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Patriarch Games 

Sex, AIDS and Machismo in Latin America

Wednesday, Dec 9 1998
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Art by Santiago Uceda

A woman from Latin America writes a book about the grotesquery of male-female relationships in Latin America. That book is here now reviewed by a man of Latin American descent, one who has played his role within the "patriarchy," one who is horrified by, but nonetheless enjoys, the power bestowed upon him merely because he’s got a cock and balls swinging between his legs.

So here the Latin feminist and the Latin macho meet. Truth be told, it’s a pain-in-the-ass assignment, loaded down with all manner of cultural baggage. Pain-in-the-ass because it is nearly impossible for my words about her words to be read as anything other than a male response.

Nevertheless, it’s an encounter I take quite seriously, because the woman-author and the man-reviewer have quite a bit in common. Silvana Paternostro and I are both in our 30s, are both fluent in Spanish and English, and have both spent a great deal of time traveling throughout Latin America and the Latin barrios of the States. We are both "progressive" journalists who’ve written for The Nation.

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But the biggest thing Paternostro and I have in common is that we’re both obsessed with sex. I am finishing a book that includes a fair amount of writing on the topic myself. We’ve both hung out for years among the sexual outlaws — the transvestites, the male and female prostitutes —who’ve sprung from a Latin-Catholic culture that is universally regarded as sensual, but that is conflicted to the core about its sexuality.

In the Land of God and Man is doubtless an important book. Latin sex is rarely studied in such a direct way. Sure, the Old School boys like Gabriel García Márquez have given us their syrupy and always slightly misogynist love stories, and Manuel Puig and the late Reinaldo Arenas have given us excruciating renditions of male homosexual life, but the Latin woman’s story is just beginning to be published. In many ways, this nonfiction work is closer to the angry sexual prose of Arenas than to the comparatively tame attempts by such American Latina authors as Sandra Cisneros and Ana Castillo to give birth to a Latina sexual literature. It is a gutsy endeavor. I doubt that Paternostro can return to Colombia, where she was born into an aristocratic family, without being reviled as a traitor by both men and women.

In her travels to Brazil, Colombia and Guatemala, with side trips to half a dozen other Latin locales, Paternostro has found truly emblematic and heart-wrenching stories. There is the upper-crust Guatemalan who remains a "good girl" until she marries the man of her dreams, only to be infected with HIV by the macho fuck, who was raised in a culture where philandering is a male birthright. We are introduced to a host of sex workers, among them stunning transvestites and teenage favela boys, who are physically abused, infected with HIV, sometimes even murdered, by men who have been raised to believe that anything that gets in the way of their fucking (the church, feminists, condoms) is to be totally disregarded. We meet Latin women living in the U.S. who subject themselves to "hymen reconstruction" (plastic surgery that makes a bad girl good for her wedding night), which Paternostro likens to female circumcision.

But there is a problem. A true crusader, utterly convinced of the righteousness of her cause, Paternostro can’t simply ä tell stories. Her prose is marred with melodramatic speechwriting ("it infuriates me," "I was taken aback," "I cringed," "a chill ran down my spine"). It is one thing to be horrified by a situation in which millions of women’s lives are at risk because of unsafe abortions and HIV; it is quite another to write that you are horrified. Who really cares what the author feels? She isn’t enduring the pain that her subjects are. If only an editor had sheared away the endless "analysis" sections that interrupt every promising narrative.

Though we are introduced to legions of characters, we never become intimate with them. The only character we truly get to know is Paternostro. She sees Latin patriarchy from a classic American or European feminist point of view — that is, she doesn’t pay much attention to issues of class, assuming that class issues will be resolved if patriarchy is dealt with. "Our banana republics, now disguised as democracies, will continue as long as men continue to be lords of the manor. And as long as the niñas de buena familia, the girls with the right last names, the European features and the light skin, don’t realize that they are supporting this unequal system and that this unequal system buys them trips to Miami but not rights."

Here, and elsewhere, Paternostro betrays a strong class bias: Does she really believe that the liberation of the "banana republics" lies exclusively with the gender attitudes of the rich? And although she rapidly shuttles between favela and country-club settings, she never explains — perhaps it never dawned on her — what gender-related differences exist between the rich and the poor. She never examines how, for example, a poor man’s abusiveness can be as tied to his economic situation as to patriarchy.

And when she writes about the poor — and she does so for most of the book — her characterizations are often more insulting than sympathetic to those for whom her liberal heart bleeds. Paternostro descends into the favelas of Rio, into the barrios of Colombia, looking for evidence of patriarchy’s evils, and of course she finds plenty. She speaks to women who’ve induced abortions, with tree branches and barbed wire, only because the embryo was conceived outside of wedlock and because birth control is something that macho men just can’t bring themselves to practice. Throughout, Paternostro has to restrain her impulse to tell these women and these machos what they need to know to free themselves. The result is a writer ego that looms over the entire narrative, an ego that would solve all the characters’ problems. This ego ultimately undermines whatever compassion the author has for the people whose lives she explores. It judges rather than tries to understand, lectures rather than questions. A typical passage, in this case at the opening of the chapter on hymen reconstruction: "I remained curious and angry — and I slipped into the sadness and confusion that frequently beset me when I confront aspects of my culture that are so backward, so unjust, and yet so familiar."

But what I found most lacking in this brave and uneven offering is any recognition of another sexual universe, one that is beginning to dismantle the old sexual order in Latin America. I’ve seen it in the sex clubs of Mexico City, in the households of Latin immigrants in the American heartland, in some of the same barrios that Paternostro writes about. I’ve seen sex workers unite in the most hopeless barrios to require each and every client to wear a condom. I’ve seen maquiladora women — unmarried or single moms — create their own sexual space by crashing the formerly all-male border cantinas. I’ve seen the old gender roles slowly but surely giving way on both sides of the border.

Why didn’t she see the same things that I did? Or why didn’t I see the same things that she did? Because she’s a woman and I’m a man? Because she’s a pessimist and I’m an optimist — or, worse yet, a macho romantic? I think it’s because Paternostro needs the poor to be powerless, precisely so she can come down and tell them what time it is, thus cruelly and ironically replicating the very kind of power dynamic she decries in patriarchy, but, in the end, the only power available to her in a viciously sexist and classist society: the privilege of her class.

I do agree emphatically with Paternostro on one point, however. She writes that the AIDS crisis, which is now aboveground across the continent (and which places heterosexual women at practically the top of the high-risk pyramid due to the extracurricular unprotected sex of their male partners), is creating an unprecedented social dialogue about sex in Latin America. To this I would add that the recent economic crises in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America have had far-reaching effects on the sexual fabric of life. In the new economy, the body is bought and sold as never before. And so the body is at the center of our politics today, whether it is through the discussion of the minimum wage, or legal and health guidelines for sex workers, or the repeal of colonial-era laws repressing homosexuality. And this, in a land where the body has always been shrouded in medieval and hypocritical mystery, can only be a good thing.

Rubén Martínez is an associate editor at Pacific News Service.

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