The Stain of Toxic Masculinity One Man's Crusade against Machismo in Latin America

Machismo is widespread in Latin America. Bogotás undersecretary for culture would like to change that and redefine what it means to be a man. He has developed a program for teaching men to cook, change diapers and talk about their feelings.
By Nicola Abé in Bogotá
Carrying for babies is a woman's job? A tattooed man playing with his son.

Carrying for babies is a woman's job? A tattooed man playing with his son.

Foto: Marko Ristic / iStockphoto / Getty Images
Global Societies

For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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The boys would lie in wait for him after school, usually in a small park. They would gather in a circle, trapping Henry in the middle. "Fight, you coward," they would say, before forcing him, the gentlest of the group, to strike first. If he refused, the group would pummel him. He was 11 at the time. Because it happened over and over again, his older brother finally sent Henry to take karate and taekwondo classes. "From then on, I would win the fights," he says in a quiet voice. "But when I got home, I would cry."

Henry Murrain, 45, is sitting with tears in his eyes in his coffeeshop in Bogotá on a rainy Wednesday. "It isn’t easy to be a child in Latin America," he says. A black man growing up in a white city, someone who was always different from the others, and not just because of the color of his skin. But he is also someone who has made it far in life, becoming the undersecretary of culture for the city – and he has big plans. His mission is nothing less than a cultural shift. But his opponent is not one that can be beaten into submission. His opponent is machismo itself.

The undersecretary of culture for Bogotá, Henry Murrain, would like to rid society of machismo.

The undersecretary of culture for Bogotá, Henry Murrain, would like to rid society of machismo.

Foto: Federico Rios Escobar / DER SPIEGEL

Machismo, which he views as a kind of cage imprisoning all of society, is a poison that paralyzes the population, regardless of gender or social standing, and also costs lives. It is a deeply ingrained attitude that has long since been identified as a problem in Latin America, but there have been few attempts to change it – this narrative of the powerful, autonomous man who never cries and isn’t allowed any feelings aside from aggression and sexual desires. The rigid gender roles and societal expectations, says Murrain, don’t just lead to psychological suffering, but also to violence.

The bullying he experienced as a child at school never entirely left him. Because he wanted to learn more about what causes it, he set out to redefine the age-old question: What makes a man a man? He began researching machismo, initially working for an NGO before joining the city administration of Bogotá. It is a city, he says, that has made significant progress over the past decades, including a rapidly sinking murder rate, fewer traffic accidents and more environmental protections. "The only area where there have been no improvements is that of gender-based violence," Murrain says. And he is convinced he has figured out why: "We have never actually worked with men. It’s really quite absurd."

Men who are on the verge of beating their wives can call the hotline Linea Calma.

Men who are on the verge of beating their wives can call the hotline Linea Calma.

Foto: Federico Rios Escobar / DER SPIEGEL

Murrain has set out to change that. First, he established Linea Calma, a hotline that men can call when they are on the verge of beating their wives. He then came up with the idea of Hombres al Cuidado, a kind of school for care work. In four modules of 10 hours each, men learn a number of skills that are widely considered to be unmanly in Colombian society: how to change diapers, cleaning skills, how to recognize feelings and talk about them, how to treat women with respect or deal with childlike rage without lashing out. And participants, when they are doing things like cooking, should "reflect on their masculinity."

Henry Murrain and his team have identified particularly "masculine places" for their lessons, which are financed by the city: male dominated companies, universities, a bus terminal. His staff also drive around in a school bus to promote the program, heading to places like soccer stadiums and favelas. They also go to La Cárcel Distrital prison in Bogotá. Murrain says that including inmates was important to him. "Machismo and criminality are linked. Crime is a manifestation of machismo. Fearlessness, breaking rules and crossing lines are widely seen as male attributes – as sexy, strong and cool."

La Cárcel Distrital prison in Bogotá is home to murders, drug bosses and sexual criminals.

La Cárcel Distrital prison in Bogotá is home to murders, drug bosses and sexual criminals.

Foto: Federico Rios Escobar / DER SPIEGEL

La Cárcel Distrital is a vast brick building on the eastern edge of the city, overlooked by guard towers. Visitors must submit to a number of security checks, including being sniffed by guard dogs, before finally being asked to don a gigantic, full-body black suit. Telephones and scarves are not allowed.

The air inside the building is stale. In the labyrinth of security gates, stairs and hallways poorly lit by energy-efficient tube lighting, it doesn’t take long to lose one’s orientation. The place is home to murderers, drug bosses and bank robbers, but most of the 1,200 prisoners are here for sexual offenses. The prison is less overcrowded than others in the city, which sometimes hit the headlines for bloody uprisings or because the sewage pipes have again become clogged with dismembered body parts.

