Rewriting Chicano Masculine Identity: Expressing Masculinity and Confronting Stereotypes in Chicano Poetry

but so very few make it out of here as human

as they came in, they leave wondering what good they are now

as they look at their hands so long away from their tools,

as they look at themselves, so long gone from their families,

so long gone from life itself, so many things have changed.

Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and the reclamation of black identity by African Americans, the Chicano Movement sought to reverse negative imagery and historical narratives of Mexican Americans in dominant culture. Chicano artists, performers, and authors pioneered the movement by confronting stereotypes and creating a unique Chicano identity through art. A prevalent stereotype, one created by Anglo social scientists, is the violent and sexually virile Chicano macho. Masculinity, more broadly defined, is culturally determined and has been, historically, about power and hierarchies. [1] A hierarchy of multiple masculinities exists in society, and Chicano masculinity has been historically determined as a subordinate masculinity to the dominant, heterosexual, white masculinity. [2] Chicano masculinity exists in multiple forms and intersects with other struggles that Chicano men face. [3] The creative works of Chicano artists and authors express the complexities of Chicano masculinity and recount Chicanos’ explorations and reflections on their own identities. Analyzing two pieces of Chicano poetry, “So Mexicans are Taking Jobs from Americans” and “Immigrants in Our Own Land,” by Jimmy Santiago Baca, exposes a more complete, multifaceted, and complicated view of Chicano masculinity and breaks down stereotypes of machismo.

JimmySantiagoBaca_NewBioImage
Jimmy Santiago Baca

Social hierarchies and the subordination of Chicano men is a clear theme in Chicano poetry. Baca describes the oppression felt by Chicanos in America as insidious, neglect, and systematic, “The doctors don’t care, our bodies decay, our minds deteriorate, we learn nothing of value.” [4] The poetry tells of the dichotomous struggle between the dominant white masculinity and Chicano masculinity. In “Immigrants in Our Own Land,” Baca relates how from the time they are born, Chicanos feel the burden of being on a lower hierarchy in society, “At the gates we are given new papers, our old clothes are taken . . . we are given shots and doctors ask questions.” [5] All of these actions are in the passive voice; never once does the Chicano act out of his own volition. The poem criticizes American society for putting Chicanos in such passive roles. Baca reveals that having choice and agency over one’s life and actions is the core of Chicano masculine identity.

Chicano masculinity often intersects with class struggles, and the poems weave class into the identities of Chicanos. Baca uses imagery of a heavy, “asthmatic leader” to represent the dominant Anglo culture. The leader rasps “They’re taking our jobs away,” while gorging from wealth and power and dependent on the labor of the lower classes to maintain his lifestyle, like his assistant. [6] It illustrates how wealthy, white men benefit from the labor performed by oppressed groups like Chicanos. Labor is an essential aspect of Chicano identity, and Baca discusses how, naturally, Chicanos are “born with dreams in our hearts, looking for better days ahead.” Chicanos strive to learn “good trade” and “finish school,” “but right away [they] are sent to work as dishwashers, to work in fields for three cents an hour. The administration says this is temporary.” [7] In these verses, Baca is criticizing the stereotype of Chicano men as lazy. He puts the blame on class conflict.

Violence is a theme in these two poems. Baca questions the idea that Mexicans are taking American jobs by juxtaposing it with the violent stereotype of Chicano masculinity. He questions, “do they mug you, a knife at your throat, saying, I want your job?” [8] In openly engaging and confronting with the violent stereotype of Chicano men, Baca redefines Chicano masculinity. He exposes the stereotype for what it is, a ridiculous over exaggeration and generalization. Violence is depicted as a tool used by dominant culture to oppress Chicanos in Baca’s poetry. In “Immigrants in Our Own Land,” Baca expresses how rather than spreading violence, Chicanos are escaping from it: “We came here to get away from false promises, from dictators in our neighborhoods.” [9] His poems break down the stereotype that Chicano masculinity promotes violence.

The reference and appeal to starving children in alludes to the hierarchy of the Chicano family. Chicano masculinity is tied to this desire to provide for the family, and in “So Mexicans are Taking Jobs From Americans,” the Chicano family is represented by children. Baca describes “starving children,” and Americans are killing Mexican children because they are preventing Chicanos from having good jobs and earning a livable wage. [10] While scholars debate the reality of the patriarchal Chicano family, the poetry illuminates how the hierarchy in the nuclear family, with men being at the top, was essential to the Chicano masculine identity. [11]

Baca’s poetry tells stories of Chicano potentials unreached under the oppression of American society. As he interprets it, Chicano masculinity is characterized as being desirous of opportunity and upward mobility in order to escape violence and provide for and protect their progeny.

[1]  Rosa Linda Fregoso, “The Representation of Cultural Identity in ‘Zoot Suit’ (1981),” Theory and Society 22, no. 5 (Oct. 1993); 661.

[2]  R. W. Connell and James W. Messerschmidt, “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept,” Gender and Society 19, no. 6 (Dec. 2005); 833.

[3]  Alfredo Mirande, “A Reinterpretation of Male Dominance in the Chicano Family,” The Family Coordinator 28, no. 4 (Oct. 1979); 474. David Manuel Hernandez, “Review: Confronting or Confounding Masculinities?,” American Quarterly 54, no. 1 (Mar. 1999); 205.

[4]  Jimmy Santiago Baca, “Immigrants in Our Own Land,” PoetryFoundation.org.

[5]  Jimmy Santiago Baca, “Immigrants in Our Own Land,” PoetryFoundation.org.

[6]  Jimmy Santiago Baca, “So Mexicans are Taking Jobs from Americans,” PoetryFoundation.org.

