Hijos de su Madre: Revolutionizing Male Consciousness out of Vision and Vulnerability
Updated: Apr 21, 2018
Prologue : The following essay was written in 1999. I was 30 years old and had not yet even imagined the professional life before me. At that time, I had recently returned to New Mexico, following my brother's accident and was doing every thing possible to support my family moving through the trauma. Although I had become a doctoral candidate by then, I had necessarily left my academic support community and was living in my home village. Eventually, I would complete the doctoral work, but would decide not to return to law school. On top of the family issues, I was navigating personal changes in my own life.
It is always interesting to discover our younger selves in writing or otherwise. I am struck by this younger voice, trying to speak to issues of masculinity, power and patriarchy. At the time, I had moved into my grandmother's home, my home and her memory was surrounding me. I was cognizant of what had led my brother to the point where we were as a family. I had young nephews who I held hope for. Beyond the family, the piece also carries stories of male violence that seemed so prevalent at the time. Unfortunately, only the names have changed and the despair seems even more pronounced to me, now almost twenty years later.
“...our sons must become men— such men as we hope our daughters, born and unborn, will be pleased to live among. Our sons will not grow into women. Their way is more difficult than that of our daughters, for they must move away from us, without us. Hopefully, our sons have what they have learned from us, and a howness to forge it into their own image.”
— Audre Lorde, “Man Child,” from Sister Outsider
“it is possible for dreams
to occur, the prayers full of the mystery,
of children, laughter, the dances,
my own humanity, so it can last unto forever.
This is what I want to teach my son.”
—Simon J. Ortiz, Juanita, Wife of Manuelito
When I think of the power of the human spirit, realized especially through the deepest love that one person can hold for another, I think of mamá, my grandmother, one of the two women who raised me up in beauty and vision. Today, as I begin this essay, writing in the house that she passed down to me, I feel her spirit all around me, blessing these words. She was the one that taught me how to ride a horse, how to raise my own food, how to pray, how to gather and use the root osha, how to forgive and how to love. She also taught me the potential and value of stories, even the ones that reveal the ways in which an old woman chooses to pass her wisdom and humanity to a grandson growing up in a continually changing world.
It almost seems enchanting to think of an eighty-six-year old woman asking her seven-year old grandson to wash her hair and to braid it. Indeed, it was. As I wove together the grey and black strands, she unfolded stories of origins, struggle and survival. In those narratives, I learned about relationships born, shaped, sustained and even broken in her life. The years since have allowed me to understand that her stories are especially valuable in these moments when we feel the most isolated and the most disconnected from one another. I know now, decades later, that I am a better man because of her teachings and a better man because of the courage, patience and strength of that beautiful and wise old woman who believed that raising a son or a grandson into a better man was still possible in these troubled times.
While I had initially imagined that this would be a piece commemorating the mejicana/mestiza/indigena women in the lives of the men of my community, my focus has shifted. Although I hope that this essay accentuates the character of those identities and relationships, I hope that it reflects the relationships that men in our communities have with each other, with the world around them and with themselves. For years Chicana and Latina feminists have called upon men to give testimony about the relationships in their lives, cautioning us to do so, however, with honesty and integrity. (1) For even to speak (or write) about those relationships becomes a difficult act of opening up, an act that arguably is perhaps the most challenging of all for men. Yet, now and in this way, to write about these relationships, both in terms of the content of and the practice of doing, allows me to go even deeper. It allows me to transcend the control, denial and self-importance that I desire as a man. It allows me to begin to touch a depth that I may not have ever known had I not tried and permitted myself to become vulnerable.
Masculinity and Violence: entre mas antes y ahora
While the study of gender has for a long time been equated with the study of women, the irony is that men may actually be much more constrained than women in their gender roles. To begin to understand masculinity—the images and the realities that we understand as maleness— especially as it intersects with the particular narratives of race, class and family in New Mexico, we need to see both men and women as people with voices, feelings and ultimately agency. However, we also need to understand what these observations have to do with the way people are connected to one another, connected that is, even and perhaps especially, through their gendered roles. Indeed, our very humanity lies in our connections with those around us. Ironically, this is also where the human spirit is often the most assaulted. When men can no longer love and respect women, they also cease to love, respect and trust each other, which makes their isolation nearly complete. Nothing, however, is more dangerous than this isolation, nothing that is, other than the further inevitable isolation that follows, an isolation from knowing themselves fully— body divorced from soul and mind from heart.
