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How Latinx parents are ending the cycle of 'machismo' in their families

“I remember thinking that if I ever had kids, I did not want them to have that experience."

During Hispanic Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and pride. We are highlighting Hispanic trailblazers and rising voices. TODAY will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the month of September and October. For more, head here.

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Latinx parents are sharing how they're ending the cycle of toxic masculinity and "machismo" culture in their own families.

Diana Limongi, 40, remembers two very distinct set of rules governing her childhood home.

"It was like: 'Your brother can go outside and play because he's a boy, and you cannot because you're a girl,'" Limongi, an Ecuadorian mom of two living in Queens, New York, told TODAY Parents. "My teenage brother was celebrated when he 'came of age' and could have sex, but as a woman I was not supposed to. When I was in college and lived at home, my mother would tell me, in Spanish, to serve my brother lunch and dinner."

When Limongi was in college, she was asked what she planned on doing once she had children — the expectation being that she do as her mother did and stay at home.

"I saw her life trajectory and knew I didn't want that," she added. "I didn't want to stay at home. I wanted to make my own money."

Diana Limongi pictured with her daughter.
Diana Limongi pictured with her daughter. Courtesy of Diana Limongi

The rigid, often stifling rules dictating what a person can or cannot do based on their sex is one of the many facets of "machismo" — a term coined in the 1930s to describe a "strong sense of masculine pride" and, in Latinx culture, a domineering attitude that enables a man to exert power over anyone he perceives as inferior.

"It essentially refers to enacting a kind of masculinity that is about being tough; about being right; about being the smart one; about being the loudest one; about being the leader," Dr. Daniel Singley, a certified psychologist and founder of the Center for Men's Excellence in San Diego, California, told TODAY.

"Oftentimes we'll see, in a traditional heterosexual couple, the wife or girlfriend exhibiting the equal and opposite — what's called 'marianismo,'" Singley added. "They're quietly behind the scenes, making things happen, but without threatening his very fragile sense of machismo."

I remember thinking that if I ever had kids, I did not want them to have that experience.

Diana limongi

Limongi recalls witnessing this dynamic as a child, and knew from an early age that it wasn't something she was going to carry with her into adulthood.

Diana Limongi pictured with her family during a recent vacation.
Diana Limongi pictured with her family during a recent vacation.Courtesy of Diana Limongi

"I remember thinking that if I ever had kids, I did not want them to have that experience," she said.

Giving new generations something different

Limongi, who is married to a Frenchman, says part of ending the cycle of toxic masculinity in her own family is confronting her parents when they say something "machismo" in front of her children.

"My mom said to my daughter: 'Don't climb on the bed, because little girls don't climb," Limongi explained. "I said: 'Don't say it that way.' She should have said, 'Don't climb on the bed because if you fall you're going to get hurt.' That is gender neutral — it's not 'little girls don't climb on stuff.'"

With her son, who is 11, Limongi is more direct, reminding him that "papi" is older and "what he thinks is not what we think."

"We do have those conversations," she added. "We talk about deeper topics regarding Latin America and what we believe."

She also relies on her husband, who grew up watching his mother cook and cooks frequently himself.

"My son is also very much in the kitchen," she added. "We don't want him to think that these are 'girl things' or 'things moms do.' He sees his father clean and participating in the house chores, so they're not 'women things.'"

Vannessa Rodriguez, 42, spent the majority of her childhood without a father.

"He was young — his dad had mistresses and other kids so that was kind of the norm for him," Rodriguez, a first-generation Mexican-American mother of two living in San Antonio, Texas, told TODAY. "It was expected. My uncles who were around — my mom's brothers — were also machismo. I wanted to learn to play cards with them, but was told, 'No, it's not for girls. Girls don't do that, go help your grandmother cook.' It even spilled over to my mom. For her, my main goal in life was to get married and have kids."

Courtesy of Vannessa Rodriguez

For a long time, Rodriguez's response to the machismo in her family was to pursue the exact opposite of what was expected and required.

"It pissed me off," she explained. "I wasn't allowed to follow a career unless I wanted to study to be a teacher, so I could be home in the summers for my non-existent kids. So I dropped out of college my senior year. I said, 'I'm never getting married. I'm never having kids.' Then, along the way, I met my husband."

