In the novel ‘The Book of Unknown Americans’ by Cristina Henriquez we follow the lives of various Latino and Latina characters who have come to the United States for a better future. The most complex relationship in the book is the parent’s marriage of one of the lead protagonists of the book, Mayor. His parents Rafael Toro and Celia Toro had migrated from their home country of Panamá and now live in Delaware where Rafael works at as a line cook at a dinner and is the sole provider for the family. What is really striking about Toro relationship is that it still mirrors the ideal family life that one could find in typical Latin countries. Their family structure is highly patriarchal, which historically, means women are seen as second-class citizens to men. Throughout the novel we see ways in which Rafael’s machismo background leads to a lot of resentment in the Toro’s marriage. The Machismo family structure is incredibly toxic because it idolizes the idea that only a man needs matter in a marriage which ultimately, leads to the suppression of women.
Masculinity among latino men is such a big part in why men act the way they act. According to Lizette Ojeda and Brandy Piña-Watson masculinity is broken down into two avenues, machismo and caballerismo. Machismo is described as “consisting of hypermasculine traits such as dominance, aggression, and chauvinism” whearsas Caballerismo “consists of chivalrous characteristics such as nurturance, social responsibility, and emotional connectedness”. Though we see Caballerismo in men, the main ideal version of a man resides in a Machismo way of living. Overall the effects of machismo are a disservice to both men and women, for men it weighs very heavy on the mental well being, and it ensures that women remain suppressed in their societies. Family Psychologist Celia Jaes Falicov further explains that the negative aspects of false masculinity found in Machismo driven males are deeply rooted to “include bravado, violence, selfishness, disrespect, irresponsibility, and cowardliness”. She points out that a lot of men gain satisfaction in knowing that they can overpower women. This idea come from a historically thought that has depicted women as deserving to be overpowered as well as not trustworthy. For this reason we see the family structure among latinos as being male dominated, it is further practiced because from a young age, children are conditioned to see fathers as the only person to be worthy of to make decisions in the family.
It is customary for men to be the sole providers in families throughout Latin America. The same is said for the Toro’s in ‘The Book of Unknown Americans’ however due to financial hardship we see Celia express the desire to get a job as well when it is learned that Mayors father, Rafael, is worried about losing his job at the dinner. Celia on the phone to her sister Gloria, begins to explain how worried and how unhappy she is with her situation since her husband does not entertain the idea that Celia wants to get a job to help bring in money. She expresses her anger over her situation when she tells Gloria, “I’m a very capable woman”…“is it a crime that I should want to help my family?”…“Claro. My life is not only about fulfilling his life. But try getting him to see it that way.” (Henriquez 39). Here we can see how frustrated Celia is in her situation, she clearly feels underappreciated as his wife and as a woman since it is her husband who denies her the chance to help the family. In their relationship there is no way for her to push back on how she feels because Rafael will never value her opinion. During another scene we see Celia is on the phone with sister talking about the same issue. Except this time Rafael overhears the conversation and decides to physically ends the phone call himself by slamming the dial tone. He yells at his wife about money, and he justifies his action by stating that the phone calls are expensive, to which she argues it wouldn’t be a problem if she had a job. But that was taking too far for Rafael, he then responds angrily, “Ya. Basta Celia! I don’t want to hear about it anymore!”(Henriquez 39). Celia then leaves the room crying and is visibly distraught. All the while Mayor, their son, watches the exchange in the living room, where he processes this as another normal exchange between a husband and wife
It is customary for women in latin communities to willingly accept this type of fate in their marriage. Families are such an integral part of a person’s life, that women will do anything to put their family first. This means putting themselves last and tolerating any injustice in their marriage. After the big argument where Rafael expresses his anger in Celia wanting to find a job, Celia decides to leave the house and go to the Dollar Tree to get away from her husband. She takes her son Mayor with her and there, they both meet the newest residents to their apartment complex, Alma Rivera and her daughter Maribel. Celia begins to fill Alma in on useful tips about the neighborhood in order to help her get accoustmented to life in Delaware. While getting more acquainted with each other Celia tells Alma where she could find her in the apartment building and implores her to stop by anytime. Mayor who had just witnessed the blow up his parents had noticed his mother’s next comment as a dig at his father when he recalls her telling Alma, “I’m almost always home,” she said, I guess she couldn’t help herself, because she added pointedly, “My husband likes it that way.” (Henríquez 43). Make no mistake, Celia made that precise comment out of anger toward her husband. It was in that moment where she was reminded that the only reason she was guaranteed to be home all day was because her husband would not allow it to be any other way. Celia like many other women who marry, understand the unspoken rule that a husband has complete control over them.