In spite of the strength and beauty that comes from my being born and living in northern New Mexico, it is difficult to avoid the sense of isolation, dread and despair that also seems to overwhelm our communities. This is particularly true when the local television newscasts and newspapers continually carry the brutal and violent stories of young men who have beaten, raped and killed those around them, those from their own communities and families. These are the stories of our time: four young men—Martinez, Martinez, Quintana and Vigil on trial in Denver for the rape, stabbing and murder of a fifteen-year old girl. Sitting in a courtroom, their mothers, holding onto their son’s sons, wonder how this could have happened. Closer to home, Acosta and Sandoval kidnap Erik Sanchez, taking his car, his shoes and then his life, kicking his fingers until he falls into the gorge in Taos; today, in the Taos News, I read that a mother turns to her son’s killer, a 22 year old Chicano and with the most poignant words, tells him, “You took my son from me, and you hurt me. I'll never see him again and neither will his son.” (2)
These are the stories I want to turn away from, to say that it is not my story, not my family or community and certainly not my responsibility. Yet, these stories inevitably make me think of my nephews and my cousins, male and female alike, and the difficult world in which they are being raised. When I hear my nephews call each other “faggot,” and I remain silent, holding my own pain, I also cannot help but wonder if one day, these hateful words could actually turn into a hateful, violent and even fatal act, if not brother against brother, then against someone else’s son, someone else’s brother. In these days when I read of such brutal death, I think to myself, “Some uncle could have said something a long time ago and maybe, just maybe, made a difference.”
It is difficult to know sometimes whether things are worse than ever. To hear the elders of the community whisper comparisons between la pleve de hoy en dia and los dias mas antes, it is easy to assume that we are living in the worst of times. Yet, I am extremely cautious of articulating a sense of a ‘breakdown in family values,’ by accentuating and thus glorifying a mas antes, or the “good-old days” as actually “good.” That we live in an advanced technological age allows these stories to arrive at our attention with the flick of a switch, something new in this century. Yet, most would be surprised to discover that even a cursory glance in the New Mexico archives reveals that brutal and violent beatings, rapes and killings within our communities have been taking place for hundreds of years. The testimonies of battered wives, mothers of dead sons and of brothers demanding justice fill the court documents with stark and graphic details from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries alike, details as horrific then as they are today.
Machismo and Malcriados
As overwhelmed as the stories, historic and contemporary alike, make me feel, I think we need to continue to ask the difficult questions of where, how and why? In order to uncover these origins, I will try, albeit briefly, to account for what my understanding is of how we have come to a particular moment in time where masculinity means an excess in power, domination, competitiveness, individualism and control. It is true that we, as mestizos, Chicanos and indigenous peoples are heirs to a patriarchal system in New Mexico, a system defined by Steve J. Stern as:
the social relations and cultural values whereby (1) males exert superior power over female sexuality, reproductive roles, and labor power; (2) such dominance confers both specific services and superior status upon males in their relationships with females; (3) authority in family networks is commonly vested in elders and fathers, thereby imparting a generational as well as a sex-based dynamic to social relations; and (4) authority in familial cells serves as a fundamental metaphorical model for social authority more generally. (3)
While New Mexico’s history is certainly embedded into this story of patriarchy, the existential challenges and isolation of our state shifted this patriarchy. Many of us can trace our ancestors to indigenous matriarchal societies. Even within Spanish colonial society, it was not uncommon for women to inherit property, to openly testify in court or to take up the difficult labor often assigned strictly to men, particularly in moments of their prolonged absences from the home. Yet, while women’s gendered roles may have been slightly affected, I do not think the same can be said of those roles for men in the patriarchy. Yet, many would argue, as would I, that the American conquest of New Mexico and the subsequent racism and classism that followed (and that has certainly persisted into the times we now live in) only made things worse. In this way, Gloria Anzaldúa argues:
Today’s macho has doubts about his ability to feed and protect his family. His “machismo” is an adaptation to oppression and poverty and low self-esteem. It is the result of hierarchical male dominance. The Anglo, feeling inadequate and inferior and powerless, displaces or transfers these feelings to the Chicano by shaming him. In the Gringo world, the Chicano suffers from excessive humility and self-effacement, shame of self and self-deprecation. The loss of a sense of dignity and respect in the macho breeds a false machismo which leads him to put down women and even to brutalize them. (4)
On top of the shame, self-hatred and pressures of powerlessness, the men in our communities must also contend with the accentuated and disabling images constructed of them: strong, aggressive, angry, silent, virile, daring and always, always with a woman (or two) on their arms. Those most disabled by the images use alcohol and drugs to loosen their tongues, soften their edges and dull their senses; acts, however, which only serves to perpetuate the image. It is this violence and brutality, both image and reality, that becomes a standard, however, by which manliness is measured.
