A Crossroad in Gender and Culture: Mental Health & Machismo

My father grew up in Mexico. At the age of six he worked in the fields and lived on a farm. He grew up in an environment that was generationally and culturally different from that of his daughters. Survival taught him that strength looked like anger and that fear/sadness did not fit in his reality. In Mexican culture, a term used to describe hyper-masculinity in Latino culture is Machismo. Growing up, machismo in our home looked like traditional gender roles. My father, a detached breadwinner, had difficulty expressing emotions outside of anger. My mother was expected to serve dinner the moment my father was home and take care of my sisters and me.

“Survival taught him that strength looked like anger and that fear/sadness did not fit in his reality.”

When I was eight years old, I started experiencing panic attacks. In Mexican culture a word to describe anxiety is nervios, however, panic attack had no direct translation. When I was twelve, I announced I wanted to see a therapist, because I thought I needed one to help me with my nervios. However, my pleas were met with a painful resistance from my family. My father’s reaction was by far the most agonizing. He often dismissed my cries for help with  “Why? It is all in your head. It isn’t real”. I could not understand the seeming rejection from my father.

Three years later, my father had a “mid-life” crisis after the death of my grandfather. He began experiencing panic attacks, moments he felt he wanted to run out of room, as dizziness overtook him. In his denial of his own mental health, my father had gone to the emergency rooms three times because of  panic attacks. He was sent home every time after an intravenous dose of Ativan. I began to see my father as a vulnerable person, a person struggling with anxiety like myself. Beyond his ideals of strength, beyond being a male figure who could protect me and provide shelter, my father had feelings. I began to understand his anger often masked his feeling of anxiety, hurt, and sadness. I also realized that the American dream my father had fought for, came with the  price of anxiety. Anxiety  because navigating a language, culture, and place unfamiliar to him was a stress he bore in seeking a better life for himself and his chidren. In time, I learned my dad expressed love through actions, and not words.

“Beyond his ideals of strength, beyond being a male figure who could protect me and provide shelter, my father had feelings.”

I learned that love and concern of my mental health in Machismo looked like tentative hugs, phone calls asking me in broken English “Are you happy?”, and the  acceptance of taking the SSRI he also took every morning. The process was not easy, it included engagement, discussion, and a long process of learning away stigma passed down from cultures, places, and societies hoping to oppress my family and I.

Recently, I asked my father what he thought about depression and anxiety in our family. I was waiting for resistance, maybe a rebuke that mental illness didn’t actually run in our family.

His response struck me. I told him I often thought maybe something was “wrong” with our family, and he said, “No, it is stress. It is part of living in this country.”. Although I didn’t agree with the completely normalized view of anxiety and depression, it was a stark contrast between the denial of mental health in our family eleven years ago.

“I am no longer afraid of talking about my feelings, despite growing up in a home where expressing feelings was punished.”

I admire my father for overcoming his own stigma to be able to connect to his daughters through talking and expression. I am no longer afraid of talking about my feelings, despite growing up in a home where expressing feelings was punished. My father no longer asks me why I am going to see a therapist, but sometimes asks “What do you talk to your therapist about?”. At times, it is still difficult to talk about feelings in our family, but the evolution of our family dynamic brings hope to the story of stigma. The change was slow, and took years to coalesce, but I am grateful and proud of my father.


This post was written by Marissa Jauregui. Please send any questions or concerns to content@subconscious.org.

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