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Hispanic-American Families

Latino Family Roles

In large part, the Latino family is a family in transition. Within a generation or two the family may not only have immigrated to the United States but may have also migrated from a rural to an urban setting. During this same period, great social and economic changes have been affecting all families in the United States and all social roles within the family. The vast majority of Latinos have been and are being transformed by all of these changes.

Social status may be gained or lost as roles are redefined within the family. Both opportunity and need often encourage females to participate in the workforce resulting in more independence as well as more demands on their time and energy; quick language acquisition for a child may gain him or her sometimes inappropriate power as a translator/negotiator with the outside world; a husband or father, accustomed to controlling relations between the family and the rest of the social universe may have to adjust to at the least a partial result of this control. Moreover, persons in the community previously regarded as supporting relatives (such as godparents or distant cousins) may no longer regard themselves as having the same responsibilities.

The underdevelopment of state systems in most Latin nations led to the dependence on the family for support of the individual. Family systems tended to be patriarchal, and men were the prime protectors, mediators with an often-hostile world outside the bounds of the family. A number of common cultural strategies developed to protect the family. One was simply an extreme form of patriarchal relations, sometimes called the machismo/marianismo dyad, which served to reinforce the prestige of the male in this difficult mediating role. Another, called compadrazgo, served to extend the boundaries of the family through a system of godparent relations—a godparent is a compadre or comadre. The godparent assumed a certain responsibility to care for and guide the godchild in ways that extended beyond his or her spiritual well-being.

Machismo/marianismo. A man's proper role, at least in the language used in much of Mexico, is to be macho, and the ideal of the woman was to be like Mary, the mother of God. The machismo/marianismo dyad has never been a realistic metaphor for the relationship between men and women in the family, and in particular, the concept of machismo has been badly distorted as understood in U.S. popular culture. There is historico-cultural truth behind these concepts, however; although patriarchal, they are not as demeaning to either sex as one would infer from the popular stereotype.

The term macho has never been universal in Latin culture, and care should be advised when using it; in some places every male would have been offended to be referred to as muy macho. In Mexico, however, the word has historically had more positive connotations. A man who was macho was one who engendered respect, and not incidentally, also respect for his family; closely allied to that respect was a sense of dignity and often a forcefulness of personality. Therefore, to be very much a man is to have a forceful, dignified presence (almost in the Latin sense if dignitas), a strong (though not unreasonable) will and sense of purpose, reliability, and courage. These qualities are used in support of, protection of, and defense of the family—this is the ideal. Machismo in such a man can be a loving, certainly caring, trait and certainly need not be expressed through sexual conquests; a man could be muy macho and faithful to his wife.

American actors Gary Cooper and Humphrey Bogart would have been muy macho. A braggart trying to pick up a woman in a bar is definitely not macho; indeed, a braggart must have many other fine qualities to overcome such a flaw and make the grade. Regarded in its patriarchal essentials, the male's role outside the home entails a moral sacrifice. In negotiating the family's safe passage through the social world, a man will sometimes be forced to compromise much that he ought not, submit to the will of others who may not be worthy, make mistakes, and even accept that his flaws, errors, and humiliations will be public and reflect on the family. All too often the public life is a series of diminishments for a man who realizes that he alone may not be able to ensure his family's well-being.

The woman/mother, inhabiting a more private sphere, does not need to undergo these humiliations; her ideal—marianismo—is to be like Mary, the ultimate source of nurturance and moral authority in the family, free from the need to engage in moral compromises necessary to ensure the family's survival. This is not the role of a weakling. On the contrary, the mother is the moral and practical rock upon which the family is built—she is the source of value. Again, marianismo and machismo are cultural ideals, not rational expectations to be lived in daily life. And rarely, outside of Mexico, would the terms, as opposed to the underlying concepts, ever be used in an approving context.

While marianismo and machismo, as used by an anthropologist, never (for example) by an Uruguayan housewife, are linked terms, the concepts are not symmetrical. They are ideological constructs that when put into practice in any modern society tend to reinforce the oppression of women and to perpetuate inequalities of social roles between men and women. In essence, the ideals reflect a need for manipulation resulting from powerlessness. The macho man is a presentation, a front, perhaps backed up by other forms of power, perhaps not. The successful patriarchal Latino man is manipulating his social presence for the benefit of his family. In practice, it is but a small step from the self-sacrificing patriarch to the manipulative egotist who uses an ideology of the protective role as a pretext for exercising total control over other family members.

Assuming the moral authority of the mother of God likewise has obvious potential for manipulative abuse within the family. Marianismo and machismo (even if practiced as habits of thought and not called by those terms) seem to have developed in societies in which relatively few persons were empowered, especially among those who were poor, who were members of groups who suffered racial or even caste-like discrimination, and who had little formal education or opportunities for independent employment. Extreme patriarchal relations may have in part been the result of a dysfunctional colonial socioeconomic system in some Latino homelands. In the United States, whatever the deficiencies in protective social nets, the same conditions do not exist.

Compadrazgo. In religious life the function of the godparent is to ensure that the appropriate spiritual education is provided a godchild. In Latin America acceptance of the godparent role led to the assumption of much broader responsibilities: the godparent ideally would oversee the wellbeing of the child in all respects. Godparent relations have been referred to as a form of fictive kinship, and networks of godparents certainly helped ensure the safety of family members. The relations are complex; for example, deference and respect is paid to someone who is willing to assume a role as a compadre to one's offspring. In some traditional societies there was an aspect of social gamesmanship involved: the higher the social standing of a compadre, the more opportunities available to a child, and indirectly to the entire family.

As in so many other ways, immigration often altered or severed some of these kin bonds. Most commonly, the godparents might be in another country or another part of the United States, or perhaps no longer have supporting resources. Although the social importance of these bonds may be attenuated, some social service agencies have successfully sought out godparents for children in need of foster-care placements, and it is still not unusual for a child to be sent to live with a godparent for a period of time.

The social context of the Latino family is in a constant state of flux. Language acquisition, fluctuating economic conditions, acquisition of residence status and U.S. citizenship, and continued immigration of Latinos—including family reunification— ensure that Latino families will continue to undergo massive transformations. Given the size and birthrate of the Latino group, the ability of these families to provide a physically, emotionally and intellectually healthy environment to raise their families and meet their own needs will do much to determine the social course of the nation in the next generation.


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Other Resources

National Center for Children in Poverty [NCCP]. (2002). "Child Poverty Facts." Available from http://www.cpmcnet.columbia.edu/dept/nccp/ycpf-01.html.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. (2001). Various reports. Available from http://www.census.gov.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsHispanic-American Families - The Hispanics/latinos And Group Definition, Hispanic/latino Families: Demographic And Social Indices