The Importance of Family in Latin America

This is the story of our times, the story of the family, once a dense cluster of many siblings and extended kin, fragmenting into ever smaller and more fragile forms. The initial result of that fragmentation, the nuclear family, didn’t seem so bad. But then, because the nuclear family is so brittle, the fragmentation continued. In many sectors of society, nuclear families fragmented into single-parent families, single-parent families into chaotic families or no families’.

Thus declared David Brookes in a recent article in The Atlantic. Yet this remains a very Global North perspective. In many countries outside the USA, we find a different story.

The Oxford Institute of Population Ageing’s Global Ageing Survey (GLAS) reveals that across the globe the family remained strong in defining who we are, and we still feel high levels of obligation and responsibility to our family members. Furthermore, the contribution of older people to the family is vital. And this was also true in the Latin American countries surveyed in the GLAS.

So, for example, in Mexico between 80 per cent of 60-69-year-olds and around 85 per cent of 70-79-year-olds mention the family as that with which they identify when they think of who they are. Over 85 per cent of 70-79-year-olds in Mexico feel that it is the duty of adults to provide for their parents and parents in-law in times of need later in life. In addition, over 90 per cent of 70-79-year-olds in Brazil and 86 per cent in Mexico feel that it is the duty of a parent to do their best for their children, even at the expense of their own well-being.

In Brazil and Mexico, the proportion of 70-79-year-olds who feel that it is the duty of grandparents to be there for their grandchildren in times of difficulty are 92 and 94 per cent respectively. Perhaps these strong feelings regarding the importance of family and its role across the generations, is rooted in a longstanding tradition in Latin America, named El Pib.

El Pib is a fictional story, filmed in 2017 in the Mayan language. Its protagonist, María, is a 10-year-old girl who lives with her father, mother, grandparents and aunts in a rural region of Yucatán, Mexico. The cast are all of Mayan origin and the story is set in rural village life. In this context, family life is rooted in historic traditions in which the natural environment plays an integral role.

The ritual of El Pib consists of a sacred meal offered to deceased family members, who return to ‘visit’ their relatives during the Day of the Dead. The film portrays the first time that Mercedes, María’s mother, participates in the meal’s preparation. Guided by her mother, Mercedes prepares the meal with a huge amount of care and attention. During the preparation, Maria observes her grandmother with admiration and affection; still full of life and clearly retaining a central role in family life. In this film, old age as not portrayed as frailty and dependence – far from it.

With love in her voice, Maria provides a detailed account of the meal’s preparation. It is clear from Maria’s narrative that the act of preparing the meal deeply affects all family members. The enactment of this scared process demonstrates how rural family life is based on security, trust and respect. It also illustrates how such families are organized; with each member performing well-defined roles that form an interconnected whole. Here one’s social position does not contradict or threaten the authority of others; the roles and the views of parents and grandparents are acknowledged and respected.

While family organization is governed by rules, it is also guided by emotions, understandings, moods and intergenerational values, including those of both the living and their ancestors. Here the living and the dead, the past and the present; individuality and community, are coexistent, forming a delicate but continuous sense of cohesion.

During El Pib, the dead, ancestors, family and community history are awaited and honoured. Such respect shows the deceased how to ‘arrive’ and ‘return’ in a cyclical process where the end of earthly existence leads to the beginning of generational renewal. In the film, the word ‘cemetery’ is spoken in Spanish (cementerio). This word does not exist in the Mayan language, suggesting that cemeteries, as inaccessible places devoid of life, are unknown to Mayan culture. Indeed, as Marcelo, María’s grandfather, remarks: ‘We don’t celebrate death, we celebrate life’.

The natural world is central to Mayan culture. During El Pib, the chicken, which is cooked for the ritual, is treated with respect, almost as if it is a vital family and community member. In addition, the capacity to live in the present is inseparable from acts of honouring ancestors, grandparents, nature (it is no coincidence that the film begins by talking about rain), and familial rituals.

We invite our readers to take the time to share the emotional, intelligent and sensitive portrayal of rural Mexican life. The film also contains an unexpected surprise at the end that will undoubtedly move you.

The experience will be well worth it:

(the film has English subtitles).

About the Authors

George  Leeson is a Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Population Ageing, where he co-ordinates the Latin American Research Network on Ageing (LARNA) and the Central and Eastern European Research Network on Ageing (EAST).

Alejandro Klein is a Research Professor at the Department of Governance & Development,  Social Sciences and Humanities Faculty at the University of Guanajuato.  A trained psychologist, Dr Klein researches the socio-demographic issues facing the ageing populations of Latin America.