Irwin, Robert McKee. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. 282 pages., $19.95, softcover. ISBN: 0816640718.
It is a tale of male performance. For though Mexico may not be the most macho country in the world, it would certainly be in the running, and Robert McKee Irwin's take on the subject of Mexican masculinity is certainly gutsy, and, at points, titillating.
A first of its kind, Mexican Masculinities delivers what it promises in the back cover: as a "history of literary constructions of Mexico," it offers queer readings of canonical as well as unknown texts spanning from Mexico's independence in 1810 to the mid 1960s. Here you will find Ignacio Altamirano, Federico Gamboa, Octavio Paz, Amado Nervo, and Juan Rulfo discussed alongside the lesser known Eduardo Castrejon, whose 1906 novel Los 41 is loosely based on the arrest of 41 transvestites at a private ball five years before, a scandal that Irwin reads as allowing the "birth of modern homosexuality in Mexico" (66).
Starting from the premise that constructions of Mexican national identity are predicated on notions of masculinity and male sexuality, Irwin sets out to interrogate the prevalent and academically-accepted notion of Mexican masculinity popularized by Octavio Paz in El laberinto de la soledad (1950): Mexican men, the mestizo sons born of the Spanish rape of the indigenous people of America, seek to overcome their vulnerable, liminal status by attempting to keep a closed body; the aim is to be chingones (fuckers/hypermales) rather than chingados (those fucked/feminized). As Irwin explains, this performative aspect of masculinity and machismo is paired with the assumption of a "natural" male sex, causing a paradox: "to be a man" is an innate quality that can be taken away by others' social performance. This paradox also helps equate homosexuality with passivity: to be homosexual a man must be penetrated; it follows that male penetrators are not homosexual.
Using this paradox at the heart of machismo as his starting point, Irwin reads the anxiety surrounding the scandal of the 41 at the turn of the century as a moment that disrupts and redefines the easy dichotomies (masculine/feminine, hetero/homo, chingon/chingado) that purportedly define Mexican masculinity. The presence and behavior of these 41 individuals became a worried image in the Mexican imagination so that, as Irwin reports, the number 41 became as taboo in Mexico as the number 13 is for much of the Western world, while the Mexican gay community has adopted variants of the number 41 to symbolize its identity (91). But, Irwin argues, the 41 do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they are part of a continuous construction of Mexican identity that, though repressed, is expressed in the fact that Mexican masculinity is a semi-conscious performance of masculinity based on homosociality.
Mexican Masculinities makes an interesting read for students and scholars of Latin American studies; general readers may find it a bit disorienting, since the array of character names and titles of novels makes it difficult to follow plot threads or to remember who the actors are. And though the audience for Irwin's book is decidedly English-speaking, the positioning of Spanish quotes to follow the argument in English can be distracting to those unfamiliar with the Spanish language.
Two areas of concern: for a book on gender and sex, Mexican Masculinities transitions too easily between the terms "homosocial" and "homosexual." Whereas the homosocial exchange occurs between two or more men, often over the body or idea of a woman, the homosexual exchange eliminates the woman altogether. By not addressing this transition clearly, Irwin not only leaps over the body of woman and the difference it makes (a lack with which many feminists might take issue), but also deprives the reader of a comprehensive exploration of the boundary between the homosocial and the homosexual and its consequences for Mexican masculinities. Lastly, though Irwin uses the theories of Michel Foucalt and Judith Butler in his analysis, fussy gender readers will take him to task for uncritically basing his arguments on the two-sex biological model (xviii-xix), even if the two-sex model is the supposed basis of Mexican culture.
Ximena Gallardo C.