Family and Kin

Family and Kin

A stable family life and widely extended bonds of kinship provided the most effective source of personal security. Although family and kinship practices varied among the disparate ethnic groups, both Hispanic and Indian traditions placed great stress upon bonds of responsibility among kins. No other institution endured as the family had, and none commanded greater loyalty.

The nuclear household--a father and mother with their unmarried and dependent children--constituted the basic unit of family organization among the upper and urban middle classes. Within this household, children were reared, women played their major social roles, and men owed their primary obligations of economic support. Almost invariably based upon formal matrimony, including both civil and religious ceremonies, the family was extremely stable.

The nuclear family seldom existed as a wholly independent unit. Partly as a result of the social and economic conditions of Bolivian life, bonds of loyalty, affection, and mutual responsibility with the extended kin of both spouses were strong and abiding. Few of an individual's activities or decisions did not, in the Hispanic view, affect the wider circle of family and kin.

The ties of solidarity among kin were expressed in an active and highly ceremonial pattern of social life. The nuclear family spent much of its time making formal calls upon relatives and receiving such calls in return. Weddings, baptisms, and funerals were command performances, even in cases involving distant relatives. Indeed, visits to kin and the round of family fiestas that accompanied each transition in an individual's life formed almost the entire social life of many women.

For the Quechua- and Aymara-speaking Indians, family and kin always provided a first line of defense against precarious economic circumstances. In many communities, the cooperative sharing of goods and labor among members of ayllus bolstered community stability throughout the vagaries of the past several centuries. Ayllus exercised control over the inheritance and use of lands held both collectively and individually by their members, and thus they protected themselves from encroachments by outsiders. Strong bonds of kinship and intermarriage reinforced cohesion and a sense of community within the kin-group and the village.

The Aymara and Quechua had a highly stable basic family unit. Marriage was the most significant social event in an individual's life. An elaborate series of rituals marked the highland marriages: courtship, formal betrothal, a number of different wedding ceremonies, the formal Roman Catholic marriage, the feast of the marriage godparents, the inheritance feast, the planting ritual, and the house roofing. The completion of the full series marked not just a new union of the couple and their families but the transition of the man and the woman to full adulthood in the community's eyes.

Although the Indian couple typically began living together slightly before the betrothal, the actual ceremonies could extend over several years. When they were finally completed, the couple had received the wherewithal to function as an autonomous household. The community had approved of their new social identity on numerous occasions. All that they received in the numerous ceremonies involved them in enough reciprocal obligations to last a lifetime.

Kinship ties at all levels of Bolivian society remained so strong that those unrelated to one another often sought to establish bonds of ritual kinship through the set of relationships among a child, the child's parents, and his or her godparents, known as compadrazgo. In Hispanic and Indian traditions alike, persons related through compadrazgo-- called compadres--should manifest the highest regard and loyalty toward one another. Among Indians, in addition, sexual relations between compadres (and sometimes their relatives) were considered incestuous and strongly condemned. For many of the historically dominant whites, compadrazgo extended the bonds of kinship and formalized pre-existing ties of friendship. For Indians and cholos, compadrazgo represented one of the few relations of trust with members of the dominant ethnic groups.

Godparents were commonly selected at baptism and marriage. The compadres of baptism had well-defined ritual and economic obligations at the ceremony itself, as well as for the feast that followed. The relationship established was between the child's parents and the godparents. The reciprocal obligations linking the two couples continued beyond the occasion; indeed, the tie continued even if the godchild died. At marriage, compadrazgo established a four-way relationship linking the couple, the compadres, and each spouse's parents. As in baptism, the godparents became obliged to contribute to the marriage ceremonies in specific ritual and material ways. Compadres had a moral obligation to take an ongoing interest in the success of the union. If the marriage failed, they were blamed as well as the couple and the respective families.

Compadrazgo ties often cut across the boundaries of class and ethnic groups. Indians and cholos could ask wealthy and influential mestizos or whites to serve as godparents. In asking couples of higher status, a person was establishing a link of patronage. The lower-status person expected to gain assistance in dealing with the authorities and to share, by reflection, in his or her status as compadre. In return, the influential person received occasional small gifts of produce and personal services and, equally important, a loyal follower. The choice of godparents was a sensitive barometer of ethnic loyalties and identification. Ambitious cholos, anxious for their children's advancement, would chose higher-status mestizos in the hope that the godparents could assist the child's education and career.

Compadres could also be of equal status. In this case, an individual might ask distant kin, close friends, or neighbors to be godparents. The advantage in asking neighbors or kin was that the parents knew their reputation and standing in the community more thoroughly. Among compadres of equal status, individuals tried to match the economic resources of the couples involved, so that the reciprocal obligations and gifts between the two families would balance more evenly.

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