Fear and Ignorance in El Salvador (and how the women won’t have it)

The first thing people will tell you about the gender dynamics in El Salvador is that there is a lot of machismo. But it’s not always obvious and definitely manifests itself in a variety of ways, some fairly harmless, others extremely harmful. The ways in which Salvadoran women deal with this macho, patriarchal culture is quite admirable.

So there are definitely degrees and types of machismo here. You find patterns in attitudes and personalities of the men here. Of course there’s grey area and contradictions, but I would say the two most obvious are: The Hero and The Womanizer. There are also a few Total Fucking Misogynists. Huge generalizations, yes. But some trends are undeniable.

The Hero is overwhelmingly courteous and hospitable. He wants to drive you everywhere or at least guards you while you ride the bus together. He opens doors and always gets the bill. He wants to teach you things: Spanish, how to dance, where to go in the city, philosophy, indigo dyeing.

When you get on a bus with a heavy bag, a hero will very likely offer to hold it for you. I mean probably not with your purse, but with your groceries, for sure. In fact many Salvadoran women are accustomed to handing their giant basket of food off to the first guy who can reach it.

I will admit, at first I thought I could get used to the heroes. All I need to do is glance at my empty coffee cup/beer bottle/pupusa plate and they’re out of their seat getting me seconds. But the novelty wears off quickly. I just want to do it myself. When I do it myself I know I’ll do it right and I won’t feel indebted to anyone for having given me something. Also, it’s just fucking offensive to have your ability to take care of yourself constantly undermined.

Next we have The Womanizer. These types will not hold your groceries when you get on the bus, nor will they give you their seat. But they will enjoy the view as you struggle to balance everything in the aisle of the bus. They leer. They’ve always got a comment. Their comments are more demeaning than friendly. The words “Tengo un novio.” mean nothing to them. They don’t understand how you can resist them. After all, you’re a woman and they’re men.

Womanizers are the reason I get anxious when getting on a bus or passing a group of guys on the street. While I’ve never had a particularly terrible experience, the accumulation of comments has stuck with me. “Princesa” is the most common. Sometimes its said somewhat genuinely as if it’s a compliment. Other times it’s muttered with spite and sarcasm. The result of this recurring comment is that now I feel that all the men I encounter regard me as a princesa. This may be as much a result of my colour as it is my gender. All the same, it’s not a comfortable position to be in.

And then there are the Total Fucking Misogynists that are the cause of the very high rate of femicide in El Salvador. I had read stories before that were terrible enough to almost make me decide not to come. While it would be easy to say that such terrible acts occur in all corners of the world, think Paul Bernardo, I believe in El Salvador it is a direct result of the culture and the history of the country rather than just the actions of individual psychopaths. There was so much excessive rape and mutilation of women that occurred during the civil war. It was done openly, as an intimidation tactic, so that many many people witnessed these atrocities. I’m not an expert on how growing up in, living through, or fighting in a war affects a person. I’ve seen people with extreme anxieties, people who are angry or sorrowful for all they have lost, people with a great deal of concern for their fellow countrymen. But another outcome, especially for men whose lives were interrupted and taken over for all of the war, is complete desensitization. This, and/or maybe an extremely developed hatred for women, is the only thing I can imagine would lead a truck full of a dozen men to pick up two women, rape them to pieces, bite at their faces, and then put bullets in their head despite their pleas that they have children waiting for them at home. This happened a month ago. One of the women survived despite the bullets in the head. But they probably won’t find the guys that did this. It wasn’t even in the news, it happened to a family one of my co-workers works with.

It’s hard not to distrust every single man you meet after hearing that. But it definitely isn’t such a common attitude. Most men simply want to be your hero. Like Enrique Igelsias.

