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Latin America

Familism, Machismo, Street Children, Family Violence, Conclusion


It is not possible to make accurate generalizations about an area as large and diverse as Latin America. There are many different kinds of Latin Americans. This overview provides some background on family life in the Hispanic world, drawing mainly on the research done in a few key countries such as Mexico and Colombia, and with special focus on how the struggle for economic survival affects that life. It has been reported that 40 percent of families in Latin America have insufficient income for essential needs, and that another 28 percent can be categorized as "working poor" (David 1987). In 1980, 41 percent of the population was under fourteen. Population growth in the Western Hemisphere, and Latin America in particular, has exceeded that of the Old World for some time (Stycos 1968). With this trend continuing, poverty is the way of life for most Hispanic children.

Drawing on census data, Elsa M. Chaney (1984) gives the following snapshot: In looking at twenty different countries, the most common minimum age for marriage for females is fourteen. Colombia and Mexico have declared eighteen for both sexes, but the others range from twelve to sixteen for females, and fourteen to sixteen for males. Other research indicates that the average age of marriage for women is about eighteen, and that these young brides will give birth to an average of more than five children in the course of their married lives (Balakrishnan 1976).

Chaney also points out that childrearing is still the highest social status available to women. Because of the costs involved, many of the poor cannot afford to marry, and legal divorce is usually difficult to attain. Thirty percent of households are headed by females (similar to the United States), and the typical household has 3.5 to 5.3 members.

Especially among the lower classes, consensual unions may significantly outnumber formal marriages. For instance, among poor blacks in Venezuela, 57 percent of couples are not married, in spite of the influence of Catholicism. These families tend to be matrifocal (mother-centered) and characterized by early motherhood, migration, and poverty (Pollak-Eltz 1975).

In fact, migration appears to be an important factor in understanding the Hispanic family. Males often migrate to the United States or other places in search of work in order to support their families (Weist 1983). This allows the family to live better, but puts strains on the relationship. Wives rarely have affairs because if their husbands found out, the men could beat or abandon them. Even though the mother is responsible for the children, the usually absent father is the final decision-maker. This pattern holds in Mexico where patriarchal notions make it difficult for women to support themselves (Chant 1993).

In other subcultures, such as the black Caribs of Guatemala (Gonzalez 1983), women change companions fairly frequently in search of economic support. They have also discovered that they can provide for themselves as well as their migrating menfolk can, and as a result are less likely to look up to males as leaders than they used to.

When the Spaniards came to the Americas, they worked hard to impose their family ideals on the indigenous populations. That ideal was a patriarchal, monogamous, nuclear family (Munoz 1983). Before this pressure, there had been significant variety among local peoples, including polygyny, cousin marriages, extended clans, and the more familiar patriarchal power and strict separation of tasks by gender (Boremanse 1983).

Ignorance often goes with poverty, and one example of this is in the area of health. Anesthesia is often avoided in childbirth, as many Mexicans believe that the mother must endure pain in order to be a real mother. This has nothing to do with A Kuna Native American family. The Kuna are a hardy group that has resisted pressure from Catholic missionaries and the Panamanian government in order to preserve their way of life. DANNY LEHMAN/CORBIS the pros and cons of natural childbirth, but is related to the Biblical idea of women bringing forth children in sorrow. Some attribute miscarriages, and other problems, to susto, which means a terrible fright. Even when their health is in danger, some women will avoid birth control since their main purpose in life is to reproduce. Having children is proof of the husband's virility, and using birth control might tempt the wife to have affairs (Haffner 1992).

What, then, is the typical Latin American family like? Some research (Ingoldsby 1980) indicates that psychological intimacy is not as highly valued as it is in the United States. In comparing couples from the United States and Colombia, it was found that high satisfaction marriages in the United States were correlated with a high level of emotional expressiveness between spouses. This was not true for the Colombian couples. Their satisfaction was predicted by having a similar level of expressiveness, be it high, medium, or low. Also, Colombian women and men are equally likely to say what they feel and are at the same level as U.S. males, whereas females in the United States are significantly more expressive as a group than are their male counterparts.

This pattern appears similar to the one that prevailed in the preindustrial United States, where the marital focus was on agreement between spouses and task completion. As more women in Latin America enter the labor force, it may be that marriages will shift from traditional to more companionate, as has occurred in the United States, where the emphasis is on emotional sharing.

In looking at the literature on Hispanic families, two general types are described. The first, called familism, is the cultural ideal, and it describes a close, loving, and religious family. The second type is a result of machismo, which is an abuse of patriarchy due in large part to poverty.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural Aspects