I Loved My Dad, But Hated His Machismo
My Mexican-American father gave me everything. But I don't want his patriarchal worldview.
Archival photos provided by author.
This weekend, I plan on bringing my father's grave an ofrenda: a bundle of flowers, a lime-and-salt rimmed Tecate, rice, a candle, and a cup of water. He died when I was 18. His plot is in a cemetery just off Alameda street in South El Paso, a few blocks from the housing project where he grew up. I rarely visit the cemetery these days, because it's so sad and dusty and hot. But I'm inclined to make the trek this weekend. After all, it's Father's Day.
My dad was a good, loving father—a brilliant, proud man who rose up from poverty in the barrio to have a successful career as a politically-active Mexican-American defense attorney. Still, I feel funny about Father's Day. For many people, Father's Day is a holiday that re-opens the wounds of strained relationships, years of abuse, and even total absence. For me, it's an annual reminder of my father's forced exit from the world and our unresolved tensions concerning the big ugliness of his machismo.
For much of my life, I was terrified of my dad. Even as I reflect on my fondest memories of him, I also carry recollections of his temper, his impatience, and, above all else, his household expectations.
In our home, each member of the family had their own gendered obligations to my father. Me and my brothers had to embody the hard masculinity he demonstrated. We could never cry. Instead, we were taught to fight, to conquer women, and to never "act like pussies." For my mother, as independent as she is, the kitchen always seemed to be the space where she was sentenced to labor and he was destined to command. She worked more than 50 hours a week in the television news industry, but when she came home at 6 o'clock—hijole, she knew the drill. Tortillas had to be heated on the comal, guisados had to be perfectly salted, chile and aguacate had to be cut and ready to be served. My dad expected all of this done and on the table within an hour. Whenever these expectations fell through, he would get so pissed that it felt like the earth was about to open up and devour us whole.
The thing that set him off the most was burnt food. That was a cardinal sin.
"Felipa! Felipa! God Damn it!" He'd begin to yell, the fissures in his forehead deepening, "I can't eat this shit! Every damned…"
And so it went, on and on for years. As amazing as my dad was, I really had no rational explanation for this kind of behavior. Why was my dad so intense? Why was he so invested in the gendered ordering of the household? Why was he so into machismo?
He finally gave me the answer the year before he died. In those days, the tension between us had reached a boiling point. I was growing less and less patient with the household order and the dinnertime explosions, and he'd taken notice.
One Sunday, he came bursting in my room in his classic steel-cut manner. At first, I expected the worst.
"Mijo, get your shoes on and get in the car. I wanna show you something."
"Dad, I don't know if today—"
"Hey, what did I say? Get your shoes on and get in the God damned car. You don't know anything about El Paso. I'm gonna show you some neighborhoods and tell you some things."
What my dad was really trying to do was initiate me into the practice of barrio cruising—the slow-paced, nostalgic drive through old neighborhoods that dates back to the pachucos. Although at the time I really didn't want to go on these drives, I realized later that these Sunday cruises were as much about him showing me his old barrio as they were about him mapping out his own childhood traumas for me.
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These barrio cruises took us deeper into his past, through the days and nights of childhood terror and abuse. He told me of my grandfather, a man who left my father with little more than a picture of him dressed like a pachuco in a Juárez bar. When my father was four, this man disappeared, leaving my grandmother with two kids and an elderly mother to care for. My father loved his mother, and even worshipped her for the decades she spent laboring in factories to care for him. But still, I think he always held onto a certain sense of resentment for what came next—the trail of deadly step-fathers and live-in boyfriends. Over the next decade, my father would encounter four new siblings and countless beatings from a circuit of men who claimed to be his new patriarch.
At school things weren't better. Beatings at home transformed into beatings from white teachers in the classroom. My dad's consistent crime was speaking Spanish—something that was met with fury by Anglo educators who sought to "Americanize" Mexican-American children. Although El Paso is demographically dominated by people of Mexican descent, like much of the Southwest, it has been subject to Anglo cultural, political, and economic hegemony since the 1850s. Even today, when you ask people who owns what and who is elected to where, you get a laundry list of prominent white families—Hunt, Foster, Marcus, Sanders, Margo... These school beatings were perhaps my father's first political encounter with this racial order—a society where everyone you knew was Mexican except for the people in charge. This ultimately shaped my dad's politics and sparked a desire in him to infiltrate the system and fight against its institutionalized racism. But before he'd get there, he'd have to survive more violence at home.
One day when he was 14, the newest mystery man in my grandmother's life started beating on her. My father snapped, took the belt from the man's hand and ended up sending his "stepfather" to the hospital, stopping short of killing him only at the pleading of my grandmother and his toddler step-siblings. By the end of it, my dad was exiled from his home and sent to live with an aunt working in textiles in Los Angeles.
Reflecting on this past with my father today, I realize our household machismo was a product of his own struggle with failed father-figures. Our home was meant to reflect some sense of order that he had idealized, a world where the father would be benevolent, present, and therefore obeyed. Likewise, the children would be hardened: ready to fight and survive the deadly men and toxic white educators that exist outside the home. But my father died before I could really digest all of this. A car accident took his life, and with it, the unprecedented exchange of emotions we had just begun to embark upon.
Still, my father's vision of masculinity and machismo has been hard to shake. As much as I'd like to imagine that I've transcended all that bullshit, I've come to realize that I unintentionally internalized a lot of his ideas. And despite all the beautiful things my father gave me, this has not been a healthy inheritance.
Although I've never had my dad's anger issues, I've seen myself act out his machismo in other ways. Just as my dad expected to do minimal domestic labor, I've blown off domestic tasks and let the burden fall on partners and female roommates. I've acted like a machista, said ugly things, and I've let a lot of people down. It's helpful to know the context of my father's struggle with machismo, but it's still no excuse for my own journey with this stuff—and maybe that's why Father's Day is so weird for me. It's a time when we're forced to confront all the good that fathers can do, all the things they haven't done, and all the legacies we'd like to leave behind.
So as I bring flowers and beer to his grave this weekend, I hope to convey everything I learned from hearing his story. I plan on telling my father that I love and appreciate him more than ever, but that ultimately, I reject his brand of masculinity.