We also are all responsible, all complicit in the production of this macho, including women. I have witnessed many a mother and grandmother send messages that “boys will be boys.” I have heard them admonish their sons to hold their feelings in, to not admit fear, not even to themselves, the ones who could show them where another source of their strength lies, the ones that could show them to not discount fear nor to be overwhelmed by it. Let me be clear about who is responsible — we all are, because we are all connected to men. Yet, while this is true, I think that it is even more important for men to rise up and take responsibility— to recognize their injustices toward women and men, and from that dreadful recognition, to find the strength to envision and disable the cycle. This is not an easy task, as responsibility requires honesty, and honesty depends upon vulnerability. We can never begin to allow our consciousness to rise, to begin to heal, unless we become open to the possibilities.
Every time I think of men in my community, both the image and the realities in which they are both are seen and see themselves, I recognize it is merely a surface. If we believe as many do, in the impenetrableness of that image, I cannot help but think that such a vision is a distortion of human potential, the potential for something better, something deeper. Our humanity lies in our connections, with each other and with our voices, feelings, our actions and ourselves. While it is clear that our culture, nuestra cultura— carrying patriarchy, and all of the domination, violence, brutality that it has come to mean— can bind us to that surface, it also has the ability to liberate us, offering us the opportunity to see ourselves with greater potential. As I write this, I still remember my grandmother’s eyes, deep eyes that I know now carried a vision for me as a man; it is a vision that I carry with me to this day, an image and a way of being that further allows me to envision a world of connection and of a consciousness continually rising.
If these are the worst of times, we must remember something from our own histories, that in the worst of times, hope appears. We are a people who believe in the possible, our movements and survival is based on this foundation. Yet, when I think of cultural healing, particularly as it applies to the relationships that men create with those around them and themselves, I think of the challenges, indeed the difficulty which always returns me to fear and dread. Even personal healing is difficult, but to speak of familial, cultural and community healing, seems almost impossible. What is easy instead is to ignore it. What grows out of such an act, however, is ignorance, the manifestation of inaction and paralysis; it is the one thing out of which nothing will ever emerge. However, because our histories are those of struggle, we know that evolution, indeed any change beyond this paralysis, involves rising up and movement forward. In these times, we need to step into this (r)evolution.
A few years ago, during the Million Man March, thousands of African American men gathered and marched in Washington, D.C. While the media focused on the leaders of the march, what I saw was an affirmation of spiritual strength, dignity, hope, responsibility, love and forgiveness. It was a symbolic act, in movement, in which African American men were willing to commit themselves to the virtues of self-reliance and to the responsibility for those of their community.
Last year, I may have glimpsed this same sense of strength during the “Pilgrimage for Vocations” in New Mexico. Every year men and women (though separately) walk 100 miles from five directions to the Santuario de Chimayo. I walked from the north with about thirty other men. Although it seemed as though every bone and muscle in my body hurt, I drew strength from the road itself, ancient roads and lands that rose up to meet my every step. I also drew strength from the communities through which we passed, women and men who fed us, bandaged our feet and prayed with us. Most of all, however, I drew strength from the men around me. There was something about walking that distance that made me and the men around me vulnerable, made us open up; compassion, empathy and goodness flowed, not from weakness, but from a responsibility for the man walking next to you and from a strength of body, mind and spirit rising up in unity.
There is a difference, I think, between being a macho and being an hombrote, and perhaps the imbalance of our times (or of any times when it occurs) is the inability or unwillingness to understand that difference. Machismo are the images distorted, where what is seen and then acted upon is rage and fear, is domination of women and an individualism that rises through competitiveness and greed. It is easy then to identify with the models reflecting from the surface: despotic conquistadores, authoritarian fathers, cool and suave Latino lovers, drunken-still homeboys and any and all who walk sin verguenza, without shame.
