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Macho men: bullfighters, Norman Mailer, the Village People, and Salvador Novo

28 September 2009

I got bogged down last week, trying to translate a short poem by Salvador Novo.  I starting looking at some background material and…then the Burro kicks up a fuss, and …. geeze, look what happens!

Burro Hall has every right to kick up a fuss about the break with tradition (and good taste) contemplated by Spanish matador, Joselito Ortega.

A little-known Spanish matador is breaking with a sacred tradition, agreeing to advertise on his cape while slaying bulls and endorse a soft drink that caters to gays.

It is, of course, its the disrespect to ceremonial aspects of the traje de luces and the desecration of the capote de brega any aficionado should rightly condemn –and is worthy of a news item — but the Associated Press, with their usual editorial clumsiness (or perhaps with their cultural blinkers on, and under the assumption that tauromachia is a form of rodeo, to be profaned with crass commercialism) writes the rest of the story about the last word in that quote.  As the AP writer (or editor) words it:

In Spain, matadors are seen by many as the pinnacle of macho, and Ortega’s agreement to endorse a product geared toward gay men is raising eyebrows.

Never mind that I have yet to see any eyebrows raised except in the English-language press about the gay angle… or about  gay matadors which has never been an issue in a sport that integrated racially and sexually (as well as gender-preferentially, if that’s a word) long before any other.

I’m more stymied by the AP use of “macho”.   “Macho” seems to be in the eye of the beholder, much like United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography (Jacobellis v Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 [1964]): “I know it when I see it.”

“Macho”, in English, means “stereotypically masculine”, something early 20th century writers associated with Mexico, and by extension, with all Spanish-speaking males:

Our fascination with Mexico endured in the twentieth century. A particular fascination for the gringo male was the notion of extreme masculinity embodied in macho. Spanish macho seemed to offer opportunities for manliness and toughness unavailable in English. Macho was apparently known in the West by 1927; it made its way back to the New York weekly The Nation early in 1928, when a correspondent wrote, “Here I was in their midst, a Macho Yankee Gringo, yet treated with consideration.” More recently, author Norman Mailer was one who took machismo seriously. In his 1961 Advertisements for Myself he wrote, “Every American writer who takes himself to be both major and macho must sooner or later give a faena [a ritual performance like a bullfighter’s] which borrows from the self-love of a Hemingway style.”

Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway aside (and I’m not so sure about Papa — or is it Papí?), “macho” has developed a slightly different set of connotations than when they wrote.  Oh, sure, it still means a “man’s man”… just not in the way they intended it to:

In the sense that some gay men are turned on by athletes, maybe “macho” might fit.  But, as the  not pornographic, but probably not completely safe for work Turkish gay site, “Casual in Istanbul” regularly featured semi-nude  (and often identified as gay) madadors,  soccer players and swimmers… it doesn’t appear the body builder “macho man” is exactly what the AP meant either.

At most — or at worst — all Machismo means in Spanish is what we call “male chauvinism”.  That has nothing to do with gay guys, or bullfighting particularly, although — in an odd way — it does have to do with one of the most unlikely of Mexican public figures of the mid-twentieth century, Salvador Novo.

Novo (1904-1974),  one of the most complex and contradictory writers of the twentieth century in the Hispanic world…  poet, historian, short-story writer, food critic, theater director, playwright, is sometimes compared to Oscar Wilde, not just because of his brilliant literary production, nor even because of his epigrammatic wit and use of irony, but because of his overt refusal to conform to the gender stereotypes of his times.  Unlike Wilde, though, Novo was never in the closet and, unlike Wilde, he was not punished … in fact, he was rewarded, becoming an important figure with the PRI and the government.

An “obvio” from his earliest days (he quipped later the two biggest girls in  Torreón were his mother… and himself), and his first published writings celebrated his same sex romances.  At 17 he was a published author, and arriving in Mexico City discovered both a “bohemian” culture that accepted and celebrated the unconventional and talented, and — more importantly — generous state funding for the arts.

The Mexican government in the 1920s was more than receptive to modernism in the arts — the Revolution demanded not just a change in politics, but a change in thinking as well.  And the State was willing to invest in artists.  The young Novo was writing for several new cultural magazines which may not have reached provincia, but were read by the nation’s new leadership.

