By Gregory Jaquet | Special to The Tico Times
David is 32. He was a policeman. Then he went to jail because of domestic violence before being released.
“I experienced true solitude. The prison had become my world. I stayed in my cell 23 hours a day for nine months. At the end, I was afraid to go out,” he recalls.
In the sitting room of the WEM Institute in San Pedro, a neighborhood east of San José, 70 men listen to his confession. WEM provides counseling to violent men and helps them work through their personal issues to confront the causes of gender-based violence. Forced to attend by the courts after an episode of domestic violence, forced by their wives, or simply joining of their own free will, these men represent part of Costa Rica’s male society, and they are here to talk about what they’ve done and learned.
David wears jeans and a dated training jacket. His hair is short, and he doesn’t know what to do with his arms in front of such a large audience. He seems uncomfortable. His lip trembles and his eyes are wet.
“A year ago, I was violent with my wife,” he begins. “I was sentenced to nine months. After the sentencing, I came to WEM workshops to learn to manage my anger. I did 45 sessions, and I understood many things. And then I screwed up. I broke the restraining order against me. What I did, and I regret it, is write a message to my wife’s sister. A message. And they ordered my arrest.”
David now stands like a policeman before the meeting – legs apart, hands on hips. He seems to reach for his belt, gun and handcuff holster to pose. But he’s no longer a cop. He’s exposed, alone. And he tells his story to the group of men who have chosen to become “better” and to renounce violence by participating in these workshops.
“In my cell there was a man who got 35 years for killing his wife. A murderer. I lived with him 23 hours a day for nine months. With a murderer.”
David touches his nose, looks down and pauses. He is moved. The assembly is silent. Álvaro Campos, the director of WEM who has initiated this session, approaches David and puts his hand on his shoulder, encouraging him to continue. “Tome su tiempo,” take your time, he says.
David starts again, but his voice quavers. “It’s hard when you’re in the prison, you’re a police officer and the prisoners know it,” he says. Another pause, and David sobs. In this room with green walls and trembling neon light, he looks like a sad child.
“I received no calls. All these sons of bitches who were my friends? Not a single call in nine months. The only contact was from my parents.”
He finishes. Campos returns and applauds, thanking him for his contribution.
Working with men
There are five or six pensioners, 20 people aged 40-60, 20 more between 30-40 and a few younger ones. They are dressed in sports clothes and work attire. They came to the WEM Institute to redefine masculinity, get educated and hopefully prevent more violent episodes, or as Campos describes it, “combating inequality by working with men.”
Campos points out that domestic violence is problematic throughout Latin America. The region’s violent history – military regimes, revolutions and authoritarianism, for example – and a patriarchal tradition create dynasties of violent men, who act out against wives and children. Despite its more peaceful history, Costa Rica is also affected by this phenomenon.
Also, the trivialization of violence due to drug trafficking and gang activity is another cause of almost automatic recourse to intimidation and the exercise of power.
Powerful, virile, dominant
WEM has 15 employees, psychologists and social workers and a network of men known as the “Red de Hombres” – 50 volunteers who work with the institute to organize activities. These professionals have created a method to work with men based on their values and histories. They ask the men to commit to becoming nonviolent. This helps address the “machismo” problem, a social construction that allows them to become powerful, virile and dominant.
Many workshops are organized to deal with these issues: group sessions, anger management classes, management of marital separation, courses on how to be a good father, sessions to discuss masculinity, and others.
In addition, the institute offers workshops for teenagers and young men who are invited during one-day sessions to consider their roles involving the issue of equality and preventing violence against women. Attendance is impressive – during my last visit to a group session, 120 men attended.
‘Women Have Changed. Men Haven’t.’
Campos says that women have changed: “In Latin America as elsewhere, empowerment allows women to study, to claim the right to work, to live in society, share the chores. This emancipation was explained to Latin American women in schools, by mothers, aunts and sisters. The men, however, have received no update.”
Often, he says, men’s source of knowledge for how to behave in a relationship comes from their fathers. Young men from Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico, for example, imitate the actions they have seen – or experienced – during childhood, he adds.
“Many men who come to WEM do so because they fail in their relationships or living as a couple. They lose their wives, their children, and they must pay support when they earn almost nothing,” Campos says.
In Costa Rica, laws call for severe punishment in domestic violence cases, and home evictions, restraining orders and child support are ordered by the courts every day.
Attitudes of some Latin American men have not changed much since the time of the conquistadores. The exaltation of virility, such as the exaggerated trappings of authority, can be common issues.
Alex is a psychologist and conducts workshops on anger management at the institute. “Hopeless, many men understand that they need to learn something new. We suggest they come to WEM,” he says.
During a group session last December, people are motivated to speak, telling their stories, their mishaps. And when a participant faces a challenge, it becomes a therapy session. The rules are repeated at the beginning of each session: “Hablar de mis sentimientos, escuchar a los otros.” Speak what we feel, listen to others.
Alfonso is 28. He says he was sent by his wife because he is a machista and is authoritative. Alfonso says he was violent with his children, and his wife complained of being terrorized.
“How did you come to be like this?” asks Alex, the facilitator. “At home. My grandfather raised me. He hit me with his belt and set his dogs on me when I didn’t do things the way he wanted,” Alfonso responds.
He seems shy, his body closed tight. He holds his scooter helmet against himself and speaks with his eyes downcast.
Assisted by facilitators, Alfonso uses powerful words: “pain in the heart,” “an open wound.” “I would tell my grandfather that I need love and not orders or punishments,” he says.
His confessions bring others. Edgar is 50-something. He says little at first, and then lets go, revealing that he was tortured by his parents, who scalded his hands in boiling water when he was 6.
‘I Inherited the Throne of My Father’
Edgar cries for a long time. There is an awkward silence. He says he understands why he became a violent man. It was because of his father.
“I inherited the throne of my father,” he says to illustrate that he has behaved like a dictator in the family he created. “I advance and move on through these sessions. But my wife and children, who have grown up, still say that they are terrified. How long will it take me to regain their trust?”
In this ugly room without heat, men speak of a father’s lack of love, a mother’s caress, a child’s games and missing tenderness. And slowly, the image of the Latin American machista is cracked.
Gregory Jaquet is a 35-year-old Swiss expat in San José working as a volunteer for Eirenesuisse, a Swiss NGO (www.eirenesuisse.ch). See more stories and pictures on his blog, www.henryjaquet.com, and visit the WEM Institute’s Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/pages/Instituto-Wem-Masculinidad-sexualidad-y-pareja.