El ser hombroto, however, the sense of being a man, is entirely different, I think. When I was much younger I would hear elders in the community speak of hombrotes or admonish younger men: “comportate como un hombre.” The same guidance was evidently also heard by Jimmy Santiago Baca who writes:
Many times growing up I heard that advice: Conduct yourself like a man. It was not an extortion to violence, nor did it counsel stoic acceptance of indignities. What was meant, rather, was: don’t betray those who love you; don’t forget your family and your community; don’t hurt others, cheat or lie; be decent and honorable: be a man. To be a man is to be loving, to know that your compassion is your strength. (5)
Whereas macho is excess, hombrote is balance and harmony. When I think back to the memory of elders speaking of hombrotes, I think of the models they pointed to, some I continue to see around me today. These were husbands, fathers and brothers who did not treat women like possessions, who did not demand respect, but carefully earned it. When I say respect, I also do not want to be misunderstood to mean fear. Even to watch these men, you could see the value they placed on empathy, compassion and harmonious relationships. These men were also hombrotes because of the work they did. With models like San Isidro and San Jose, and as Jimmy Santiago Baca shows so well, the “work of the hands, with the earth, was to them holy work, good for the spirit, that allowed a man to feel his life lived on earth was shared with others.” (6) The men of the Cofradia de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno, popularly known as Hermanos Penitentes, were also these models. Where else could we find such a deep compassion for just one Man from other men, a man who showed men how to forgive and love other men deeply? Those were the models, not perfect perhaps in all of their humanity, but willing to keep moving in their honor and conviction for what they believed was right.
We are living in this moment where we seemingly cannot even measure the depth of the cultural wounds, let alone be able to see beyond the surface, wherein lies our healing. To recognize that the human spirit is assaulted every time a man strikes, every time a father teaches hate or every time he holds tenaciously onto a culture of silence, should be enough for the men of our communities to rise up. The human spirit and psyche is also assaulted, however, when women look away or give up. To the women of our community, I ask, please do not stand for the assualts, but instead, stand in belief of what is possible for your sons. Although women are not any more responsible than are men, I ask you to teach your sons the beauty and strength that lies in el ser hijos de su madre, the sons of their mothers, indeed turning the perversion of what this phrase has come to mean completely around. Hopefully, then, they will have the strength to forge this teaching into their own image.
We are members of a community, mestizos/as, Chicanos/as y gente indigena, and one of the sources of our strength remains in our connections to each other. It is not easy these days, indeed perhaps it never was, to understand what it means to be a man. For many, the struggle is actually to redefine. Neither is it is easy to raise a son; indeed, it takes a very special courage, patience and love to raise him without fear. I would also like to call on padrinos and madrinas, those men and women who are willing to take responsibility for the spiritual growth of our children, boys and girls alike. If we do not reach out to touch our hijos, hijados, nietos, sobrinos, hermanos and amigos with compassion and love and understanding, our community will begin to disappear slowly, painfully and perhaps even without anyone noticing what happened. Understanding this is one thing, but taking responsibility is something else entirely different.
As I write about a new vision, a rising and critical consciousness, I also realize that my grandmother and her work of raising a good man was not done in isolation, nor was she the last to do so. The fact is, that in so many places across this beautiful landscape there is a tremendous amount of work underway. From the apartments in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Denver to the casitas de adobe in La Madera, Costilla, Peñasco, Belen, San Luis, there is progress, in spite of what sometimes feels only like an overwhelming and continuing sense of despair. Hijos are being nurtured, the (r)evolution has begun to unfold and there, in this place of strength and spirit, these hijos are evolving into homrotes and hijos de algo. Indeed, “it is possible for dreams to occur,” a dream for our sons to realize the potential of their own humanity as we all relearn how to connect body and soul and mind and heart.
Image of a portion of the Torreon at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, Albuquerque, New Mexico, by Federico Vigil. Photo by Juan R. Rios.
1. See especially Gloria Anzaldúa, “La conciencia de la mestiza: Towards a New Consciousness,” in Making Face, Making Soul Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color ed. Gloria Anzaldúa (aunt lute books: San Francisco, 1990); Adela de la Torre and Beatríz M. Pesquera, eds. Building With Our Hands: New Directions in Chicana Studies, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
2. For the trials of Danny Martinez Jr., Francisco Martinez, Sammy Quintana, and Frank Vigil Jr. see Steve Jackson, “Dealing with the Devil,” in Westward, vol. 22, no. 26 (February 25-March 3, 1999); 17-31.; For Herrera trial in Taos see Staff Writer, “Herrera Trial,” The Taos News, vol. XL, No. 31 (March 4, 1999).
3 See Steven J. Stern, The Secret History of Gender: Women, Men, and Power in Late Colonial Mexico, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), pp. 21.
4 Anzaldúa, p. 382-383.
5 See Jimmy Santiago Baca, Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet of the Barrio (Santa Fe: Red Crane
6. Ibid, p. 33.