Dealing with Machismo as a Female Breadwinner in Puerto Rico

Prestige and testosterone don't pay the bills.
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Rease Kirchner
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Prestige and testosterone don't pay the bills.

Obviously sexism exists in extremes all over the world. I've spent the last 6 years of my life traveling as frequently as possible and I've yet to find a place where sexism doesn't rear it's ugly head. I know that there are countries where men can beat women without consequences and cultures where women are seen as disposable, and I'm passionate about righting those wrongs, but this article isn't here to address every type of atrocity that women suffer around the world. This is a piece about my personal experience as an independent woman living in a culture where male dominance is so fully ingrained that you almost forget how offensive it can be.


Cue the music: This is a story all about how my life got flipped turned upside down, and I'd like to take a minute, just sit right there, I'll tell you what happened when I became a female breadwinner in a machista society.

Ok, I'm not actually going to do this all in rhyme, but I am going to use stories to show you how machismo is sexism that is an inherent part of Latino culture and how I deal with machismo in small doses, quick hits, and backhanded comments every day.

When I moved to Puerto Rico so that my Puerto Rican boyfriend, Pedro, could finish his Doctorate, I expected some machismo. I dealt with my share of machismo when I spent a couple years living in Argentina in my early 20s, but returning to Latin America as the girlfriend of a Puerto Rican, as a freelancer, and as a breadwinner has made my experiences a little different. The machismo I deal with ranges from wildly offensive to well intentioned but still with the undertow of patriarchy.

When Pedro and I rented our house, our landlord asked where we worked. Pedro explained that he is a doctoral candidate at the University of Puerto Rico, meaning he takes classes and teaches in exchange for a scholarship and a pretty minimal paycheck. Prestigious, sure, but prestige doesn't pay the bills. I began to explain that I worked from home and before I could even finish my sentence the landlord interrupted me and said, "housewife, of course, gotta keep the house in order!" I have tried to explain that I am a writer, Spanish translator, travel blogger, and so much more, but he doesn't understand that Pedro isn't the "head of house" like the days of old. It's not clear to him that my work provides an income that makes renting this house possible.

It started with the landlord, but the subtle hits kept coming. As I was trying to set up my home office, I was receiving tips on what floor cleaners would work best on my tiles. While catching up on work emails, I was interrupted by deliveries of tea sets and knives from great-grandmothers so I could "set up my kitchen." While trying to provide me with the tools they believed I needed to set up our home, they unknowingly prevented me from doing the work that makes paying for that home possible. These women were lovingly folding me into the family, but also placing me into a role that wasn't solely mine. While I genuinely appreciated the advice, I didn't see why it was all directed at me and not also at Pedro.

I ignored the hints about housework and cooking, but machismo is not something you can ignore forever. Every time I had to deal with something like setting up the internet or filling out paperwork, people would ask to speak with my husband. When I decided to buy a scooter, the male seller preferred to communicate with Pedro, even though I was the one holding the cash to buy it. It became easier to have Pedro stand by my side as I scheduled doctor appointments, got my driver's license, and even transferred that scooter I purchased into my name, not his. In every situation, I'd walk into the building with confidence and speak to the employees directly using the Spanish speaking skills I have spent almost two decades perfecting and they would still turn to talk to Pedro. Inevitably, they would smile at my glorified male escort and say, "Aw, did you teach her Spanish?"

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Listen, my boyfriend is smart, but he's not teach-a-girl-the nuances-of-a-second-language between-kisses smart.

One of the most difficult aspects of dealing with these little hits of machismo is that the people who are minimizing my worth almost never do so maliciously. I struggle with finding a balance between feeling disrespected and knowing that no disrespect was intended. When my landlord comes by to fix our washing machine hookup and makes a comment to Pedro and I about how he'll try to be quick so that "the lady can get her house back in order" I know he's trying to be helpful, but that doesn't make it acceptable to assume that doing laundry is solely my responsibility. In these situations, I find myself smiling through gritted teeth, trying to be more grateful for the help than offended by the assumption.

