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A Scathing Attack on Culture of Machismo

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Silvana Paternostro’s own sister termed her book “sad and crass.” She was so petrified of her parents’ reaction that she did not give them a copy until the night before they got on a plane to Colombia--feeling a guilty relief that her mother does not read English.

If ever a book was like a bomb, it is Paternostro’s “In the Land of God and Man,” an unflinching indictment of what she views as the human cost of Latin America’s complex culture of male privilege--most commonly known as machismo.

What Paternostro has written is nothing short of explosive. The award-winning Colombian journalist has penned an unprecedented critique of Latin America’s gender divide, breaking new ground in a genre of literature that has flourished in the United States since the 1970s.

A Latino reviewer wondered if Paternostro would be “reviled as a traitor” upon return to her native Colombia.

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“This book was not written the way Latin women are expected to write--flying grandmothers, talking to spirits, magical realism, all the mystification,” Paternostro said, referring to the literary style of Latin American writers like Isabel Allende. “I decided to write a very factual book so people couldn’t write it off as fiction.”

“My book is a call to include women and everyone in the democratization of Latin America,” said Paternostro, who will read from her book tonight at Book Soup in West Hollywood.

What has passed as democratization until now, in Paternostro’s view, is a form of government by men at the expense of Latin American society as a whole.

The result, she writes, is a region where domestic violence flourishes unchecked by legal protection; where faithful housewives are at the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic because their husbands view unprotected philandering as a male birthright; where archaic laws allow rapists in 14 Latin American countries to go free if they offer to marry the victim and she consents; where street children number in the millions.

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“Our men grow up being told, by their fathers, their mothers, their teachers, their priests, their governors, that they are exempt from the rules,” she writes. “They grow up feeling powerful, feeling they have the right to whatever. Our governments are corrupt, our justice systems operate mainly with impunity, our economies are shared among a few friends and families, our policemen rape us because we are ruled by men who grew up in a society that granted them impunity from the day they were born.”

The book comes at a time when women’s issues are just beginning to claim national attention in Latin America. In Mexico--where only a handful of states have laws designed to protect women from domestic violence and sexual abuse--President Ernesto Zedillo called such violence a shame to modern Mexico and called on local lawmakers to speed up the necessary legal reforms.

Latina Novelists Praise the Book

Not everyone is likely to agree with Paternostro’s views, which form a striking departure from highly romanticized fictional portrayals of Latin America as a sensual Paradise Lost. But so far, the reactions of noted Latina novelists have been positive.

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Rosario Ferre, author of “The House on the Lagoon,” said the book should be required reading. She called it a “vivid manifesto of the inequalities and abuses women still suffer in most Latin American countries” and an “impressive denunciation of a situation that cries out to be remedied before it gets out of hand.”

Julia Alvarez, whose novels include “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents,” said she loved reading the book and couldn’t put it down. “Silvana Paternostro tells the stories our mamis always told us not to tell and, in doing so, she brings to light the secret sexual heart of our Latin culture,” she wrote.

Latino writer Ruben Martinez, in a December review of the book for L.A. Weekly, was more critical. Paternostro, he wrote, was too much the crusader and the pessimist; her prose was “melodramatic” and too infused with her own emotional reactions.

“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,” he wrote.

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However, the book, published by Dutton in November, is not likely to get wide readership in Colombia in its current English form. A Spanish translation will eventually be available, but for now, it is “like a political manifesto in the wrong language,” Paternostro said.

Paternostro, 38, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York, the city where she has lived much of her adult life, says she does not think she could have gotten an advance for such a book in Colombia, and would have lacked the perspective to write it had she not left to attend a Catholic girls high school in the United States.

Her mother thought she was sending her off to the safekeeping of the nuns. But Paternostro, brought up in the rarefied world of a pampered upper-class Colombian “good girl,” was shocked to hear her American classmates discussing their preferred methods of birth control.

For many young Latin American women, “birth control is too much of a bold statement. It claims for women something that is only allowed to men,” she writes in her book, whose subtitle is “Confronting Our Sexual Culture.”

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And though Latin American countries are deeply homophobic, Paternostro quotes top health experts who say there is a hidden world of male bisexuality involving even married men. This, combined with the reluctance of men to use condoms, puts even the most conservative housewives at risk of AIDS, she says.

“It is . . . this sense that men have a right to everything and women have a right to much less that is putting women at risk of contracting HIV,” she writes.

Even the tradition-bound magazine Foreign Affairs called the book “a powerful and passionate indictment of Latin American sexual culture” in a review in its March-April issue.

Attitudes Cross Political Lines

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Paternostro paints a depressing picture of Latin American jurisprudence--including rural judges who believe that only virgins qualify as rape victims--and the national leaders who neglect to bring archaic legal systems out of the Dark Ages. Latin American leftist leaders are often just as chauvinistic as right-wing strongmen, she writes.

Former Chilean right-wing dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet once told women their duty was to be “mothers of the homeland.”

Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinistas created a state-funded women’s agency after taking power in 1979. Yet when the agency proposed legalizing abortion--illegal in the region except in Cuba--then-President Daniel Ortega “said that choosing not to give birth was counterrevolutionary and depleted the country of its much needed youth,” she writes.

For Paternostro, the deep prejudices against women that cement societies where power is so polarized shake the credibility and competence of Latin American authorities.

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“These . . . are the same men who strongly believe that there are good girls and there are bad girls, that there are mothers and wives at home and prostitutes outside, and that they as men are entitled to have both while we as women are one or the other,” she writes.

Such take-no-prisoners assertions did not shock everyone in Paternostro’s family. Upon returning to Colombia, her father asked her to send him 20 copies so he could give them to his friends for Christmas. Her brother liked it too, she says.

“It’s sometimes a lot of pressure for men too,” she said. “I think it’s a burden for many men to be so macho.”

Silvana Paternostro will read from “In the Land of God and Man” at 7:30 p.m. today at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood.

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