[7]  Jimmy Santiago Baca, “Immigrants in Our Own Land,” PoetryFoundation.org.

[8]  Jimmy Santiago Baca, “So Mexicans are Taking Jobs from Americans,” PoetryFoundation.org.

[9]  Jimmy Santiago Baca, “Immigrants in Our Own Land,” PoetryFoundation.org.

[10]  Jimmy Santiago Baca, “So Mexicans are Taking Jobs from Americans,” PoetryFoundation.org.

[11]  Alfredo Mirande, “The Chicano Family: A Reanalysis of Conflicting Views,” Journal of Marriage and Family 39, no. 4 (Nov. 1977); 749.

 

15 thoughts on “Rewriting Chicano Masculine Identity: Expressing Masculinity and Confronting Stereotypes in Chicano Poetry

  1. I think it’s interesting that Baca uses these preconceived stereotypes in his poetry, particularly relating to violence. Karissa, you point out that instead of portraying Mexican American men as perpetrators of violence, they are often the victims. I think speaks to the ignorance of the stereotype as well as the importance of artists like Baca.

    1. Mikaela, I was thinking the exact same thing in regards to stereotypes. Karissa, I love the examples you pull from the poetry. In the hands of artist (whether in words or visual arts), stereotypical references can be used to subvert the stereotypes themselves. Baca is actively picking away at that ignorance. Museums have to be somewhat more careful–Baca is representing his own people, which creates a different dynamic than a museum exhibition created by people of various ethic backgrounds claiming the same right of representation.

      1. I think your comment, Kate, really hits the nail on he head about how important representation of cultures is, but also how museums need to be respectful when they themselves don’t actually represent that culture. After reading this weeks materials and reading this blog, I am struck with how thin the line actually is between creating respectful and meaningful representation and claiming the same rights of representation.

  2. I enjoyed reading Baca’s poems and feel they are powerful tools for challenging many of the ignorant views of so many. Your analysis of masculinity as socially constructed thing. Those challenging the and disproving racist ideals deserve commendation. Your post was a fascinating read!

  3. Reading your post, I’m reminded of an recent ethnography I read about young Latina gang members. The girls in this book described “machismo” as less of a masculine concept and more of an overall sense of strength and being able to protect and provide for your family. I think it’s interesting that a cultural concept such as this can be so consistently misinterpreted. Additionally, I think it’s refreshing to see people like the women in the ethnography and the female members of the Young Lords respond to and make machismo their own.

    1. I thought the same thing you did Christine. It’s interesting to read the poetry about machismo, and then read how the women of the Young Lords embraced it in their own way. Again, it brings up the idea that some ideas are difficult to interpret between cultures without directly being a part of it. That’s why we need to listen and read these accounts, like Baca’s, to gain perspective.

  4. I hadn’t even noticed the passive voice in that poem, but you’re right. Thinking about it, there was a tone of being pushed along, and the passive voice really set that tone of helplessness.

  5. I really liked your analysis of these poems. Poetry can be such a powerful art form and Baca’s poetry really hits you in the gut describing the discrimination the Latino community faces. What you centered on very well (and heartbreakingly so) was how this discrimination ultimately is hurting children. If the white population is afraid of jobs being “stolen” from them, that means families cannot provide for their families and the children suffer. “What they are really saying is, let them die, and the children too.”

  6. Before reading these poems (and your blog post) I had never considered how complicated the idea of machismo is. Based off of your analysis, it seems like its meaning varies between communities. As some others have said, this makes it extremely difficult for organizations like museums to talk about the concept with any authority. Besides including voices from the community, I wonder how museums can most effectively exhibit on issues like this one?

  7. Karrisa, I like how you brought up Baca’s use of poetic styles to take a stereotype and flip it on its head. Baca has a very hard hitting style that will guide you one way then flip it and expose the problem at hand. You bring up a interesting point on the view points of machismo not only within its own culture but how it seen on the outside as well. Museum have to be careful in interpreting these points in cultures in order to to feed into the stereotype.

  8. You present some really interesting ideas here. Racial stereotypes are always so crazy because they are created to create an image to the public to further an agenda, even when the evidence or even other stereotypes contradict each other. The social layers of these stereotypes and the idea of machismo is complicated, complex, and extremely harmful. Your analysis of these ideas using the poetry is very thought provoking as well.

  9. I really love this look at the poetry that Baca composed. I think poetry can give us an opportunity to confront violence and ‘hot button’ topics in a way that isn’t perceived as a aggressive, while at the same time blatantly pointing out the problem and naming it. I wish museums would utilize poetry within exhibits more often to help visitors gain a more wholistic view of the issue within the exhibit.

  10. A very interesting post Karissa, that I felt was driven especially well by your idea of “subordinate masculinity” that Chicano men and many more groups outside the “dominant” mainstream are subjected to. Your connection of subordination of this forced-into made position to the use of the passive voice in Baca’s poetry was insightful, and I feel it underscores the tremendous double pull of men being presented with an understanding of what it means to be masculine and in control, and continually coming up against a larger cultural paradigm that marginalizes and demeans such efforts. The cross streams they are caught in speaks to a weariness I have observed in other examples of Latin@ literature; your post crystallized them further.

  11. These poems blew my mind and really forced me to see things from a new perspective. The acknowledgement of stereotypes made me examine how I think about Latino culture, and how excruciatingly unfair it is that such stereotypes have been created in the social, political, and economic climate of the United States. The frustration evident in Baca’s writing when viewed through the lens of chicano masculinity adds a whole other layer to his already heavily emotional and complex expression of identity.

  12. These poems really gave insight to how Latinos felt about their experiences in America. Between these readings and reading about Basquait, I really got a better understanding of masculinity and labor in Latino culture.

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