It's especially difficult to deal with women who see my life through the lens of machismo. I understand that machismo is a learned behavior, something that even other women get caught up in, but just because they don't mean to offend me doesn't mean they're not offensive. When I tell women I need to stay home and get some work done and they joke about making sure my man has food on the table when he gets home, I know they aren't trying to tell me it's my job to cook, but they are assuming it is.

Women commend Pedro's work as a professor and see anything extra he does outside of the university as him going above and beyond. They make comments about my work as if my paychecks are just petty cash for when I feel like going to the salon, then applaud Pedro for doing the dishes or cooking as if he is doing me a personal favor.

Those are the everyday things that slowly chisel away at me, but there are also extremes. There's a man, whom we'll call Juan, that's a childhood friend of Pedro's, a guy who Pedro hadn't seen for years until we happened to move into a house 10 minutes away from his. He started popping by and I began to notice small things Juan did, such as wordlessly hold out his wine glass to me, expecting me to pour him some, or asking me, not Pedro, to retrieve some snacks. I chalked up these minor actions to his social awkwardness until one night when he took it too far. Juan took all his machista beliefs and mixed it with a bit of Old Testament, and told me that I had "found my purpose" when I met Pedro. He went on to say that women should derive their happiness from pleasing their men.

I was so shocked by his directness that I felt the need to clarify, "So you're saying I shouldn't be happy unless Pedro is happy first? That my emotions should be completely dependent on his?" Juan nodded and added, "it's your job to serve and honor him."

Pedro jumped in and tried to reason with Juan on his own terms, "In this scenario, Rease has the goats. Maybe I've got a couple chickens or something, but Rease has the land, the house, and most importantly all the goats!" but Juan still stood strong in his beliefs and so did I, so I threw him out of my house.

You see, the problem with being a female "holder of the goats" in a machista society is that it still doesn't earn me the same amount of respect as a man. Juan may be an extreme example, but the core of his argument remains a large part of Puerto Rican Latino culture; it's evident in how my work is viewed here. My work as a writer pays a large portion of the bills, but my writing is viewed as a hobby, something that can be interrupted repeatedly by repairmen and random guests who stop by my home office just to see what I'm doing in the middle of a workday. During my two years freelancing from a home office in the United States, people respected my work hours. My male landlord would schedule noisy repairs with me to make sure he wasn't interrupting me at a bad time. Friends would ask to meet over my lunch break or, better yet, after work hours, because they understood that a home office is still a place where work has to happen.

In Puerto Rico, no one seems to realize that I have deadlines. While being a freelancer allows me some flexibility in work hours, it doesn't mean I can request extensions on articles just because someone wants to come hang out at my house for a few hours. My boyfriend is also a writer, but his writing exists either in a personal or an academic realm. No one pays him for his work, but his writing time is seen as sacred, while mine is disposable. When Pedro says anything about the struggles of writing a paper or choosing a topic for his dissertation, people revere him for his admirable academic endeavor and don't question him if he holes up in his office to write. When I say I'm going to have to work through the weekend to finish up some content for a high-paying client, I'm lucky if I can get through a day without my phone ringing or someone banging on my office door.

I may be the breadwinner, but he's still the man, and in a machismo world, that's always more important when it comes to whose time is more valuable, whose opinions are more relevant, and whose accomplishments are more impressive. This isn't the first time I've been the bigger earner in a relationship, but it's the first time I've ever felt like declaring it. 

So yeah, I'll throw out the guy who doesn't respect me enough to see that I hold the goats and I'll stand my ground when it comes to not being interrupted while I work. At the same time, I will always graciously accept tea sets and be thankful for cleaning tips, but I also might pass those things onto my boyfriend who just might have to cook dinner and clean up the mess while I work late.