Another common attitude of the men here is an absolute reverence for their mothers. And it is well deserved. Mothers in El Salvador work damn hard. And so many of the mothers here are single. Single motherhood isn’t something that is lamented about. It’s a fact of life. Many older families were left fatherless as a result of the war. Now it almost seems to be a norm that men take off once the kids are born. I have met a few utterly dedicated fathers, but the portion of fatherless families here is huge. This means that the kids frequently go to work with mama. Motherhood is much more visible here. It’s intertwined with the rest of life rather than something that’s confined to the home. I see women breast feeding all the time, anywhere. This might be more a result of the fact that there’s a lot of babies around, but women just seem to be more comfortable in their role as mothers.

Due to the lack of spouses, most women are extremely independent when it comes to work as well. Whether its a small business in the countryside or a career goal like marine biololigist, doctor, or diplomat, women here push to make things happen. Especially in the countryside, women just do whatever needs to get done. Need a house built? A tree cut? A chicken killed? They’ll do it between breastfeeding and laundry.

Admittedly this isn’t always the case in the city. You’ll never see a female cobrador (bus caller). It’s a job that requires the cocky strut of a true macho man. (Interestingly though, I did see a female cobrador as soon as I crossed the border to Nicaragua. She had the strut down.) And you will always see pretty girls in tight t-shirts advertising some product. But for the most part, women have higher career goals. And most importantly, they here have an attitude that if they want something, they’re going to work to get it. Mainly because they know they have to. It’s not easy being female in El Salvador, but Salvadoreñas seem to ignore this fact and just get on with their lives.

18 responses to “Fear and Ignorance in El Salvador (and how the women won’t have it)

  1. Do you think that Heroes are more heroic and Womanizers are more lecherous because you are a gringa in El Salvador?

    • As a Salvadoreña I would say none of us are safe; maybe the gringas or other foreign women feel it’s because of their whiteness or other non-salvadoran attributes but I would say it’s more of an impression. The majority of men here think that we are all objects of some form they can use as they please…. yes the war had something to do with it, yes there are many women who put up with it mainly because they feel they have no choice, it’s life, they’re stuck with it but there is something deeper and the current discourse within feminism isn’t helping. It alienates most Salvadoreñas who prefer not engage with it because it´s viewed as anti-feminine. What is needed is a return to a more subtle way of promoting equality, something our grandmothers knew how to do a lot better.

      It’s hard to get out of the tough life that most people live in the country but many try, I think that’s the admirable thing of my countrywomen, they never give up. How to change it? Well those very dedicated mothers should stop making demigods of their sons and especially should stop assuming that men cannot help behaving as they do. Everyone with regular intelligence and common sense can control they actions and thoughts. Very important, these mothers should also stop putting all the responsibility on the girls. I have heard too many times that as a girl I’m the one who will take care of my parents when they are old because sons are never around once they get together with someone and move away; sons cannot be relied on. Not that I would mind taking care of them(nor do I think others would either) but it’s the principle behind it that annoys me. Why should I be made to feel guilty because I am studying abroad, trying to do what most women in my country don’t have the opportunity to do while my brothers, who haven’t been back to El Salvador in 4 years, never get told off or are told they are bad sons?
      It’s a problem of the whole society, of how we are educated and of a complete unwillingness amongst most to change the status quo.

  2. Um, yes. Definitely. I am a gringa therefore I am utterly clueless and helpless and could never survive without a caballero to watch over me.

  3. Interesting post… one of your last sentences in the post caught my attention:

    “mainly because they know they have to”-

    Yes, indeed! Many Salvadorian women are very unhappy with the way many things are in El Salvador regarding men, and they know it.

    In El Salvador, women have certain “life styles”, do certain things, live some certain way, and have to deal with uncomfortable situations regarding macho men, simply because for most of them, there’s very little they can do to change that reality.
    That “mess” seams to be “part of the system”. It’s ridiculous and it’s sad..

    I had a girlfriend in San Salvador who used to tell me horrible stories about what she had to go thru every time she got on the bus . She told me that almost everyday, guys were trying to get close to her when the bus was crowded, and in more than on occasion, some guys actually touched her. Unfortunately that situation is very common because of the fucking womanizers of our system.

