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Grandparents Raise Children in Latin America

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FINCA TATIN, Guatemala- From my observations, mothers are often times not a child’s primary care giver in Latin America. Grandmothers are. It make sense: women tend to have babies young here, and a young woman is in the prime of her working life — it is part of her family role to bring in money. Whereas grandparents are often retired or work in the home, and are therefore find caring for the children as a large part of their family role.

Within a family unit that has active grandmothers, the able adults are free to work (when it is available), they are not bound by as many child care duties and are free to engage a role that is in the best interest of their family: to make money. When the working adults get old and are no longer as economically viable, or when their children can make more money than they can the cycle flips, and they will become the primary care givers of their grandchildren.

Where people live in tight communities, there are many more options for child rearing structures. Often, these communities structure themselves to operate in the best interest of the family. If one person can take a job that would grant them a decent amount of money, other people step in to care for their children, to help maintain their affairs. It often seems better to have everybody who can work and make money working and making money, if women needed to quit their jobs to raise their children full time it would be to cut out a source of the family’s total income. So, often, grandmothers fill the void, they take the kids.

It is easy to observe adults tending to their children in Guatemala: it happens all over the streets. Babies ride all over this land in papusas, an older woman is usually the bearer. It is an easy conclusion to jump at that the woman with the child is its mother, but it is often the case that the baby is with its grandmother.

The actual mothers of babies here are often times themselves little girls — 15, 16, 17, and even younger, is prime breeding age — or are otherwise in their prime working age. So the mothers work or go to school and the grandmothers tend to the kids.

One of the workers in the kitchen of the Finca Tatin is a village girl who is 21 years old. She had her son five years ago. When she goes to work full time six days a week, her mother cares for her child. Her mother claimed the grandmother title at only 31 years of age. This is normal, the daughter can make more money than her mother, so she works, her mother cares for the child.

I asked the girl in the kitchen if this was a normal arrangement — knowing already that it was — and she replied as though I were silly.

“Claro, Gueid, es normal.”

Women have children young in Latin America, they seem to have children as soon as their bodies are ready to make them — which often does not run flush with the time that they are prepared to raise them. So grandparents fill in, as well as aunts, great aunts, sisters, nieces, on and on, and the child receives the care it needs, while the family is able to bring in the most money it can.

The Latin American family seems to be structured around a “whatever works best” strategy: if one person can make more money, they work, and everyone else fills in the gaps. This is especially true of mothers who leave home to work, some of whom travel as far as their country’s capital city or the United States — some of whom are gone for many years. In these cases, the grandparents step in and the mother sends home remittances.

Another worker at the finca came here from Nicaragua. She left her daughter with her parents and went to Guatemala on an invitation to work. After a few under the table plays here and there, she became the girlfriend of the owner. Two years later, her life is solid in Guatemala, so her daughter came to rejoin her one month ago.

There seems to be a driving force here that still states that the mother is the best care providers for a child, if everything else is equal a mother will care full time for her children. It seems as if it is only when it proves better for the family as a whole for the mother to work outside the home — outside the country — that the grandparents take over the primary child care role. In Suchitoto, El Salvador, I made some friends at a pupusaria that closed down during my stay. One of the girls had a child, when she worked her mother cared for it during the day, when she became unemployed she took over again as the main care giver. Like this, children seem to find solid foundations with both their mother and grandmother, as the two act as a tag team of child rearing.

Grandparents have a true role in the Latin American family. Where the USA and many developed countries toss the old into nursing homes and then hire babysitters, Latino culture puts their seniors to good use: they raise the children. It is almost a catastrophic event in USA culture for a mother to leave her child. Perhaps we would stand aghast if we heard of a mother leaving her kid with grandma so she could take a job across the country, return to school, or perhaps even work a 6 day a week job. Likely, the grandmother would also find the job a chore — grandparents in the USA often feel their family role completed after their kids are raised to adulthood, they are ready to retire from both work and family life, raising their grandchildren is often taken as an undue burden, a slap in the face, perhaps. Grandparents raising children in the USA is, simply put, a tell tale sign of a broken home — there are agencies there to deal with such things.

In Latin culture, the elderly are supported by their children, to enable this to work as flush as possible, they take the reins on the grandchildren. Like this, the family unit keeps itself standing without the need for outside support.

My mother in law is coming to the finca where myself and my wife are working at the height of our busy season. The first thing I am going to do is pass Petra over and say, “You’re in Latin America now, grandma, do your job!”

It is not my impression that she is not going to put up much of a fight.

Filed under: World Culture

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Filed under: Central America, Culture and Society, Family, Guatemala

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been moving through the world since 1999, visiting 51 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China. has written 2760 posts on Vagabond Journey.

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