Not that the literary and political establishment was completely tolerant of this strange new talent [my translation]:salvadornovo

Novo, like other Contemporáneos [the literary coterie associated with the magazine of the same name, founded in 1927] as civil servants, were often under attack for being “morally dubious”.  Those were the days of Gide and Proust and  Salvador Novo, building on that French dramatic tradition,  went a step further, writing a gay stage drama: El tercer fausto.

Making no secret of his relationships with  taxi drivers, professional wrestlers and what are now called “rough trade”, Novo was “out of the closet” publically in a way that would not be common until the late 1970s.   In his work and personal life he reinvented the hate-filled and invectives hurled at him into witty repartee.   Emmanuel Carballo says the star of the Mexican literature was  a cynic, “A being who calls those things we are forbidden to talk about by their right name.”  From his youth Novo learned to be what some of his contemporaries refused to accept:  a different human being. “This honesty with himself,” continues Carballo, “earned incomprehension, rejection and hostility.”

Novo … was openly and belligerently gay in times of ruthless assertion of literary machismo. With deadly satire and the repeated demonstrations of his talent,  Novo resisted harassment…

Talent is a natural resource not to be wasted, and satire is a deadly weapon in the hands of an enemy, and the establishment had no intention of alienating the modernists while they waged war against the old guard, and what they saw as the reactionary mind-set that had kept Mexico from assuming its rightful place in the world. And, following Lazaro Cardenás, the Revolution became the “Institutional Revolution”… in part a recognition that the “Revolutionary Family” included not just the proletariat and peasant, but the urban bourgeois as well. What hadn’t changed was the sense that the arts had a vital national purpose — as propaganda for state programs and as a means of developing a modern culture within a traditionalist society.

While Marxists — like Diego Rivera — echoing old Karl’s Victorian propriety, continued to snipe at Novo, the political class could overlook the obvious, and use the talent.  Novo, with Carlos Chavéz, was co-director of the new Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura, overseeing literary and dramatic productions throughout the country. In this role, among other things, he wrote and directed (and sometimes starred) in weekly historical radio dramas many considered it their patriotic duty to listen to. Not that something as witty as “The War of the Fat Ladies” (from an Aztec legend about fat ladies who defeated enemies by slapping them with their tits) had to be a chore.

Later, he served as director of public relations for various Cabinet Departments, among them the Secretariats of Education, Foreign Affairs and National Economy.

Novo-bioAppointment to the prestigious Academia Mexicana de la Lengua (the Mexican affiliate of the Real Academia Española) in 1952, confirmed Novo’s place in the establishment.  In 1965,  Gustavo Díaz Ordaz — not known for his tolerance of deviance of any kind — appointed Novo Cronista de la Ciudad de Mexico… city historian, a sinecure that paid a nice salary and seemed mainly meant to honor the writer, but was (as the devious Díaz Ordaz also knew) a way of keeping the talented, dangerously witty writer within the establishment at a time when the pressure was building for political and social change within the system.

By 1974, when Novo died, he was — with an irony he appreciated — seen as something of a reactionary, and — with an irony he should have appreciated — even a “macho man.”

The short version of the song that destroyed the Maileresque definition of “macho” (linked above) didn’t include this verse:

Every man ought to be a macho macho man,
To live a life of freedom, machos make a stand,
Have their own life style and ideals,
Possess the strength and confidence, life’s a steal,
You can best believe that he’s a macho man
He’s a special person in anybody’s land.

Hey! Hey! Hey, hey, hey!
Macho, macho man (macho man)
I’ve got to be, a macho man…

(Jacques Morali, Macho Man)

… and still working on translating the poem.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 29 September 2009 10:04 am

    Pinche burro….always causing trouble.

  2. 7 October 2009 7:55 pm

    El toreo es esencialmente narcisista y sumamente misógino. El macho español está tan degenerado que de tan macho ha acabado siendo claramente gay. Qué gran tragedia para el machito español. Lo importante no es su sexualidad. Lo importante es que dejen de darle por culo a España con su repugnante “espectáculo”. Nuestra imagen merece algo mejor que un payaso vestido con un traje de luces.


  1. In search of Salvador Novo « The Mex Files

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