Marianismo

September 16, 2011

As projected, the most recent census data have confirmed that the Latino population has become the largest ethnic minority population in the United States. The increase in population reinforces the need for a greater understanding of cultural variables that impact the provision of culturally competent services. One of these variables is the concept of marianismo. The term marianismo originated in the anthropological literature and was used to describe the observed behavior of Latina women in Latino society. It implies that women are spiritually superior to men and subsequently able to withstand extreme sacrifices and suffering for the sake of the family. The self-sacrifice involved in this marianista identity, likened to martyrdom, enables the Latina woman in traditional Latino culture to gain respect and admiration from others. This is where she extracts her identity and power. In return for her suffering, she expects to be highly reinforced through others’ esteem of her. The reinforcing components of marianismo send strong messages about what is expected of the Latina woman.

In the mental health literature, Latino professionals discuss marianismo as a framework to help clinicians understand what Latina women are experiencing in mainstream American society. Practitioners found Latinas in treatment often presented with struggles involving cultural conflicts or differing sex role expectations. In treatment, marianismo is a cultural component that can guide understanding and therapeutic intervention with Latinas faced with negotiating these struggles.

Marianismo encompasses traditional cultural dictates related to sexuality, gender roles, family, motherhood, relationships, and behavior. Marianismo defines the Latina “role model” as the Virgin Mary, emphasizing virginity and nonsexuality for the “good” woman. The sexual messages Latinas receive within their cultural contexts tend to be intermixed with issues of duty, honor, security, self-worth, and control, but never with satisfaction or pleasure. The high value placed on sexual morality has great implications for Latinas being raised in the United States. For example, Latina adolescents may face conflict over the dominant society’s dating norms and family’s restrictions. In addition, traditional sexual mores may put the Latina at risk of sexually transmitted diseases by not questioning her partner’s sexual behavior or securing her own sexual protection. It may also place them at risk of becoming victims of domestic violence. The risks identified above are due to: (a) males having the sexual and decision-making rights; (b) acceptance of male infidelity; (c) the denial of bisexuality in the Latino community; and (d) the submissiveness of Latinas.

The Latina is expected to sacrifice her needs for those of her family, especially her children. In traditional Latino culture, the Latina’s value is increased when she becomes a mother. The Latina also gains power through subscribing to marianismo and exerting indirect manipulation through her children. It is not surprising then that, when there is a conflict over roles, the Latina will more likely choose the role of mother. These findings have implications for the attainment of both educational and professional goals. Researchers have found that Latinas who delayed marriage and family pursued a college career more often and tended to persist in college longer than women following traditional sex roles. Thus, the conflict between traditional roles of wife and mother and having a career may be particularly significant for Latina women.

Cultural conflicts arising from marianista values versus American values can cause psychological distress. Thus, Latina women must learn to reshape traditional role expectations in response to the majority’s structural demands. The Latina must learn to negotiate conflicting values and begin identifying areas of change. The focus of this negotiation process is that of a person-environment fit. It does not place judgment or blame on the Latina. In practice, the clinician needs to be aware of this adjustment and role identification process, while continuing to recognize variability of marianismo values and conflicts within each Latina. The Latina must be able to envision herself as an agent of change in order to accept herself as a competent, successful, worthy Latina, capable of self-love. The Latina woman in the United States must learn to negotiate the components of her marianismo and decide on what she wants to retain, modify, or dismiss and in what environments she chooses to do any or all of the above.

The concept of marianismo is not without critics. Many believe that the term places a negative stereotype on Latina women and believe a more accurate description of marianismo is the concept of a traditional cultural value set. Whether one uses the term marianismo or the concept of values, like any descriptor of a group, both individual and group differences must be accounted for. Thus, it is not assumed that every Latina will have internalized every or any aspect of marianismo nor is it assumed that an “acculturated” or “assimilated” Latina does not struggle with cultural conflicts related to marianismo and American culture. In sum, while marianismo can aid understanding and boost culturally competent services, it is not to be used as a definitive label of the Latina.

SEE ALSO: Acculturation, Gender role, Latinos

Suggested Reading

  • Comas-Diaz, L. (1988). Mainland Puerto Rican women: A sociocultural approach. Journal of Community Psychology, 16, 21-31.
  • Gil, R. M., & Vazquez, C. I. (1996). The Maria paradox. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
  • Martinez, R. O., & Dukes, R. L. (1997). The effects of ethnic identity, ethnicity, and gender on adolescent well-being. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 26, 503-516.
  • Stevens, E. (1973). Machismo and marianismo. Transaction-Society, 10, 57-63.
  • Williams, N. (1988). Role making among married Mexican-American women: Issues of class and ethnicity. The Journal of Applied and Behavioral Science, 24, 203-217.

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