Gender-based cultural norms like machismo can place a burden on mental health in Latinx families. Can these norms and their emotional consequences be overcome?

Hispanic communities face unique mental health burdens which are entwined with aspects of Latinx culture, such as machismo. In sharing my lived experience of mental health in the context of Latinx gender norms, I hope to provide reassurance and ideas for those who can relate. 

Quick but important note: 

When using the terms, “Latinx” or “Hispanic-American,” let’s acknowledge that neither label comes close to encompassing all the uniqueness of countless cultures and languages. For the sake of the discussion’s focus on Latinx culture in a broad sense, I will use the terms “Latinx” and “Hispanic-American” to refer to anyone with ancestry in Central or South America, or other Spanish-speaking countries.

My burden: Reconciling my father’s rigidity and domestic violence with the cultural norms that made him that way. 

My dad was a complex man. Surviving difficult times in the U.S. as an immigrant, on top of his 21 years in the Army, warped his outlook on life. These experiences produced some positive traits; his hard-working mentality, for example, ensured our physical needs as a family were met. Growing up as a child of immigrants, I’ve often thought about his life like this. 

However, in retrospect, I remember his deeply conflicting negative traits, too. I repeatedly excused him for the times he made my mom cry, despite my intense anger. Each time I heard my mom slam her bedroom door in pain, I didn’t know what to think of him as a person. I couldn’t completely write him off, partially because of how accepted this behavior was in our community and culture. I witnessed similar machismo all around me.

I know that I’m not the only Latinx/Hispanic-American who’s dealt with this. Sadly, harmful gender norms contribute to many similar cases of trauma in Latinx families. Professor Miguel Gallardo has said that for generations, conflicting gender roles have impacted families in many Latinx communities. 

Second generation emotional wellness 

Not every Latinx-American’s story is the same. As social psychology professor Christine Reyna shares in an interview with Supportiv, emotional conflict around gender roles can look different across Latinx communities. 

Given that reality, the emotional wellness of Hispanic-Americans is also very complex. In the book Beyond Machismo: Intersectional Latino Masculinities, professors Aída Hurtado and Mrinal Sinha discuss the evolving attitudes of Hispanic men toward gender roles. Despite our knowledge of these issues, progressive thinking hasn’t yet been adopted across the board. Both men and women continue to suffer under the normalization of–and even expectation of–toxic masculinity. 

What factors exacerbate gender-based conflict? 

We’ll first look at the factors that exacerbate issues related to machismo. Then, we’ll unpack the overall struggle of traditional gender roles among many Latinx/Hispanic families. Lastly, we’ll discuss how to approach the overall issue of gender-based conflict. 

The burden of the system

Our conversation begins by looking at American systems of oppression, including systematic racism. Professor Gallardo has mentioned that many black and brown communities lose out on resources in the U.S.: “The American system of stratification directly impacts the emotional health of these communities.” 

Sadly, this societal stratification shows itself in many parts of life. Take, as an example, the COVID-19 pandemic for Afro-Latinx, Caribbean peoples – everyone identified as Latinx or Hispanic-American. Gallardo said that “statistically black and brown communities die at higher rates than our demographics in communities.” This may relate to the fact that important resources are not as readily available in these communities. 

Many Latinx/Hispanic-American families in the U.S. lose out on housing options. “Lack of privacy, and space, at times, as opposed to more rooms in affluent homes, are more salient in many Latinx neighborhoods here in California,” Gallardo said. “This makes families more vulnerable to the impact of stress, which can lead to instances of violence.” 

For Latinx/Hispanic-Americans, “living” can become “surviving” in the U.S. It’s important to note this stress level, as we move forward discussing mental wellness in these communities.

The mental health impact of traditional gender expectations on men

Many Latinx/Hispanic men and boys today struggle with the “provider mentality”. When it’s difficult to do more than just survive, the person who feels responsible for providing also feels like a failure. Reyna discussed the risk to mental wellness among men with the inability to provide for the family: “There’s higher rates of anxiety, depression and suicide in general among men.” And the high pressure on men may lead them to lash out, displaying behavior traditionally associated with machismo.

Psychologist and Professor Edward A. Delgado-Romero has shared that mental distress is common in majority Latinx/Hispanic regions. When discussing Latinx men living in Puerto Rico, Professor Glorisa Canino said: “Unemployment has to increase the alcoholism in males and the violence at family members. It’s ingrained that men are supposed to be the breadwinner of the family.” 

Latinx gender roles’ impact on women

Latinx or Hispanic women are expected to cater to the breadwinner’s outlook. Professor Christine Reyna notes the two sides of this coin: “When women are being subservient, there’s benevolent sexism. She needs to be ‘protected and honored’. When women get power, there’s hostile sexism. When a woman is in charge, they are often times accused of being ‘unlady like’ or ‘undesirable partners’.” 

There are many resources for Latinx/Hispanic families. Professor Delgado-Romero founded “La Clinica in LaK’ech”, located in Georgia. It provides support for mental wellness needs related to post-immigration trauma and is one example of many resources for Latinx/Hispanic immigrants. “Services at the clinic are completely free and we don’t require or take insurance which is huge for new immigrants that often don’t have access to insurance.”

The first step is just to search for all the services available to you (or get recommended one in a Supportiv chat). Why spend another minute feeling trapped in emotional turmoil? 

I wish my parents took advantage of resources like these. I was the first member of my immediate family to get therapy on my own. With regards to getting help, Gallardo said, “There’s still a reluctance and stigma, unfortunately” in this. That tracks with my experience. 

Better late than never

I did not seek answers to my problems until I was twenty years old. But when I did, it saved my life. To my fellow gente, it’s never a shameful thing to get help. Please don’t fall for this ignorant lie. Getting help won’t betray your family or yourself. It’s a lot easier said than done, for sure, but I implore you to at least reach out.

We’re all at our own pace to heal and lead mentally healthy lives. Getting help isn’t always easy–everyone’s different, and you’re the expert on what you’re ready for. 

As I finish college, I look back on the role of cultural norms in my emotional life, and hope that my dad will one day do the same. What’s for sure is that toxic masculinity will not be acceptable in my chosen communities; vulnerability and authenticity are the values I buy into.

This article is part of Supportiv’s Identity article collection.