Rodriguez says her husband, who is also Mexican American, is the exact opposite of "machismo," and at first it was strange — even difficult — for her to be around a man who wasn't "always telling me what to do." Eventually, the pair got married and decided to have children.

My husband being raised the way he was — where the woman cooks and the man works — he didn’t want things to be like that. He wanted things to be different: To be our way.

vannessa rodriguez

Now, Rodriguez says her children have something she never had — an involved father who bucks the traditional "machismo" ideology. After quitting his job as a chef, Rodriguez's husband became a full-time student, spending the majority of his time at home and tending to household and childrearing duties, including pick-up and drop-off at school.

“My husband being raised the way he was — where the woman cooks and the man works — he didn’t want things to be like that," she explained. "He wanted things to be different: To be our way. So we moved away from our families so we could do that. Creating our own path is the most important thing for our children’s mental and emotional health.

"(Our kids) see diversity in our household," Rodriguez added. "My husband cooks and cleans and he'll sweep and mop. There is no dynamic of 'the man works in the yard and the woman works inside.' We do a little bit of everything."

Courtesy of Vannessa Rodriguez

While Rodriguez is proud that she and her husband can give their children something she never had as a child, she admits there are tinges of sadness in witnessing what she never was able to experience.

"I always tell my husband that when the kids say 'Dad did this' or 'Where's dad?' or just say 'Dad' — that's not a word in my vocabulary. I didn't say that word. I didn't have him around," she said. "Part of me is jealous of my kids — that they have that. That they have Dad and get to say, 'Goodnight, daddy.' It's the craziest thing, but it's a fact."

Creating new Latinx family traditions

Ending the cycle of toxic masculinity and "machismo" is not always easy, especially when it's important for Latinx families to uphold other family traditions and celebrate their culture, including the parents who may be "old school" but taught them valuable lessons.

"I've learned to accept the stupid sh*t that my mom did a little bit more," Rodriguez said. "I keep telling myself: 'She tried the best she could.' There's no way I could tell my daughter, 'Hey, you've got to study something that your husband will be happy with.' I can't see myself doing that, but at the same time my mom showed me how to be strong."

Vannessa Rodriguez and her family, celebrating her husband's graduation.
Vannessa Rodriguez and her family, celebrating her husband's graduation.Courtesy of Vannessa Rodriguez

Singley says newer generations of Latinx families are finding malleable ways to create new traditions within their families while honoring the people and the culture that has helped shape them into who they are today.

"They're moving away from the rigid and working to adopt a more flexible understanding of what it means to be a man or a boy," he explained. "We are starting to have a more nuanced idea of 'caballerismo' for example — being a gentleman — and want to retain aspects of that very important cultural identity. People don't have to throw the good out with the bad."

For Limongi, that means celebrating her family's culture via food and the Spanish language, as well as visiting other Latinx countries to better understand other cultures, too.

They’re moving away from the rigid and working to adopt a more flexible understanding of what it means to be a man or a boy.

dr. daniel singley

"We celebrate the parts of the culture that are beautiful," Limongi explained. "Language is really important. Food is really important. Music is really important. For me, it's really important that my kids know that there are other places in the world where they speak Spanish. We just went on a trip to Colombia in February — not because I have family there, but just because."

It also means allowing her children equal opportunities — something she says she was never given as a child and still, to this day, hurts her.

"It was such a point of frustration to me — that my younger brother would be allowed to do things that I wasn't allowed to do," she explained. "So if my son is allowed to sleep over at a certain age —well my daughter will be allowed when she hits that age, too."

Diana Limongi and her family posing for a photo while visiting Colombia.
Diana Limongi and her family posing for a photo while visiting Colombia.Courtesy of Diana Limongi

For Rodriguez, it's continuing to show her children what it's like to have an involved parent in their lives — something Singley says many Latinx parents are doing as a way to not just build more equitable and stable families, but to continue to erode traits of toxic masculinity.

"In most societies, we are making room for fathers to behave in ways that go against the traditional 'bro code,'" Singley explained. "It's that dimension of being a man, broadly, where I see the most change, grace and respect, frankly, given to men who are, for example, wearing their babies, cutting down their time at work or stepping up to help with domestic care all because they have a young child. What I'm hoping is that that will then begin to generalize to other domains of life."

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