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European Antecedents, Latin America Background

The assigning of godparents takes place when a couple selects another couple as sponsors for their child. The couple that accepts the invitation is then responsible for protecting the child and obliged to provide for the physical and spiritual needs of the infant, as well as religious instruction if the parents are absent. Thus, godparents are substitute parents and assume their responsibilities as needed, incorporating their new roles within the extended family (López 1999; Keefe, Padilla, and Carlos 1979).

The origin of godparenting is found in the religious institution of baptism. This ceremony, which usually takes place during the child's first year of life, is aimed at incorporating the child into the larger religious community and is commonly celebrated among Catholics. At the time of baptism, a priest, the child, the parents, and the godparents are present. Although parents customarily choose the godparents, if someone offers to be a godparent, the parents have a hard time not accepting. It is difficult to reject a godparenting request because the offer entails honor, security, social status, and economic well-being for the parties involved. To circumvent any offense derived from the selection process, the family sometimes unofficially has more than one pair of godparents.

Godparents and godchildren, as well as godparents and parents, are bound in a special spiritual kinship with well-established rights and obligations. In Mexico, for example, if the godchild gets sick, the godparents are supposed to take care of him or her, and if the child dies, the godparents prepare the grave (Rojas Gonzalez 1943). Also, frequent cooperation in moral and economic matters is expected. In addition, godparents should act as spiritual guides and authority in times of crisis or need (Pierson 1954). In the past, it was also customary for the children to kiss the hand of the godparents and accept their blessings.

The expectations of parents and godparents, based on the new kinship, have far-reaching consequences. The ground is set for the establishment of special relations as strong as any blood relationship (Rojas González 1943; Lewis 1951). The new relatives should not fight and should treat each other amiably and with respect. If the father dies, then the godfather should fix the corpse for burial, dig the grave (Magallón Junca 1966), and assume the responsibility of the godchild and its family, both spiritually and economically (Rojas González 1943).

The actual functions of godparenting have varied widely from its original purpose. The religious character has weakened and in many cases is confined to the initial baptism ceremony. However, as the religious significance declined, an important social link with many protective characteristics emerged. It has become important to choose godparents whose economic and social status enables them to fulfill their moral and spiritual responsibility to guide the children. Several functional concerns became stronger, creating different types of relationships. When families want to ensure their social position or expand their family network, they search for specific godparents who are more powerful than they are and will allow social climbing (vertical godparenting) (López 1999). At the same time, godparents may be selected from the same social class, a practice termed horizontal godparenting, which gives stability to the family (Foster 1969; Mintz and Wolf 1950). Another form of functional accommodation has been the creation of generational pairings when younger couples select older godparents to help them cope with the stress that accompanies the birth of a first child. Older, experienced godparents guide and reliably support the parents through this process.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelatives & Extended Family