Featured Article: September-October 2002

Machismo is like a Eucalyptus Tree
Jennifer Na
Saheli, P.O. Box 3665, Austin, TX 78764-3665

During the first month of service as an AmeriCorps*VISTA, I attended my first film screening and discussion with Saheli on Saturday, August 24th at the Old Quarry Branch Library. Through the dedicated efforts of Saheli and Trikone Tejas member, Ramki Ramakrishnan, the short documentary film, MACHO was obtained from the Texas Council on Family Violence (TCFV) and viewed by those in attendance (consisting of members from Saheli, SafePlace, Daya, International Institute of Language, and the local public). Having very minimal exposure to domestic violence issues in the past, I felt that the viewing ofMach and the discussion thereafter, was very beneficial in that it provided me with even greater insights into the effects of domestic violence, not only women, but on men as well.

MACHO is a documentary about a male group in Nicaragua who are making efforts to end sexual and domestic violence within their community through their Men Against Violence Campaign. As illustrated in the film, these men face a variety of challenges - economic, political, and social - as they continue to make efforts in their community to end violence against women. One major obstacle these men face throughout their campaign is in breaking the widespread notion that in order to be a "real" man one must be strong, dominant, controlling, and the leader within the home. "You have to do this or you're not a man" claims a male passerby. As a result, the realities of a power struggle become apparent, and the Men Against Violence group works to redefine the belief that using violence as a means of power is acceptable.

Another big obstacle that the campaign struggles with lies much bigger than perpetuated stereotypes and opinions. History has left a dark and unsettling feeling in the hearts of many Nicaraguans. For years, Nicaragua has been a country of war, poverty and oppression. The citizens of Nicaragua have been struggling with the sex scandal of Daniel Ortega, former President of Nicaragua. In a personal interview, Ortega's stepdaughter, Zoilamerica, speaks out about her childhood recollections as "the prisoner of a hero". According to Zoilamerica, Ortega had sexually abused her as a child and as soon as she went public with the issue, it caused citizens to struggle with this controversy and battle between belief and truth about their past leader.

This film, therefore, challenges and redefines what it means to be macho through various interviews with men in the Nicaraguan community. I was particularly struck by one man's analogy that machismo is like a eucalyptus treeLike a tree, it is bigger than those around it. It takes up all the good soil and nutrients, leaving nothing for those surrounding it". As a result of such thoughts and in trying to combat this feeling of machismo, the Men Against Violence Campaign work to gather men from the community and allow them to talk about themselves, share their experiences, and express ways to channel their behavior in a positive manner. In addition, these men begin to realize the vicious cycle of domestic violence (the way in which power, control, and violence give men privileges, and how men use these negative actions in order to keep those privileges), and strive to become a "new kind of man".

MACHO clearly illustrates the ways in which the Men Against Violence Campaign works to create gender equality. By holding a variety of workshops, presentations, and outreach initiatives, this group gives men an opportunity to share their experiences, learn ways to get rid of the machismo inside of them, and relate to their families better. They speak to the community, the army, and even travel to various cities in the United States to share and educate with those men who want to change. And it is through such initiatives in which these men are able to realize that by being violent they are not just hurting their wives and children, but hurting themselves in the process as well. Together, these men work to build a better life even in the midst of poverty. "We may be economically poor, but we are rich in love", says a man in the Men Against Violence Campaign.

Following the film viewing, we spent a period of time sharing our feelings and reactions about the documentary and the Men Against Violence Campaign. Although there was a general consensus that it would have been nice to have more men present for the discussion, the group was able to share and discuss overarching questions and opinions stemming from the film itself. One question we spent a bit of time talking about was whether a group such as the Men Against Violence group could exist and succeed in the United States. There was optimism that if such a group could establish and sustain itself in Nicaragua, despite the economic and political strife it endures, then there was great possibility for such a group to emerge and succeed in the United States as well. This idea provoked another thought regarding gender roles and barriers that men face whether they are living in the United States or elsewhere in the world. Some conclusions from that part of the discussion were that gender roles are culturally dependent and often very limited. A few attendees shared their personal experiences with male gender roles by referring to the actions and consequences of their family, friends, and/or spouses as immigrants in this country. As I listened to various people speak I couldn't help but to try and relate what was being said to my own life by thinking about my own father and the things I've experienced with gender roles within my Korean background. Having been raised in a country where male dominance is a societal norm, how does a man, such as my father, learn to change his perceptions on what a woman and/or man's role is? I posed this question to the others in the group, and many people agreed that the best way to deal with it is to educate men about domestic violence and the laws that protect women in this country. Fortunately, such an initiative has already begun in other parts of the world, as shown by the Men Against Violence Campaign in Nicaragua, and there are a few beginning to take shape here in our local community as well!

For those of you who did not have an opportunity to watch this film and engage in our discussion, I highly encourage you to talk to someone who did. I know that I, as well as others, walked away from the discussion with a feeling of hope. Because a change in society is a collective effort of both sexes, it is important to be engaged and active in such dialogue as the one shared on the afternoon of August 24th.

About the author: Jennifer Na is an Americorps VISTA volunteer with Saheli, an organization for Asian families in Austin, Texas.