As women, we are often socialized to be pleasant and quiet, to be pure and chaste, to be pretty and helpful and little more. As Latinas, there often feels like there is an added layer of this. First generation Latinas might have especially picked up on this growing up, having immigrant parents who might have frequently seemed stuck in the past while the mothers of our white friends were sometimes way more, well, “liberated.” Growing up, I didn’t know that this additional layer had a name, but now I know: It’s called marianismo and we seriously need to have a serious talk about it.
Marianismo is essentially rooted in christianity (or more specifically, in the Catholicism that colonialists indoctrinated our people with so many centuries ago). The name stems from none other than the Virgin Mary (or la Virgen Maria), who is deeply revered in latinx culture. It’s not rare for Latinx people, and especially the women, to pray frequently to La Virgencita (who is often called by other names, like La Virgen Guadalupe). We’re all sort of taught to look up to her from a young age, and in a sense, we’re also taught to be like her.
But what does it mean to be “like Maria”? In Marianismo, it means to be chaste, virginal, and inherently “good” in every way. Sex is not discussed, much less had, until you are married and then, only with your husband (nevermind the existence of LGBTQ persons). You are, in a sense, seen as better than men (because men can’t “control themselves” but you, of course, should). You should also be pious and giving. You should be religious, of course. And if you’re a wife or mother, you should be self-sacrificing in your caregiving.
Now, not every Latinx person grows up in a household that espouses marianismo. Not every Latinx person has felt the burden and guilt that marianismo so often inflicts. But many of us have, and many will continue to do so because that is the reach of colonialism over time. I write this because I am one of those Latinas who experienced this. I had no way of knowing how wrong any of this was, and I know that the women who taught me about this (who pushed me to be a “certain” way) were not doing so to be malicious. It’s just heavily ingrained in the culture and history. It’s yet another reason why Latinas absolutely need feminism.
We have never actually needed marianismo, and we need it even less so in 2018. Much like its counterpart, machismo, marianismo can do a lot of damage to girls and women. Girls growing up around marianismo don’t always get that there are alternatives to being feminine and saintly. We grow up afraid to get into any trouble, even if it’s for a good cause. We grow up afraid, period, and allow boys and men to take the lead in nearly everything. We are not offered as many alternative role models in our households because our madrecitas (bless their hearts) think this is the only way. Strong feminists, outspoken queer latinas, mujeres who do work that has been historically done by men, sexual women…these are the people that marianismo doesn’t want you to know, much less act like. As a child and teen, I idolized feminine latinas like Thalia and Bibi Gaytan, telenovela stars who were beautiful and who always prayed to Mary in their time of need (seriously, every telenovela star has a scene where she runs to church to pray to Maria or Guadalupe). There’s nothing wrong with these women but there is something wrong with a notion that prevents girls from knowing they can be and do other things as well.
Marianismo also stunts our sexuality. In Erica Fletcher’s film “Marianismo,” she speaks with young Latinas living with HIV and connects some of her research to the way marianismo inhibits our ability to speak frankly about sex with our mothers and children. If we don’t talk about sex at home, we are less likely to have the right information about how to have safe sex and protect ourselves from STIs, how to experience self-pleasure, how to enjoy sex with partners, and how to be honest about our own sexuality. Odds are if you grew up in a household that spouted marianismo, you did not talk about sex with your mama, much less talk about it if you happen to be a lesbian, bisexual, or queer person. Our schools don’t exactly do a bang up job on sexual education, and sex ed is practically unheard of in many Latin American schools.
Mothers also suffer silently because of marianismo. There’s this idea that, once you have children, you must do everything for them and for your partner (let’s face it: they mean tu marido). I know women’s lib helped loosen up a lot of this here in the States back in the 60s, but in Latin America, even in places where we had major revolutions in the past few decades (like my family’s Nicaragua), women were still often relegated to doing the housework and “taking care” of everyone else. It’s antiquated, simply following in the idea that all mothers must be like Mary, who did everything for her son (a.k.a. Jesus) until the end. This kind of unnecessary burden often means women and mothers don’t always ask to help (including mental health help). They suffer in silence because they are only doing what they are “supposed” to be doing. But latinx or not, mothers don’t have to sacrifice everything to be good mothers. It’s okay to have a career outside the home and parent, or work from home, or not work but still have outside interests other than your children. It’s okay to hire help from time to time to care for your children. It’s okay to expect your partners to do their fair share of the house work.
Marianismo has never done anything good for women. It has simply maintained the status quo of keeping men in power, much like machismo, much like the patriarchy. Men have attempted to make women feel like they have power through marianismo, achieving some kind of holy status, but frankly, this is garbage. For the Latinas in the crowd whose madrecitas dealt with this (in their ever stoic silence), I’m telling you it’s okay to break free from it all. We don’t need to be “perfect” (because honestly, what is “perfect” anyway?) We don’t need to be chaste and holy and we certainly don’t need martyrdom. Instead, let’s keep talking to our hermanas about marianismo and do all that we can do dismantle it.