Suburban Macondo

Monday, December 27, 2004

On break

Obviously I haven't been too interested in blogging of late. We're back here in Glastonbury for the week, but once we get back to Venezuela I'll get to work. Promise.

Friday, December 03, 2004


Word of the week: marico (fag, queer)

You’re walking down the street and you see two friends chatting on the corner. As you walk by, you hear each sentence punctuated with a word you’re not used to hearing, a word that seems inflammatory. The exchange goes like this:

“What’s happening, fag?”

“Not much, fag. I’m just hanging out.”

“Oh, okay. Fag, where are you going now?”

Marico is the best verbal example of machismo here in Mérida, and indeed, in Venezuela. Young men constantly start or finish their sentences with it, much like American men use the word “dude.” And in many ways, to them, it means the same thing.

But in a culture often governed by the rules of machismo, there is something strange about the co-optation of marico by young, straight men. Maybe it just seems odd because, in the States, people don’t talk like that. In English, you might call someone a fag if you don’t like him, or if you want to call his masculinity into question, maybe as a joke. Or, obviously, you say it if you want to hurl an epithet at a gay man. And although Americans throw around the word “gay” a lot (for example, “That rug looks so gay”), it connotes stupidity or worthlessness. All of these meanings show what many people think of gay men on the whole—that they lack certain markers of masculinity, that they are less manly than straight men, and that they are different and not worth being copied.

But in Mérida you hear marico all the time: in the street, at restaurants, and certainly in bars. They don’t just say marico, though; they use other words, like parchita, or passion fruit, as synonyms for queer, and they make hand gestures, like the “OK” sign with the three fingers down (perhaps symbolizing an anus), to emphasize that they are talking about a gay man. Often the use of marico is derogatory, like “Look at that fag over there,” or “Ricky Martin is such a fag,” but it can be merely a familiar title for a man. But how did it get that way?

I haven’t written much about machismo in this space, which surprises me a bit considering my past men’s studies work. However, as every book on Latin America is quick to point out, the region is immersed in macho culture. There’s a reason why in even the most basic overviews of the region you read about the gender divide here, the roots of machismo and marianismo, and the separate cultural spheres for men and women. It’s in all the books because it exists, for sure, and because it’s important.

Masculinity and virility are still pushed on men from a young age here. We’ve heard from countless friends that 13- and 14-year-old boys from traditional families are sent by their fathers to prostíbulos, or whorehouses, in an effort to prepare them for manhood—a centuries-old tradition that seems quite similar to a colonial practice in which young, sometimes-prepubescent elites would bed their family’s servants in order to improve their lovemaking skills before marriage. Forget about masturbating with a porn mag; these kids have carnal knowledge (of a hooker, no less) before high school. And if children are sexualized at such a young age, and had heterosexual relationships so viscerally shown to them, it is not surprising that they would lash out at that which is different, that which is challenging to comprehend, be it sexually demanding, aggressive women or homosexual men.

The use of marico as a common referent also might have something to do with the evolution of language; that is, at some point, someone meant to call his friend a dumbass and instead substituted “fag” for “dumbass.” Soon, he and his friends called other friends maricos, furthering its use and assuring that it could become a larger linguistic trend. And although there has been some research on the use of the variant marica in a small town in Colombia, anthropologist Mara Viveros wrote in 2002 that male youth often used the epithet to refer to other youths who demonstrated a lack of loyalty. She concluded, “To betray the group constitutes the worst crime and a youth who was accused of being a traitor was labeled a ‘marica,’ not for his sexual practices but because of his disloyalty.” That seems like a very different, and much more serious, use of the word.

Perhaps the key to understanding marico lies not in linguistics but in sociology. Homosexuality is quite repressed in Latin America, but homosociality, or the tendency for a group to hang out with only those of its kind (here, for example, men with men), is a cherished tradition in the region. Often my friend Luis refers to sexual topics as “guy talk,” which always makes me think of men having one set of rigid, set ideals and women another. It's because of the existence of these separate spheres that hegemonic masculinity—most notably characterized by machismo, homophobia and misogyny—is passed on by older to younger men. Within these groups different, or perhaps enlightened, men are pushed to the periphery, and any discomfort a man might have with saying a word like marico is quickly squelched by the larger voice of the group, or gender.

Because it’s funny. Because all men—dad, grandpa, uncle José—do it. And because in the end, despite the widespread use of the word, there can be nothing worse than being called a marico because you’re different, because you don’t fit the masculine ideal. Not in a machista culture like the one here in Venezuela.