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.