Eight men, some unshaven, are sitting around the table in a Santa Ana kitchen. Nobody's handing out beers to go with the talk circling the table. Instead, they are moving a pot of burning incense from one to another. And the talk? It's nothing to do with who bested whom in what sport. Each man, each hombre, offers a little prayer for something less tangible: better relationships with wives, children and parents.
The gathering, based on Aztec traditions, is part of a small but growing national Latino men's movement trying to unravel the age-old concept of machismo. The idea is to turn the word on its head--make it not about being a tough guy, but about being a good guy. Known in Spanish as circulos de hombres, the men's circles in places such as Orange County, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Albuquerque and San Antonio seek to redefine "macho man." There are between 2,000 and 3,000 men in formal circulos in the United States, organizers say.
Men's support groups have multiplied in recent years as the belief has grown that addressing some of society's toughest issues--including domestic abuse and kids growing up without fathers--won't be resolved without men's involvement. But few of the groups are for Spanish speakers, and none address the specific nuances of machismo.
" 'Macho' is not a dirty word," said Angel Martinez, a health educator who is involved in a circulo in San Francisco. "In Spanish, a macho is a man, and there are a lot of positive concepts to that."
Although members of the circulos do not believe Latino men are different than those of any other ethnicity, machismo has been a topic of study in Latin America and beyond since the Spanish conquest. Most researchers see machismo as a unique Latino social phenomenon that affects families, how boys and girls are raised and how men and women are treated within the family. At its best, machismo is seen as a force creating powerful men. At its worst, machismo is viewed as making men arrogant while demeaning women.
Confronting machismo is no simple task, but that has not dissuaded the leader of the newest chapter in Orange County: social worker Alejandro Moreno, a hulking 6-foot-7 man, a native of Mexico with soft mannerisms and a baritone voice. He began the circulo nine months ago.
"A macho man can be someone who is strong, but he should be a person who wants to be the backbone of his family, support his wife, help his children and be sensitive to their needs and his own," Moreno says. But becoming this quintessential macho is not easy, in part because men of all ethnicities are often conditioned to be rough and even uncaring, Moreno says. He hopes the meetings will help men unravel this conditioned behavior and "reconstruct manhood."
Brown University anthropology professor Matthew Gutmann, author of the book "The Meanings of Macho" (University of California Press), said the task of changing attitudes is formidable.
"You find machos . . . sexists . . . in every culture in the world today. For complicated reasons, the word 'macho' and the word 'machismo' have come to be associated with Latin Americans and Mexico in particular," Gutmann said.
Jerry Tello, who runs one of three circulos in Los Angeles, said the word 'macho' has been twisted so that it has become unnecessarily negative. "The true machismo is being a man of palabra, of honoring women, men, children. The false machismo is the man who rules, dominates and drinks. There is a role men should take. We do not want to eliminate the part that will stand up and protect the family," Tello said.
Members of the Orange County group--the number at a meeting ranges from eight to 15--bring their own chairs to the monthly gatherings at Moreno's home. Then they talk, in Spanish and English, about their cargas (responsibilities) and regalos (gifts or blessings).
They offer a prayer to the "four directions"--elders, children, women and men. They say the names of family members, particularly those struggling with problems. The spiritual opening to the meeting helps the members talk about things they usually keep inside. By talking, they say, they find solutions to dealing with troublesome pasts or the rocky present.
Venancio Chavez, 38, met Moreno in his work as a member of the Site Council for Garfield Elementary School. Chavez was grappling with a rocky marriage, extramarital affairs and an inability to communicate with his children.
"I'm finding out what a macho really is. . . . We are very confused about the word and about what we are supposed to be," Chavez says. When Chavez, a disabled factory worker, is passed the pot of incense, he says, "Senor Dios, let this day fortify me and my knowledge; let me gain clarity before the problems that face me."
Chavez said the group has shown him that men should take an active role in the family instead of leaving women with all the responsibilities. Furthermore, he has sought to redefine his manhood.