“I’m writing about women in the Mexican family,” I said to my host mum, “is there anything I need to say?”
“¡Somos incomprendidas!” came the reply – “We are misunderstood!”
Is there any feminist sentiment more universal than that? What separates women from men is the very same principal that unites women across every other boundary: we are something they are not.
Debate rages on in the field of feminist anthropology as to whether there is really any such thing as ‘universal womanhood’, depending on where one sits on the scale from cultural relativism to cultural universalism. I can’t answer that question, but I do know that I have felt a very strong sense of shared womanhood in my time here. This most commonly manifests itself in jokes and sentiments (both explicit and not-so) expressed between myself and my Mexican counterparts where gender provides the glue where there are otherwise crevices in age, class and experience. So I have to admit my gender bias from the outset: the very fact that I am a female (and always have been!) intrinsically impacts my experience in Mexico and I have a much greater insight to womanhood here than I do to masculinity. I don’t pretend to be impartial – mine is a study of women, by a woman, with all its implications.
It is the worst kept secret in Mexico that women rule the roost. Infamous Latino machismo is alive and well, but you really needn’t scratch far beneath the veneer of masculine dominance to see that social life, particularly with regard to the family, is almost entirely orchestrated by women. Women are the diary-keepers (one tía in my host family dished out an Excel Spreadsheet listing all the family birthdays at our last gathering), cooks and cleaners, they tend to run the household finances and purchasing, and are most importantly the party hosts and organisers. As families are typically large and extended, this involves negotiating between and arranging a lot of people. Catering for forty-plus people ruffles no feathers, and the entire event (which in classically Mexican style starts early and never has a preempted finish time) runs without a glitch, even when this includes moving all of the furniture outside to make space for everyone and conducting numerous seatings to ensure that nobody misses out on what is always a feast worthy of an Aztec emperor.
Families are not only large, but also very close-knit – it’s not unusual for children to live with grandparents, aunties or uncles for a time for one reason or another, there are frequent reunions, and they place great emphasis on togetherness. Anything goes as a reason for a fiesta, and ‘the more the merrier’ applies as a general rule. This, paired with the prevalent lack of gardens, culminates in the ‘party in the garage’ phenomenon. It’s an actual thing – it must be because there are Internet forums headed with titles like “why do Mexicans do everything in their front yard?” Well, let me enlighten you. Often there isn’t that much space inside, and for security the cars are normally parked in a gated forecourt, so it makes sense, doesn’t it? Whip out the trestle tables, plonk a tarpaulin overhead and wire up some badass speakers, and you’ve got your very own party venue completely gratis!
Mexicans love to have their family around them, and also don’t like to see people without family, so invitations are always extended and lots of people who aren’t technically family are affectionately referred to with family-like nicknames. This makes Mexico a fantastic place to be as an outsider, because even if I hadn’t been welcomed so warmly by my own host family I would almost certainly have been adopted by another.
The importance of family isn’t only celebrated within families but is also recognised nationally (as it is in many countries) with celebration days. But tellingly, Mother’s Day is a really big deal here, whereas Father’s Day passed almost unnoticed. At my old school we spent weeks in preparation for Mother’s Day, making gifts, preparing songs, dances, and poems, and a whole day was dedicated to their performance. Father’s Day was ignored. I asked why this was, and the teacher told me it was because almost all of the children have mothers, whereas there are a lot of children with absent fathers. This made me really sad. What kind of lessons does this teach little boys and girls? Aren’t you just perpetuating the problem by normalising the father’s absence and sending out a message that dads don’t matter? To my relief, at my new job they hadn’t celebrated Mother’s Day or Father’s Day but created Family Day to celebrate family in all of its forms, which in a very poor area where traditional nuclear family is the exception and not the rule seems like a good idea to me.
Mexico also celebrates Children’s Day on the 30th of April, to demonstrate how much they are loved and appreciated. From the celebration of Children’s Day to the constant string of family parties, there is a huge culture of care in the Mexican family, and the extension of love, warmth and appreciation is most noticeably demonstrated through food and giving, usually simultaneously.
The notion of ‘independence’ just isn’t assigned the same value or meaning here, it is not something to be achieved but more likely to be interpreted as a by-product of neglect. Those poor people all alone, why don’t their families look after them? They’re really independent? What a shame, why do they push their families away? Our 20s in the UK is a decade cherished for establishing independence, for getting away from home, achieving things by ourselves and exploring things we probably wouldn’t want our parents to know about. In Mexico, you are very much a child until you have children yourself, at whatever age this happens. In the UK there is huge stigma attached to young people living with their parents past their mid-twenties, and they rarely wish to do so apart from out of financial necessity and benefit. Here, on the other hand, there is far less desire, financial nor emotional, to move out of home.
On the plus side of independence is the freedom and sense of personal achievement it offers, but the flip side of the coin is the feeling of burden – there is a far greater sense of embarrassment or even shame when we need help from family, either in our youth, mid-life, or ageing. Moving back in with family is often perceived as a kind of regression, a personal failure of some sort or the result of a lack of financial resources. It is widely accepted that care homes aren’t ideal but more suitable in terms of convenience when relatives are busy either working or just with their ‘own’ lives. Here it is very common that when a grandparent (or in fact anybody’s spouse) dies, the person left alone moves in with the rest of the family to a part of their house or an adjacent one. There is no sense of shame or embarrassment in asking for help from the family, on the contrary it is more likely for family members to fight over who can offer more assistance.
If there’s one thing we can learn from the Mexicans, it’s that there’s enough love for everyone. My absolute favourite thing about the culture here is its inclusiveness. The young and the old socialise together, and care together, and coming from a culture where we are so fiercely independent and defensively self-sufficient, it’s very touching. Right from the start it was the people’s warmth that I noticed, and time and time again people’s kindness and generosity has exceeded my expectations, from doors opened to hands shaken and food offered. Who is to praise for this culture of love and care that is the social cement of the Mexican family? The women.