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Grandparents Raise Children in Latin America

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. [...]

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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.

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

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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4 comments… add one

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  • Bob L July 13, 2010, 8:16 am

    It is pretty common in the US for a grandmother to mostly raise a kid. It IS a little unusual for a mother to go to the other side of the country to work, leaving the kid with gramma though, at least in my experience. I have seen quite a few instances where the mother is having “issues”: bad boyfriend, no job, drugs, psych issues, or just trying to finish college, where the grandparents step in to take care of the kid, until the “issues” are resolved.

    Many of the women who CHOOSE to have kids, do so at a relatively high age. It is not unusual for a women to not become a grandmother until she is in her 50’s, 60’s or 70’s, some don’t even become MOTHERS until they are in there 40’s. Most very young births are mistakes.

    A woman’s earning potential in the US can increase as she gets older until she gets into her 60’s or whatever and decides to retire, assuming a more proffesional err proffession. A young women may have no real earning potential. So, often, the grandmother works, and the young girl takes care of the child at home, then maybe takes a night job.

    But, more often here, I suppose, than elsewhere, there are single mom’s who both raise their kids and work to support them. I have known a number or these women. The ones that have it easier have some family that they can leave the kid with, some do it without such help. NOT an easy situation, by any means. I am always impressed by women who can do this mostly on their own.

    Bob L

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com July 13, 2010, 10:49 am

      Good addition, you’re right, most of the time older women have more established jobs and make far more money than their daughters in the USA. For them to take over raising their grandchildren would mean an economic back step. Also, with women having children later means that the grandparents are older and may be less equipped to handle young kids. In one of the example above a woman became a grandmother at 31 years old — at this age many women in the USA are not even thinking about being mothers.

      Families in the USA also don’t pool their resources and responsibilities (and hardly even live anywhere near each other) as they do in Latin America, so comparison in this regard may be a little strained.

      Good points, thanks for the additional perspective.

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  • Paulo July 13, 2010, 9:28 pm

    Not just in Latin America.

    Whilst running bars in London, I met several foreign women who left their kids in their home country. These women couldn’t get a job in Poland, Croatia, Russia so they left their sons and daughters with their grandparents and moved to London (illegally of course!) in order to save some money to send home. One day this girl was crying whilst hovering the bar. I asked her why. “It’s my daughter’s birthday today and I can’t be with her…” was the answer.
    Not just in Latin America. Europe as well.

    I was raised by my grandparents too! In the 70’s, following the end of a dictatorship, there was no work in the Island of Madeira, so people had no other choice than to take off to France, South Africa, Venezuela, etc. My mother moved to Spain with the promise of a job. I was 3 years old. The remaining of my upbring was down to my grandparents.
    Not just in Latin America. All over the world.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com July 16, 2010, 12:12 pm

      You are right, man, it is normal for kids to be raised by their grandparents all over the world. I just wrote Latin America because that is where I am now.

      I did not know that you were raised by your grandparents. I always meant to ask you about your family. Thanks for sharing, it really makes this entry more real to life.

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