    Cuidate Maggie, que mi pais es peligroso.

  4. Bah humbug!

    These behaviors are cultural and exist because of both sexes. Men would not act like so unless there were women willing to tolerate it.

    How many times have I seen all kinds of women fall for the most obvious ruffians?

    With the perspective of time, I’ve concluded that these women were actively seeking a controlling/micro-managing “Hero” bastard, or a philandering “Womanizer” who made them (for a fleeting minute) the envy of their friends (until he seduced one them), or simply an antisocial “Total Fucking Misogynist” who seemed protective for as long as the courtship lasted, but who in reality was only good for beating her (in a physical way) and not for beating her enemies (in a metaphorical way).

    With regard to motherly devotion… very iffy. Superficially, maybe a bit, when compared to other societies. But far from real devotion. More like a relationship that remains useful (for the son): a cook, an ATM, a nanny for the kids, a hangover pad. After all, Salvadorean sons know their mothers (for some bizarre reason) will always tolerate their vices.

    Remember: Salvadorean mothers always claim their son is pure and perfect as a sunrise beach, even after their son is arrested for being a serial kidnapper.

  5. I learned so much from your post and will be coming back to read more often.Thank you. and have fun in that country, Maggie. The behaviour seems to be similar to some Asian countries.

  6. i just read all of your posts and i liked them a lot. i’m salvadoran, by the way, and i found it very interesting to read an exterior point of view on my country, and with such accurate remarks! i also think the work you’re doing here is great :)

  7. Great blog!
    Keep writing about your experience in El Salvador. Best of luck to you!

  8. Maggie —
    After just returning from a mission trip in El Salvador, I could not agree with you more. I encourage you to read about, or visit, La Casa Pastoral in Berlin, Usulutan. Staffed by a group of 7 women, this is the headquarters for a fair-trade coffee finca, hostel for missionary groups, homeless shelter, and food bank for most of Berlin and the cantons around Berlin. These women are remarkable.
    As with your observation of the “nice guy,” I think that is just a home-grown trait with Salvadoran men, especially the older ones. When I was there, strangers would go out of their way to make things easier for me. This especially seemed apparent in the poor, rural areas. Even though these people had next to nothing, they would give everything they had to gringos who were visiting.

  9. Great post. I’ve never been to El Salvador but these descriptions are very familiar from my experiences in Peru/Ecuador. I was particularly nodding in recognition at ‘the hero’, and how at first you think it’s really attractive and then the sheen really wears off and you just get tired of being treated like you are made of glass.

  10. I disagree with your analysis…

    It’s true that Salvadoran culture, as every other society in the continent –and the world-, it’s not exempt of the type of conducts that you mention in your piece, the problem is that –even if you acknowledge the existence of gray areas- you don’t seem to recognize that the problem that
    perpetuates those conducts comes from the same rational used to attack them. Talking about “heroes”, “womanizers” or “T.F Misogynists” it’s a form of profiling that reinforces the very same stereotype that you so vehemently dislike. Even if all those patterns where to be true and manifested in a significant fraction of Salvadoran males, what would this mean? What happens if I as an individual, I’m courteous just for the sake of being courteous, am I immediately a “hero” because I open your car door or a “womanizer” because I feel attracted to a good looking woman? Does your perception of me changes if I’m French, British or Salvadoran? Or if we’re in New York, L.A or Managua? Or if I’m rich or poor?

    This same argument is easily applicable to other contexts. Someone could say that Spaniards are also womanizers and also that they are very much respectful of their mothers as the Jewish “are”, as the Russians “are”…as we all are since we share in most cases relatively similar cultural backgrounds, similar patriarchal societies…

    Just last year in Germany, a court rule in favor of a Italian waiter who kept his Lithuanian girlfriend locked up in a basement only to rape, torture and humiliate her. The argument of the judge was that he needed to “consider the defendant’s cultural an ethnic background”.

    Does this mean that all women in Italy are treated the same and if so…does this mean that this behavior is an inherent cultural condition? Are all Italian males T.F Misogynists?