The most egregious version of machismo we see in Rafael is the way he uses his male dominance to administer fear in his wife, especially when he chooses to act out in angry outbursts when he is taking at her. In the novel we learn the Gloria is divorcing her husband and will be receiving a settlement of eighty thousand dollars, which meant she wanted to send the Toro family ten thousand dollars. Celia tells Rafael and Mayor over dinner about the divorce and mentions that her sister plans on sending money over to them. Rafael hearing this, thinks they will only receive a small amount of money and begins to take offence to the idea that they need money in the first place. Celia, not believing Rafael would say this given their current financial situation, reminds Rafael of their money problems. Which leads to an explosive scene where Rafael slams his plate onto the floor and yells, “Goddammit, Celia! How many times do I have to tell you that I will take care for this family? What do you think I’m doing out there every day? You think I’m working my ass off for fun?” (Henríquez 157- 158). The scene escalades further when she chooses to look away from him and instead looks down at her plate. He then reaches over the table and grabs her by the wrists and demands that she looks at him when he’s speaking to her. When she does, he shoves her arms away from him and leaves the room visibly shaking with anger. This type of power dynamic in family is so disturbingly embarrassing for Celia to face in front of her son. The fact that Rafael chooses to treat her with the utmost disrespect in front of their son, and doesn’t apologize for it, shows us how little he cares about his wife’s feelings. The most damaging consequence of all this is, the example currently being shown to Mayor, that as the man of the house it would be acceptable to treat his future wife the same way.
Another cancerous trait that comes with Machismo mentality is the idea that only men can make big life decisions for the family. For Rafael this means he never has to consult his wife on anything. Afterall he is the only one who works and it because of his hard work that the family has what they have. When Rafael finally does learn that his sister-in-law is sending them ten thousand dollars he is in complete shock. Once the money falls into his hands he announces to Celia and Mayor that he’s going to buy a car. Celia in disbelief of what she just heard, argues that they don’t even need a car and that the money could be spent on other things. They go back and forth with each on their stances on buying a car, but it ends with him saying, “We’re getting a car” (Henríquez 160). Both Mayor and Celia were aware at that moment that Rafael’s statement was basically law at that point. Rafael’s background growing up has taught him that he is the king of the house, and no one tells him what to do. Which also meant Celia and Mayor knew this too.
In the Toro marriage we are able to see just how the patriarchal family dynamic is a disservice to Celia’s ability to make decisions for herself as well her happiness. By Rafael not allowing Celia to work, he keeps the same dynamic in the family where Celia has no choice but to head to his every desire. By leaving all decisions in his hands, he’s able to keep her powerless in their marriage. The patriarchal family is built this way by design and it caters to the male ego which is why we see this time and time again where Rafael always express himself in anger when his wife does not act in a way he was taught to expect from a wife. He cannot cope with the idea that he is being undermined in his own house and therefore lashes out at his wife. Worst of all, this mentally is being passed down to their son Mayor who will grow up thinking this type of partnership is both normal and one that works. The machismo family structure is one that is toxic for the Latin community because it does not encourage women to be independent of men.
Falicov, Celia Jaes. “Changing Constructions of Machismo for Latino Men in Therapy: ‘The Devil Never Sleeps.’” Family Process, vol. 49, no. 3, Sept. 2010, pp. 309–329. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.2010.01325.x.
Henríquez, Cristina. The Book of Unknown Americans. Vintage Books, a Division of Random House LLC, 2015.
Ojeda, Lizette, and Brandy Piña-Watson. “Caballerismo May Protect Against the Role of Machismo on Mexican Day Laborers’ Self-Esteem.” Psychology of Men & Masculinity, vol. 15, no. 3, July 2014, pp. 288–295. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1037/a0033450.