Women in both rural and urban Uruguay are often confronted by barbecues, which are social situations where their skills, maturity, kindness and respect to men’s tasks are thoroughly examined by other women. The examination is particularly demanding for the new female if she is presented as The Bride, given that in this event older women are not only studying the ability of the new woman to fit into their group, but also her willingness to start a family with the young fertile male and her suitability as a new member of the clan. In order to restrict this study we will focus on this particular situation.
When I started to study Uruguayan Barbecues as a gregarious phenomenon where the established clan decides whether to accept a new female member or not, I met an old lady (Martita) who accepted the idea of having me in her brothers’, sons’ and son-in-law’s barbecues, so far as I didn’t interfere with the construction and deconstruction of their ties –although Martita stated this request in a different (and altered) way, asking me not to have sexual intercourse with any of them. Shame.
At a barbecue, women are usually from other villages or belong to different clans, so they have to develop their relationships as mothers-in-law, daughters-in-law, sisters-in-law, cousins and friends to participate as a united group of salad-makers. All the same, men are usually related –or have been friends since their childhood– which is why they are unlikely to be controlled as a new member. It’s no easy matter, then, for The Bride to fit in a social situation where she doesn’t have any bond with the older suspicious women who are monitoring her behavior as if she was an ex-convict on bail.
The Bride has to be correctly shy, but not to the point of looking like a simpleton; deferential to the elders and cheerful, without being excessively nice to other men no matter their age. This aspect is particularly difficult for the young woman, especially if she is good-looking, because she has to balance an accurate level of both politeness and rejection with her new brother-in-laws and her boyfriend’s male friends: she has to receive with charm their flirting comments and simultaneously never seem flattered by any of them. If The Bride follows those rules; doesn’t drink too much alcohol; doesn’t engage in political, soccer-related or other polemic discussions and doesn’t start gossip (although she’s allowed to enrich on gossip started by somebody else), the older members of the clan will gradually accept her presence and stop changing the topic of conversation whenever she approaches.
In one of Martita’s barbecues, the younger grandson brought a bride, a woman 21 years old. She instantly made an alliance with another young alien female: the best friend of the landlord’s daughter. Even though they didn’t know each other, they sat together and poured one another diet Coke whenever one of their glasses was emptied. (This is the way for new women in the clan to make allies for the future, although they can’t dismiss the need to developing relationships with the older women in the community). They were both in the same situation, although The Bride was being studied with more intensity than The Friend: when The Bride talked, the rest of the women fell silent to give her space, a behavior that looks considerate but is mostly distrustful.
Once the young bride has established herself as a member of the barbecue family clan, she is given consent to propose her own salad for the banquet, which leaves the task of washing lettuce and chopping tomatoes to the new to-be-tolerated women. By that time (not before) she can complain with other women about her groom or husband and she will receive the support of all the females of the group. Although this support won’t make any practical difference in her relationship with her mate, it will work as a valve to liberate stress and therefore be ready to receive his body when he asks for her companionship. Sharing marital problems is, in consequence, the golden resource used by females to make ties in a man-dominated environment.
Meanwhile, men are chatting away over a glass of whiskey or beer, standing in front of the fire started by the landlord, who acts as the pro tempore Alpha macho-male. They are usually related or long-time friends, so their topics of conversation tend to be vague and full of private jokes in a cheerful dialogue looked on with envy by most women who, sitting around a nearby table, are preparing and dressing salads. But The Bride (in fact, any female) isn’t allowed to stand and discuss any topic with the men’s group, no matter how boring the salad conversation is for her, unless she is determined to be exiled forever from this clan. These kinds of actions will be considered unacceptable by the barbecue community women, who will deny immediately their approval and sympathy to a “whore” who –in Martita’s words– “dared to flirt with all the family’s men”.
Therefore, Uruguayan women function as a collective power of control to brides and marriage-eligible girlfriends. When the time to clear the table arrives, women reckon their responsibility and establish a system of supportive female work group. Then there begins a continuous moving back and forth between the kitchen and the backyard, while men remain seated around the barbecue table digesting the just-eaten cattle. They probably didn’t try any of the salads, since preparations with vegetables are considered unmanly and are identified with homosexuality by Uruguayan men. This is not offensive, though. In spite of their effort in preparing the salads, women are indulgent with this repudiation because they admire the virile manners of their only-cow-and-pig-eating-husbands in their quest for a coronary disease. But, if one of the women, especially The Bride, refuses to help bringing dishes to the kitchen or washing them, usually with cold water, she definitely will suffer the curse of older women and the improper comments of men, because this behavior is considered aggressive and proves The Bride is not a respectable girl who deserves the fertile young male she is mating with. ◙