Family vs. Familia


My mother-in-law and I don’t have the best relationship. The biggest bone of contention has been the living arrangements. Growing up, I imagined myself with a husband and two kids, maybe a dog, but in my perfect little Anglo world, I never considered that I’d have a mother-in-law living with me, too. In-laws and grandparents are supposed to live in their own house, usually a few states away – not down the hallway. Random uncles and cousins also are not supposed to “visit” for weeks or months at a time. When relatives visit, it’s supposed to be for a few days and they’re supposed to use a hotel – That is what my culture told me, anyway.

Well, in Latino culture, which I married into, “family” is not limited to Mom, Dad, Son and Daughter. Besides Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, (not to mention half-siblings in some cases), there’s Grandmother, Grandfather, uncles and aunts, nieces, nephews, cousins and more cousins, not to mention everyone’s in-laws. If that isn’t enough family for you, there are Godparents, and other non-blood related people who get the honorary privilege of being called “familia.”

I’ve become convinced that if Anglos have a “family tree” – Latinos have a “family forest.”

And so for years I miserably asked myself the question, “Why does my mother-in-law want to live with us?” – but I should have been asking “Why would she NOT want to live with us?” Just as much as my culture taught me that this is a strange, uncomfortable living arrangement, hers taught her that this is completely normal and so my resistance to it was incomprehensible, and even deeply hurtful.

This does not excuse any of my mother-in-laws many (many!) faults, but I feel almost like a Zen monk reaching enlightenment for all of this to make sense after so many years – and not just make sense, but to be okay about it.

In my heart of hearts, sometimes I wish I had been able to live my married life in a normal Anglo household, but I would have missed out on so much, and so would my children. My Spanish would not be near as good as it is if I didn’t have to communicate with my non-English speaking mother-in-law on a daily basis. I never would have learned how to pat a tortilla back-and-forth between my palms. I never would have heard the various childhood stories about my husband that she tells every now and then. I never would have gotten a glimpse into the psychology of what made my husband who he is due to her mothering, (the good and the bad.)

My children would never have heard silly folk songs like “Los Pollitos Dicen” – they would have only known of the Tooth Fairy and not of the Latin American equivalent, “Ratóncito Pérez”, (though my husband insists when he was a child, they were too poor to pay him for his teeth so he didn’t know of Ratóncito Pérez either.) My children never would have tasted the mangoes that their grandmother buys, which they love and I hate.

Now looking back, I realize that though my mother-in-law has caused her fair share of discord and misery at times, she also enriched our lives. I’m sure there will be days when it will be hard to remember that, days when I find cilantro leaves littering the kitchen floor that I just swept and mopped, days when I’m trying to write and she has a telenovela on in the living room at maximum volume, but in the end, I guess familia is what you make of it.

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  1. says

    I just love and admire so much your capacity to take in the bad and the good that comes from this living arrangement Amiga. You are truly an inspiration and an example of what "multicultural" means. You are open and willing to get the best out of each experience and that is just wonderful!!! Un abrazo!

  2. says

    Oh, Tracy. I hear you and feel where you're coming from. I think that the Anglo mindset you refer to casts a much wider net. My husband's parents came from Italy. He's born here. And as similar as our cultures are in family values, he's spent most of our married years feeling the way you used to. It's taken a lot discussion, respecting boundaries, and lagrimas to get him to understand how important it is to me to have mi mami en casa. It's good for our son, it's good for me, and ultimately the memories we'll have. One of my biggest fears, I tell my husband, is that our son will marry somebody who won't want la suegra around. Sending you a big hug. Y un beso. <3 Great post. You've earned your wings. (p.s. if suegra is a bruja, then that's a different story. I've watched enough telenovelas to know what that could look like.)

  3. says

    I enjoyed this so much!  I wish I had my suegra closer.  I totally agree with the Latino Family Forest!  Too funny.  I laughed out loud reading that one!  

  4. Sweetlifebake says

    Tracy, I love your words. A Family forest so very true.  My sister is married to an anglo and he feels suffocated when we get together,lol


  5. Anonymous says

    What a great post, amiga!  Even though I was raised by my Mexican grandparents, the family dynamic was completely different from Hubby's family.  We lived with my suegra for three years when we moved to Mexico and it was such an eye opener for me.  Not that we didn't get a long, but it gave me a better understanding of the meaning of family.  Glad that you can see the positive in a sometimes negative situation. :)  

  6. says

    Love your article! On my mom's side I was always the black sheep of the family because I never really needed to be around my family. On my dad's side with my step-mom being anglo I always wondered why dynamics were so different and I always kind of miss the overbearingness of my mother's family's side. With my husband its been tough also with my MIL since she thought her son would always marry an Argentine girl, live right next door to her and he is married to a Puerto Rican/Cuban and we live 3,000 miles away from her (and every opportunity she gets, she asks if we are ever moving to Argentina!)