Changing Perspectives: Gender Norms in Mexico and the United States

Caton - 4-1

When I returned to Mexico during Spring Break of my sophomore year to independently visit my host family, my adventures did not go as planned. My host brother and I had planned to backpack for a week down the southwest coast, but a new job promotion quickly foiled our plans. The change in plans for the week meant I would only spend time with my host brother in the evenings after work, and I was to spend the days with his mother, Maria*. Maria is a feisty mother of four who does not speak any English. Although I consider myself close to fluent in Spanish, we inevitably encountered language barriers in our time together throughout the week.

When I initially arrived in Monterrey, I learned that the airport had lost my luggage in transit. To relocate my luggage, I had to go to the airport each day, file a new claim, and wait while an attendant searched for my missing bags. The rides to the airports the first few mornings of that week were the most exciting moments of my visit. Maria and I rode the thirty minutes together in her little, red Toyota Yaris and talked about everything under the sun. On the morning we actually located my luggage, Maria and I had a particularly interesting conversation in which we laughed and cried and struggled to understand one another. Since I had lived in Mexico the previous summer, I had declared a second undergraduate major in Gender and Women’s Studies. Maria, naturally inquisitive, asked me what on earth I study in such a field.

I am no stranger to being asked about my second major, and what I could even actually do with such a degree. Generally, I offer a succinct answer and say it is somewhere along the lines of Political Science, with a focus on women’s participation, legislation, and historical activism. Such an answer, however, was insufficient for Maria. She was completely confused as to how there could be an entire degree program based on women, and also a degree track without a clear cut profession readily available after graduation.

As I began to describe my studies at the University of Kentucky and my involvement with the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, Maria reiterated her confusion about my academic studies by explaining Mexico’s historical reinforcement of machismo. Much like the United States patriarchal governmental and social hierarchies, Mexico’s legislation, in addition to reproduced and widely viewed media texts, favor men and masculine gender performance. Such patriarchal approach subverts women, mothers, and both male and female adolescents. Likewise, sexual liberation is discouraged and heteronormative language, media, and legislation make it difficult for homosexual men and women to find a voice in the political and social spheres. There is also no safe space for trans individuals nor those who do not believe in strict, well-defined binaries associated with sexuality and gender.

Directly paralleling the United States’ disparity in employment along gendered lines, Mexico posits women as familial caregivers or working in domestic professions. Maria identifies primarily as a mother, and second as part of the janitorial staff of a local grade school. Her husband, in contrast, is a mechanic, a traditionally masculine profession. Maria has expressed discontentment with her marriage as well, but machismo reinforces the male as the head of household, who dictates all major familial decisions, including divorce. Despite living in one of the most progressive regions of the nation and in an epicenter of international business and influence, Maria’s community and social circle largely adhere to historical ideology on gender roles. Her daughter, however, is a collegiate athlete studying to be an engineer. Although she is largely outnumbered in her undergraduate program and eventual field of work, she represents a pioneer who undercuts traditional hegemonic gender roles.

Although the United States does not have a succinct explanation for gender discrimination such as the presence of machismo, the US and Mexico are overwhelmingly similar. Conversations with Maria only reinforced my passion for work in the field of Gender and Women’s Studies that primarily strives for equality for all and celebration of difference. As Dwight Myerm states, changes of perspective in both nations will come when citizens begin to “see gender as a series of socially constructed power relations that are performative in nature.”

*Names have been changed

Myerm Dwight R. “Masculinity And Sexuality in Modern Mexico.” Historian 76.1 (2014): 127-128. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Nov. 2014.

Sarah Caton is a Junior at the University of Kentucky majoring in Gender and Women’s Studies and Spanish. In the Summer of 2014, she participated in a study abroad program in Costa Rica through partner provider Sol Education Abroad