We think of machismo as being somewhat synonymous with the Latin American male. You know the stereotype – the big, strong guy who rules the family with authority and strength, who would never shed a tear, whose word is law in his household.
Recently I asked one of these big, strong macho guys (a roofer, by the way) about his family back in Mexico. He told me about his wife, kids, and his aging parents; how it feels to be separated from them, and what he’s missing by being in the US. He talked about the loneliness and struggles and yet why he stays.
“My son is a good kid, and he’s growing up so fast! My wife and kids live on a finca with family. My son is 14 and in a good school, lives in a safe, rural area. He helps care for the animals and rides horses, and is taking on more responsibility from my dad . . . sure, he’s missed me growing up, but it’s normal for me not to be around. He knows why I’m not there, but it still makes me sad. I sometimes worry he doesn’t even care anymore that I’m away from them.”
Why ARE you here and not with them, I asked. “It’s my responsibility to provide for my family. In Mexico, I might make $100 per week if I’m lucky. That barely pays for the basics – food and shelter, maybe transportation. There’s not enough for clothes and shoes and things the kids need for school, for my wife to have nice things. And certainly not enough to help my parents as they get older. My mom had a stroke and can’t speak anymore. When I call, she just cries. I can hear her, trying to talk, but she always ends up sobbing. I want to be there, to help them, but they also need the money I send back. I can’t do both.” The macho image is slipping away.
I ask about his daughter, and his smile lights up his face. “I left for the U.S. two months before she was born, so I didn’t see her until she was five. And wow, she’s so great! I’ve seen her only that one time. But she can’t stop asking me where I am, when I’m coming home, why I can’t be at her birthday party. She reminds me there are events at school that parents are expected to attend, and I’m not there. She’s pretty hard on me, and I feel terrible. Sometimes I feel like a bad parent, because life isn’t all about the money. I’m missing so much with my family. But I’d do anything, give them everything, even if it means I have to be away from them.” He clears his throat, swipes at his watering eyes, and the macho image disappears completely.
I’m often asked, how can a parent leave his or her child behind in their home country for years at a time? The assumption is that they (dads, moms) just walk away, thinking only of themselves. But it’s not so simple. The current economic realities, the responsibility of providing for both young children and aging parents, and our cultural norms place enormous pressures on us.