 years to learn to not rush in to save the day all the time. He’s STARTING to ask me if I need help because it infuriates me when he just barges in to help. I don’t want anyone thinking I’m some helpless female. It’s all about ego with me. Sometimes I set mine aside so I can stroke his. :D

  4. that’s an issue I have working around a lot of non-latinos…that they DON’T open doors for me, offer to help with heavy lifting,etc or they are just not gentlemanly (I guess you call it macho)….I have no problem letting a guy rush in to help me and I am in no way a helpless female nor do I act like one. I just find it so attractive and courteous for a man to step up and act like a gentleman when he sees a woman struggling with something.

    • Don’t get me wrong, there is something I definitely love about a “macho” guy, (or else there would be no way to survive in this marriage!) I like being treated like a dama most of the time – and I’m raising my sons up to be gentlemen just like their father – But there is half of me that likes to show how strong and independent I am as well. It’s a confusing place to be sometimes!

  5. I can honestly say that I am fairly strong compared to an average woman my size. Las botellas de agua de 5galones, o las grandes bolsas de arroz, las bolsas de groceries up to the second floor with no elevator, hasta el ventilador ke venia en caja cuando lo compramos, yo lo cargo todo! Y el me dice ke porke me efuerzo… jajajaja, I’m usually the one that does the grocery shopping, the carrying, the cooking and opening of the jars, so estoy acostumbrada. El no se mete almenos ke le pida. Porke sabe yo puedo, y si deveras no puedo, pues pido ayuda…. PERO, i dont pretend to be weak, helpless o lo ke se llame. Cuando necesito algo ke esta en lo alto, ni tengo ke preguntar por ayuda, y ni trato de alcanzarlo, mi hombre se mete. LOL (Of course I can use a step ladder or something like that, but i this is how i make up for not asking for help when trying to open that darn air tight jar!)

    • LOL – the things on high shelves, I don’t usually even attempt anymore. (I broke my foot at age 16 jumping up to reach something!) … Soy chaparra and even though Carlos isn’t exactly tall, he’s got a few inches on me – so I step aside happily to let him get things for me too. (Truth be told, our 13 year old is now taller than both of us, so sometimes we ask him to help! jajajajaja.)

      You sound like a worthy opponent though. We must arm wrestle someday, amiga ;)

      • Hahaha! Los niños de esta epoca salen altos Tracy. Arm wrestling is fun! Nunca lo he hecho con el proposito de probar mi fuerza pero por jugar con mis sobrinos LOL

        Bueno ya son las 9:30p y ya esta hirviendo mi chocolate con leche!

  6. Interesting article. Reminds me a bit about my own experiences. I grew up as the son of a very strong woman, and as the only male in the house for much of my life.

    As a result, I was somewhat conditioned into expecting women can do things for themselves, without being offended. I never realized it until one funny encounter I had at a work event.

    I was at our annual partner conference and a group of us were chatting. Included in the group were some male and female co-workers, as well as a female employee from a partner’s company. She happened to be latina.

    At some point in the conversation, she walked away to do something. Next thing I know, she is back and pointing a bottle of water at me, at chest level. My reaction was “no, thanks.” And she motioned again for me to take the bottle. So I repeated myself and thought “what’s up with her?” She kind of giggled and says “no, open it for me.”

    I was mildly embarrassed, but the reality was I wasn’t trying to be rude, I just didn’t expect a woman to need help opening a bottle of water. And things like that are common in Latin America, sometimes classified under general chivalry. Granted, I think there may have been other factors involved in her asking as well, but that’s a different story. LOL

    • I don’t envy the difficult position men are in either – and even more difficult for those who navigate two or more cultures. It would suck to always be at risk of offending a woman no matter which way you go – depending on how she prefers to be treated.

      As for the water bottle, yes, I sense there’s more to the story here. LOL. Like my 13 year old son told me yesterday that a girl on the bus said she didn’t feel well and “needed” to use his shoulder to rest her head. jajajaja…. Hmmm, sounds flirty to me.

      • Como tracy?! She wasnt feeling well! Hahahahahha soooo cute yet u think about the what ifs of kids growing up. Jijijijiji

  7. We actually have the opposite problem living in El Salvador. My husband has always been in relationships with American women, so he is used to being expected to help. But here it is frowned upon to see a man sweeping or even cooking. As a result it is usually me, grabbing the broom out of his hand and telling him through clenched teeth that he is making me look like a bad wife.

    • Yes, Jennifer! Excellent contribution to the conversation – I love this. You gave me some perspective here because although we never lived in El Salvador, when Suegra lived here I used to feel the same way when Carlos would vacuum and Suegra would look at me like I was an awful, lazy wife. Culturally for me, I didn’t have a problem with Carlos helping with housework, but with Suegra here judging, it embarrassed me. Perhaps Carlos is the same way in that he see’s women as capable but nonetheless, it embarrasses him to stand by while a woman does any heavy lifting.

      Awesome little light bulb moment for me, amiga. Many thanks.

  8. This post reminded me of a joke my mother tells…a Mexican man was telling a Colombian man, “En Mexico somos machos, muy machos” and the Colombian man responded, “En Colombia somos machos y hembras y nos vamos muy bien.” ; )
    Sorry if I offended any Mexicans…..like Tracey I love you all no matter where you are from. But for the record my Mom and Dad both are Colombian, I am a first generation latina born and raised in the USA that speaks Spanish pretty well but with a “Yankee” accent. Just found your blog today and I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE it! Get this, I am now married to a German guy and live in Munich – can you imagine the cultural and language hilariousness that goes on in our house? I can speak German and according to my husband I speak it with an adorable mouse accent….bwahahahahahaha (I also loved your post on accents and I think yours is pretty good – loved your Sh*t Salvadoreans say video!) Going back to read more of your posts I keep giggling non-stop….

  9. My son does this to me sometimes when we go to the supermarket. He wants to carry the shopping cart but I carry it because I use it for support (I use a cane when I go out) and I don’t want him to break the cart. He gets upset when I say no, lol.

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