Talking to Boys About Masculinity: A Conversation With Felix Martinez-Paz

Felix Martinez-Paz was inducted into the Youth Worker Hall of Fame, dedicated to people who have gone above and beyond in their service to youth. Only 97 individuals have received this honor since it began in 1999. Photo Sarah Whiting

How did you get into the work you do?

I’m originally from Puerto Rico and have been living in Minnesota for about 20 years. I grew up with parents who showed me a lot of great values, but I also grew up with typical gender stereotypes. I remember my mom telling me to get out of the kitchen and work with my dad on the car, simple things. And there was no sex education. My parents never talked to me about condoms. It is crazy to realize how we let youth figure things out themselves.

It wasn’t until later that I started to realize the harm in gender roles. They are how we learn how to be a man, with traits that might not fit. We’re not always strong. Sometimes we need to cry. Even if you learn great values in your home, the reality on the outside can be very different.

We’re wearing a mask of how we think a man is supposed to be, which causes harm to ourselves and others. It causes depression. We are tired because we’re carrying this backpack every day, heavy with expectations and stereotypes. That can lead to a lot of anger. The reaction of men tends to be aggressive. Not that this is an excuse to cause harm — but we’re holding a lot inside.

The word many people relate to Latine men is the Spanish word “machismo,” which tends to have a negative connotation of aggressiveness.

As an adult working in financial coaching, I was invited to a retreat of the Men and Masculine Folks Network in 2016, which was my first opportunity to listen and to go deep in conversation about traditional gender roles, patriarchy, healthy masculinity, and gender-based violence prevention. I was the father of two daughters and decided to change the focus of my career. I wanted my daughters to live in a world where they feel respected.

Now I am the Men & Boys Engagement Manager for Esperanza United, which was formed in 1982 as an emergency shelter for domestic violence survivors. Today, it is a national organization, based in Saint Paul, focused on ending gender-based violence.

I’ve been working with school district 196 — Eagan, Apple Valley, and Rosemount — where I facilitate spaces for boys ages 11 to 18. We are lucky to be able to create these spaces during the school hours. We have conversations about leadership and gender-based violence prevention. I try to help youth get past the insecurities I went through when I was younger.

The work is about helping us realize that we are all connected and that we can have an impact when we work together to change unhealthy habits created by patriarchy. Most men don’t understand the harm they do.

I learned about a campaign in India where people ring the doorbell when they hear a situation of domestic violence. When someone opens the door, they ask the man a question, just to be sure there is a disengagement, and so they know someone is listening.

Not all concepts work for every community. They need to be adapted in churches, schools, and other places.

What are you doing in schools?

Schools are going through a hard time dealing with violence, including harassment and sexual violence. Esperanza United has been in the community listening, showing people who we are, how we can support the students. People in the schools who deal with students every day see what the needs are. We were able to create the trust needed in order for schools to bring us in.

Young people who come to our spaces realize that we respect their voices. We talk about the fact that violence is not only about hating on people — there is also emotional, financial, and verbal violence.

The limitation to having more of these conversations, of course, is funding, funding, funding. Thinking outside of the box helps us create opportunities. For example, the Department of Natural Resources offered a grant for organizations to give away fishing poles while teaching people how to fish. We created a family fishing activity alongside conversations about everything from healthy masculinity to the prevalence of sexual exploitation.

With Dakota County Parks system, we have created conversations alongside sledding, ice fishing, bicycling, canoeing, kayaking. Sometimes we bring in organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Health. We’ve worked with Outfront on conversations about being allies in the LGBTQ+ community.

Local people are the first responders who react if violence is in their community. We need to normalize prevention and bring it where the community is at.

How do you have the conversations?

It all comes down to creating trust. We talk about how we learn what it is to be a man and how they feel about those expectations. Society teaches us bad lessons. It also can teach us good lessons.

We set guidelines about being respectful. Someone says “Felix, I don’t like the food,” and I pay attention. If someone doesn’t like how something was said, we bring it up in a way that is not about calling anyone out as a bad person.

In the world today, sometimes calling someone out for their behavior can be dangerous. Anyone might have a gun or a knife. It is important to be careful how you connect to people — to pull them aside when you see unhealthy behaviors and not seek to embarrass them.

We’re not having these conversations to say that men are bad. We are simply talking about how these behaviors are harmful.

I am having these conversations with my parents too. Now I see my dad letting people know respectfully when they have said something he doesn’t agree with.

I have long-time friends who have shared sexist jokes that objectify women. I call them out. They tease: “Here comes Felix, telling us what to do and what we’re doing wrong.” But they don’t share those messages anymore. They are aware.

Sometimes it is as simple as realizing that you have been taught that women are not equal human beings and are an object to take advantage of. That can include something as basic as waking up and expecting your wife to make you breakfast. It makes my wife happy when I make breakfast. That is when you begin to have healthier relationships.