Nurse Christina Bulla, 38, comes here to the prison library twice a week to teach men in bright orange shirts about concepts like selfcare and mindfulness. She hands out pastel-colored notepads on which the prisoners are to draw pregnant women, or she’ll bring along a baby doll so they can practice dressing it.

In the prison library, the men learn how to change diapers and are asked to reflect on toxic masculinity.

In the prison library, the men learn how to change diapers and are asked to reflect on toxic masculinity.

Foto: Federico Rios Escobar / DER SPIEGEL

Luiz Rey, 32, a man with delicate facial features and a vacant expression in his eyes, is sitting off to the side, his legs nervously bouncing up and down. He has been here since March, and he has another four years to go.

Rey has two children, aged four and six. "I was a terrible father, I behaved poorly." And that, he says, despite a rather promising start. He held down a reliable job at a cleaning company and had a regular income. But then he started taking drugs and cheating on his wife, he says, often not coming home for several days at a time. When they split up, he says, he completely lost it. "I loved her so much," he says. He was drunk and he stabbed a man – "just an impulse," he says, as he jams the tip of a pencil into his chest.

He has three numbers in Roman numerals tattooed on his arm – the day he met his wife, the day his daughter was born and his son’s birthday. On Sunday, the three of them are planning to come for a visit. Of course, he would like to get back together with the love of his life, he says, but he thinks it’s too late. He doesn’t have great faith in his own ability to rehabilitate, and also says that four years is a long time. "I don’t trust her." He thinks she may have found someone else. "I can sense it."

Luiz Rey couldn't deal with splitting up from his wife and stabbed a man in his desperation.

Luiz Rey couldn't deal with splitting up from his wife and stabbed a man in his desperation.

Foto: Federico Rios Escobar / DER SPIEGEL

Henry Murrain lets out a sigh over his glass of orange juice. Machismo, he says, leads to a situation in which men are unable to regulate their emotions. From a young age, they aren’t allowed to show sadness, fear and weakness, all of it is suppressed, he says. Which also means that they haven’t been able to learn any tools for dealing with such feelings. "They frequently aren’t able to handle the extreme pain that comes with losing a loving relationship."

Murrain began his career by interviewing men in prison who had murdered their wives. "I found it to be symptomatic that none of them tried to defend what they did. They all said that they didn’t know what had happened to them.” Because these men were overwhelmed by their emotions, Murrain says, they had destroyed their families and their own lives.

"We have to change the narrative,” says Murrain. In an effort to do so, he initiated the production of a fictional mini-series that is shown on social media channels or in public places. It shines the spotlight on problematic behavior and also includes information that help is available for men in such situations, such as by calling the Linea Calma.

One of the films is playing one afternoon in the La Cárcel Distrital prison in Bogotá. Its focus is on jealousy and on the misguided notion that the body of a woman belongs to her husband. Murrain’s studies have found that jealousy is the most common reason for men beating their wives or girlfriends – whether they are 18 years old or 65.

Inmates at the La Cárcel Distrital prison in Bogotá

Inmates at the La Cárcel Distrital prison in Bogotá

Foto: Federico Rios Escobar / DER SPIEGEL

On screen is a young man lying in bed with his girlfriend. As evening falls, she wants to leave the apartment, but realizes that the door has been locked. Her boyfriend is suspicious that she intends to go out to meet other men. She starts crying and begs him to allow her to leave. But he has hidden the key in a shoe and keeps her captive.

One of the inmates, an older man, says: "Oh God, I was that guy for 20 years." He says he ruined his marriage.

A few minutes later, in the back of the library, he says: "The macho is the façade. Behind it hides a tormented, insecure child.” It is a sentence straight from Murrain, but which has found an echo here in this white-painted room with round skylights high up in the ceiling.

Nurse Bulla hands out pastel-colored note pads and tasks to the men in the group.

Nurse Bulla hands out pastel-colored note pads and tasks to the men in the group.

Foto: Federico Rios Escobar / DER SPIEGEL

"Another five minutes," a loud voice calls out. A female prison guard is standing in the doorway in a black-and-gray camouflage suit, complete with a bullet-proof vest and a truncheon. It’s a quarter to four, and the men actually still have time. But just a few minutes later, a shout pierces the room: "We’re heading out," and the men have to return to their cells. The guard is considered to be particularly strict. Christina Bulla, the nurse, says she thinks it would make sense for the guards to also go through the training program, but they refused.

