Cultural Construction of Gender

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One of the major problems with discussing gender among Puerto Ricans on the island is the limited research on gender as the central point of analysis across many subject areas. Some gender research areas such as women's and men's experiences and contributions to the labor force have amassed more attention and empirical research than other areas of gender scholarship, such as gender roles within marriage, the family, across the life-span, leisure, arts, sports, and sexuality. Moreover, there is a long history of scholarship that has created pathological models on Puerto Rican families. Although this scholarship is currently being challenged, it provides the basis for much of the readily available information on Puerto Ricans. Another problem associated with gender studies among Puerto Ricans is that the limited empirical research available spans several decades. There is no critical mass of gender research available on the current situation for most subjects discussed in this chapter. Thus this chapter will produce an overview of what has been described as the "traditional" sex-gender system for Puerto Ricans in the social science literature with the caveat that many of the descriptions are not adequately empirically researched and are out of date.

The Puerto Rican sex-gender system is characterized by dichotomous descriptions and expectations of male and female behavior. Machismo and marianismo represent the two major constructs that have been used by scholars to define male and female behavior in Puerto Rican society, with males and females usually being given opposite expectations and characteristics. Machismo and marianismo in the social science literature are often poorly defined and empirically tested concepts that diminish the range of masculinit(ies) and femininities) ascribed to by Puerto Rican men and women. The concept of machismo involves male domination and female subordination. A male may exert power and control through physical abuse. Machismo in the extreme is connected with fighting, bragging, and drinking. In addition, males may refuse to do anything that they perceive to be feminine. It also involves a sense of invulnerability, courage, honor, and veneration for the mother as well an obligation to protect and provide for the family. It may be linked with concepts of respect and dignity. Marianismo, on the contrary, involves the expectation for females to be virgins, asexual, submissive, humble, tolerant, faithful, and devoted to the male and the backbone of the family. Motherhood is exalted. It is important to point out that the patriarchal sex-gender system for contemporary Puerto Rican society follows the same pattern of gender behavior and dress codes as those of modern industrialized Western nations. Although the pattern of gender behaviors are described as more conservative or traditional than those of the U.S. mainland, some researchers have described Puerto Rican women as somewhat less traditional than other Latin American women (Cuadrado & Lieberman, 2002). Although machismo and marianismo are commonly presented as unique phenomena of Puerto Rican and Latino/Hispanic culture, researchers also have used these terms to describe gender roles in a variety of non-Latino/Hispanic cultures. While the literature available consistently describe or refer to machismo and marianismo as framing most gender issues for Puerto Ricans, some studies also show that in any given population of Puerto Rican males or females, the elements described above as machista or marianista may vary in magnitude or be absent. Age, social economic class, geographical location (rural versus urban environment), and extent of circulatory migration with the U.S. mainland, to name but a few variables, influence the construction of gender among Puerto Ricans.

Gender over the Life Cycle Socialization of Boys and Girls

According to the social science literature available, within the Puerto Rican family, girls and boys are taught different gender and sexual behavior. The family teaches boys to be strong, independent, and aggressive, while teaching their daughters to be dependent, obedient, responsible, and submissive. Puerto Rican girls are taught that chastity is of utmost importance. Family members protect females more than males. Females are perceived to be more vulnerable and weaker than males. Males are seen as being able and needing to take care of themselves. A girl, regardless of social class, is expected not to be unclothed in public while boys are allowed to appear naked or half-naked. Boys are trained to be respectful and submissive to adults during childhood years, but are expected to be active, restless, daring, and to commit more acts of disobedience as they grow older. They are then expected to become independent and aggressive as they emerge into adulthood. Girls are made more responsible but have less social freedom than boys. Although child rearing patterns differ by socioeconomic class and region of the country, there are some patterns that seem to hold constant for most Puerto Ricans on the island (Vazques-Nuttall & Romero Garcia, 1989). The sexes are strictly separated, with the female role more narrowly defined than the male. From early childhood, girls are restricted in dress, conduct, freedom, language usage, and social associations.

Scholars have also noted sexism in the socialization of boys and girls within the Puerto Rican school system. Research conducted in classrooms in the 1970s and 1980s showed that sexism was supported by teachers and reinforced in textbooks and instructional materials

(Acosta-Belén, 1986). While boys are shown as aggressive and strong, with mechanical ability and engaged in a variety of activities, girls are portrayed as passive, dependent, physically and emotionally fragile, and engaged in activities usually limited to their future role as mothers and homemakers. In the 1980s, female characters were significantly underrepresented in the textbooks (Vázquez-Nuttall & Romero-García, 1989). When shown, they are in traditional roles and occupations. Girls are presented as mainly involved in passive activities like playing with dolls, observing the boys at play, or just waiting for them. Socially valued characteristics among Puerto Ricans, such as courage, creativity, perseverance, and adventurousness, were more likely to be attributed to males than females, while negative social values, such as weakness, passivity, dependence, and fear, were more likely to be attributed to girls and women.

Cultural notions on sexual differences also have a bearing on the disciplining of children (Vázquez-Nuttall & Romero-García, 1989). Although there are more expectations and acceptance of male's violating parental rules, when they are punished it tends to be harsher, in particular with the use of physical punishment. This practice is also related to sex stereotypes. Boys are considered to be stronger and thus capable of withstanding, as well as in need of, stronger disciplinary measures (Borrás, 1989, p. 203). The belief that boys are stronger also leads to the belief that they are more difficult to discipline than girls. Therefore the father or a male substitute is more likely to be called upon to exact punishment on a young male. The mother is more likely to discipline the female, who is seen as weaker.

Puberty and Adolescence

Many adolescent girls are not provided with information about their bodies and issues involving sexuality. Adolescent males are expected to begin sexual relations during this period of time whereas females are expected to wait until marriage. Males must find females with whom to have sex. If a girlfriend agrees to have premarital sex, she is seen as a failure and her boyfriend will probably not ask her to marry him (Burgos & Díaz-Pérez, 1986). Scholars have suggested that traditionally in Puerto Rico and throughout Latin America males came into their manhood by engaging in sexual intercourse (sometimes visiting prostitutes who are paid by male relatives), while females at age 15 are given parties (quinceañeras) to emphasize their virginal qualities. This latter event is still a part of traditional entry into womanhood in Puerto Rico as well as in other Latin American countries. While many young Puerto Rican women celebrate becoming 15 years old, others, more assimilated to U.S. mainland traditions, also celebrate their "Sweet 16."

Attainment of Adulthood

Adulthood in Puerto Rico is defined legally with certain adult rights and responsibilities beginning in the late teens. As women enter their adulthood, they are expected to dress beautifully and to be feminine and attractive to men while being modest. Sloppiness and being disheveled is tolerated more among men. Once married and with children, men and women take on the expectations and responsibilities of adulthood. When men become widowers they are encouraged to remarry (Burgos & Díaz Pérez, 1986). Widowers are more likely to be perceived as needing women to take care of their homes and sexual needs. Once past child-bearing, a widow is less likely to be seen as needing to remarry.

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