    We can argue a lot about this…regardless I just want to say that I really share your admiration for Salvadoran women, not just because I was raised by one –feminist BTW- , but also because many of the conditions and treatments that you mention are true…not just in E.S but everywhere… women have and do struggle for their rights.

    PD. Oh I forgot…there are “Cobradoras” in S.S…they’re just hard to find…

  11. ¿tienes novio?….(si)…¿tienes novio en Guatemala?…¿te quiero chapolines?…

    o man. el salvador sounds a lot like guatemala…not surprising, considering they are right next door and share a similar post-conflict moment in history…i think one major difference is that indingous guys here seem to take a lot of responsibility for thier children…its a cultural trait that is apperantly (sadly) waneing.

    I saw a female bus caller the other day…I was so proud of her…there she is on the front lines of gender equality…it’s people like her that break the barriers for other women, not just female politicians and doctors.

    arlos, i think that steryotyping is going to happen anyway. I mean, Guatemalans stereotype me…I am going to stereotype them right back…while aknowleging that the stereotype is only a model and doesn’t reflect all Guatemalans…and I have positive sterotypes as well as negative ones…

  12. Wow! You are getting quite the response to a powerful blog. I love that as I am reading it, a male colleague of mine comes into my office and all he sees is “Total Fucking Mysoginists”.

    I think these different types exist all over the world but it would be interesting to look closer at what the effect of the war where rape is used as a weapon of choice is on the psyche, male-female relations, perceptions of sex and love. Just musing.

  13. Any woman who marries or has a relationship with a Salvadoran man is in for a time of misery.

  14. Beiing quite sceptic for judgement towards Salvatorians mens before , but reading your post made me realized some pretty good points that i have seen on my ex hero ! thanks for sharing all infos and really beeing thruth about mens of that country .

  15. Great blog I agree on your point of view about men in ES I lived it
    Regardless need to say not all of the are like that. They are good fellas.
    About the comment about mothers yes Mom,s are overprotective over their son,s for sure.

  16. morenamorena
    Coming from a south American/ caribean background salvadorian culture is so narrow and different then any latinos.I been married, well so called “marriage” to a salvachuco man he culture is so differnt talavan like. I feel stuffled and surrounded by angry and negetivity he is controling he wont even let my daughter carry a purse
    sometimes me and the kids are puzzle by his angermoods he had a ruff upbringing he had lots of disapline issues and refers to his mama alot and how his mamma beat him for this and that. He tells me Im to Happy and see things to rose colored glasses. I dont want my kids to grow like that. He been dishonest to me he has cheated I almost lost everything I even lost friends. We were a large family.I know that not all savaldorians are like that its just the uneducated simple campoisnos that behave like this… Its sad to me i still like my kids to know about the salvadorian side the rich and cultural points.

  17. Maria , I hope and pray that u find a good man … I’m from New York I have two wonderful and beautiful boys in elsalvador , but unfortunately my wife is and has been in controll of their life and does not have the caplebility or responsibility to see and give them the a better future. The last ten years of my life has been taking care of a women that doesn’t care about anything but herself and the whole family is the same no respect for anybody . Elsalvador is not for the modern and educated the people are just haters this is what more than ten years of experience tells me I’m so close to asking her for a divorce but I love my boys and don’t want to give up,but my wife is crazy and full of chambra just like the rest of elsalvador….. I would do just about anything to get out of elsalvador with my children I evan offered her money when I got my settlement but she didn’t want it . I guess she knows that I will allways give her money and that is all she wants . My only problem is that she is unreliable and unresonsible , and never does what she is told . Nobody likes that but when she tells me I have to pay this and pay that then go buy this or that I do it and more she is spoiled never worked for herself when asking her sister why doesn’t she come and work with you she said it was to hard and not enouph money wich to me is just life something she never learned she has me a gingo and still depends on mommy and dady… What it all boils down to is a bunch of un educated ignorant .un willing to learn new things and better themselfs.

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