Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Whenever I have traveled to Latin America with my family, people have been surprised. "There are just TWO of you??" cab drivers would ask us, looking back and forth between my brother and me seated in the backseat. Sure, my mom is the youngest of five daughters, but the trend in America today seems to be fewer children. We fit nicely in a compact cab from the airport, often share a single hotel room, and a college education is certainly much easier to afford in duplicate rather than quintuplicate. 

Conversely, when Americans think of Mexicans, we think of big families: the quinciñera with two hundred relatives in attendance, the baptism that requires a cathedral, the anniversary that people fly to from all over the world. What I have come to realize, however, is that the difference between the typical American and Mexican families is not their size. 

The Mexican family that I have come to know and love, my host family in DF, has but two grown children. Their son has one six-year-old daughter. The low birth rate is in fact a national trend, dropping over the last century from an average of seven children per woman to just over two. 

The difference, then, lies in something beyond sheer numbers. It is found in the way they interact rather than the ability to procreate. It is not that we don't love each other any less in the US, or butt heads any more, but the way we see the family is strikingly different. "Do you really not come back to live at home after college?" was one of the first intercultural questions I received. Well no, of course not. Having to return to live with mom and pops is the fear of many a co-ed, a sign that we were not able to make it in the real world. Patty, the unmarried 30-something-year-old-daughter of my host parents, to this day lives at home. Why wouldn't she?

Their son Guicho, who by now has his own house, wife and daughter, is seen here I imagine more than at his own house. In the US this would be a sign of marital trouble (the classic "I'm going home to mother!") and I may have assumed such if his daughter wasn't here even more than he. Weekends are often spent with the whole family dropping in and out, and the typical school night involves Ana Sofia, the infamous granddaughter, perched on the sofa watching TV and ignoring her grandmother's pleas to come take a bath.


When social scientists study Mexican emigration patterns, they chronicle whole towns populated by kids and elders, the latter taking care of their own children's offspring while the adults are away at work in the US. This is also a typical description of poverty in border towns, with parents depicted as being forced to leave their babies at mom's while they work long shifts at factories. These descriptions, while striking, miss the dynamic completely of the Mexican family. 

The family I live with is not rich. Ricardo is working into his mid sixties selling water and credit cards on his bike throughout the neighborhood. But they own their own house in a nice neighborhood, and their son owns one nearby. In the next year or so, Patty will also buy herself a home. They live well, if modestly. Yet still, when Anna Sofia is sick and cannot go to school, it is grandma who takes care of her. When Dad goes away on business to the border for six weeks starting next month, it will still be her grandparents who bring her home from school. The family lives together, works together, and shares responsibilities across  generations. Their dynamic is not a sign of poverty or desperation, but rather the way the family works in Mexico.


Americans today love talking about the disintegration of the American family. They point out that we don't eat together anymore, that our daughters are getting pregnant and that our sons don't come home. I don't buy it. My family certainly doesn't operate that way. But we are more individualistic, determined to make it on our own before asking for help. The role of the grandmother is to provide candy, not co-parent. This does not preclude, of course the traditional asking of the parents for more money, or the rallying of the clan for the holiday dinner, but it comes as a different perception of what a family should be. We may not see each other every day, but we are just as much of a family as any.

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