On the last day of the first module, called "How you as a man can take care of others," role playing is on the schedule. Bulla divides the men into small groups and hands out their assignments. One of them: Their 15-year-old daughter admits to her parents that she is pregnant. How does the family react?

Edwin Lozano, 52, a brawny man with bushy eyebrows, plays the father. "You’ve ruined everything!" he shouts at the daughter, being played by a young prisoner. "Even though I’ve stol… worked by whole life so that you’ll have it easier!" He then goes after the mother for not being strict enough during the girl’s upbringing.

In the discussion that follows, he is fully aware that his reaction wasn’t exactly optimal, that he should have remained calm, listened and led a constructive conversation. "The course is preparing me for real life with my grandchildren," says Lozano, who is in prison for seven robberies, though he insists he "knows nothing" about some of them. He says he is a truck driver and businessman and that he has four children, three of whom are already grown.

Edwin Lozano wanted to help his mother wash the dishes, but his father didn't want him to.

Edwin Lozano wanted to help his mother wash the dishes, but his father didn't want him to.

Foto: Federico Rios Escobar / DER SPIEGEL

Lozano then begins talking about his childhood. He says there used to be a lot of violence in families, and that he was beaten by his mother. His father, he says, was strict and unemotional, and that he didn’t do any household chores. Sometimes, he says, he would help his mother wash the dishes, but his father ultimately banned him from doing so.

"Eighty percent of the men in Bogotá don’t have positive memories of their fathers," says Henry Murrain. "Those are painful numbers."

Murrain has completely different memories of his own father, who passed away just recently. He pulls his mobile phone out of his pocket and shows an old photo. It is of a man with dark, curly hair embracing a seven-year-old Henry on his lap, cheek to cheek. "My father was loving and tender. At home, we would kiss each other and say that we loved each other," he says, his eyes again moistening. "They used to laugh at me at school because I would also tell my friends that I loved them."

His father, he says, was a sailor and saw a lot of the world, getting to know many foreign cultures. Perhaps that is why he was different?

“A majority of men in macho societies miss out on the opportunity to experience a wonderful, deeply human encounter: bathing a baby, reading a story to a small child.”

Henry Murrain

Today, Murrain himself is the father of two young children. He is divorced and lives together with his new partner, with the children alternating between him and his mother from week to week. He enjoys cooking. Nothing, he says, makes him happier than preparing a ramen-noodle soup that his four-year-old son, otherwise not a huge eater, wolfs down.

There is an economic aspect to housework, but also an emotional one. Simply looking at care work through the lens of the economy, he believes, is too shortsighted. "It isn’t just a burden – which mostly falls on women’s shoulders – it is also enjoyable," he says. "A majority of men in macho societies miss out on the opportunity to experience a wonderful, deeply human encounter: bathing a baby, reading a story to a small child."

At an event at a university, participant Eusebio Avendano practices caring for a baby and changing its diapers.

At an event at a university, participant Eusebio Avendano practices caring for a baby and changing its diapers.

Foto: Federico Rios Escobar / DER SPIEGEL
Care work isn't just a burden, says Henry Murrain, but also an enjoyment that many men miss out on.

Care work isn't just a burden, says Henry Murrain, but also an enjoyment that many men miss out on.

Foto: Federico Rios Escobar / DER SPIEGEL

Murrain, who also has a degree in philosophy, doesn’t believe in the modern-day narrative of a rational homo economicus. He sees humans as emotional, interdependent beings. Care work, which is about connections with others, is one expression of that, he says, making it a foundation of humanity. But machismo, which essentially rejects men as a complete humans, he says, leads to a situation in which men can neither recognize their own needs nor those of others.

And precisely for that reason, Murrain is convinced that other men need the experience of care work as a kind of healing.

But can a few hours of drawing and group discussions really achieve anything, particularly with hardened criminals? Of course it’s not ideal, he says, but he has to work within the boundaries of what is possible. The prison is likely the space within which Murrain’s anti-machismo concept will encounter its most challenging reality check.

At the end of the first module of the training course, the prisoners in their bright orange shirts must fill out a questionnaire before returning to their cells. Nurse Bulla collects the sheets of paper, quickly scans one of them, rolls her eyes and shakes her head. After the three-week course, one participant again checked the box indicating that caring for babies is a woman’s job. "Men aren’t able to change diapers."

This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe on injustices, societal challenges and sustainable development in a globalized world. A selection of the features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appear in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of DER SPIEGEL International. The project is initially scheduled to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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