Family and Kin

Family and Kin

Family and kin constituted the most enduring and esteemed institutions in the country's social fabric. Both Indian and Hispanic traditions emphasized the family; indeed, few alternative institutions competed for an individual's loyalty. The family buffered Indians from the vagaries of a hostile world. For the landed gentry, a distinguished family name played a major role in the assignment of status.

As circumstances dictated, a household commonly consisted of a nuclear family--husband and wife with their unmarried children--and one or more members of the wider circle of kin. Couples often resided with the parents of one of the spouses for a period after marriage. Parents typically spent their declining years with the youngest son and his spouse, who remained at home to care for them. Although individuals owed their primary allegiance and responsibility to their families, ties extended outward from this group. The wider circle of kin offered the individual a potential source of assistance and support. Trust and responsibility flowed along the lines of kinship at each level of the social scale.

The Hispanic man served as the unquestioned head of the household and the model of manhood to his sons. Although he might also be a kindly and affectionate parent, he was unlikely to take an active role in the day-to-day functioning of the family. Social tradition granted men the right of independence in their leisure time; many took full advantage of their freedom, spending much time in clubs, coffeehouses, and bars or simply on the street, depending upon the social stratum to which they belonged.

A woman's range of activity, by tradition, rested within the home and that remained true into the 1980s. She managed the household and the day-to-day upbringing of children. Provided she ran the family in a way her husband deemed appropriate, a woman could normally expect considerable autonomy. Even in the more cosmopolitan sectors of the larger cities, the traditional role of the wife and mother remained largely unchanged. Even young women who had high levels of education and a professional career were subordinate to their husbands in a wide variety of matters.

Less stress on the contrasting roles of men and women existed among Sierra Indians. Women's economic role in the household economy demanded that they take the initiative in many matters. Women bore primary responsibility for the health and welfare of the family's members. In addition, the double standard for marital fidelity--tacitly accepted or even lauded in Hispanic culture--was replaced among Indians by a moral code demanding faithfulness on the part of both members.

Family and kin served as a bulwark against the indígena's frequently precarious circumstances. The married couple was the center of a social system extending outward in concentric circles. The couple's parents and their siblings (and the siblings' spouses) formed the primary extended kin group and were bound by strong ties of trust and cooperation. Most marriages took place within the small village or community; generations of intermarriage created a web of reticulate kin ties within the community. The bonds of kinship reinforced cohesion and a sense of shared identity among kin and community members alike.

For all ethnic groups, the range of recognized kin beyond the nuclear family and close relatives varied depending on their economic and social circumstances. Large landowning families of the Sierra derived part of their status and power from their farreaching kinship ties. Families of lower status typically chose which of their kin to recognize and cultivate. Beyond a fairly narrow circle, an individual had an element of choice and activated the relationship through mutual gift giving, shared meals, and reciprocal participation at family and community fiestas.

The strength of kin ties at every level of society often allowed unrelated persons to establish bonds of fictive kinship through the institution of compadrazgo. In Hispanic and Indian traditions alike, compadres (people related through compadrazgo) should manifest the highest regard and loyalty toward one another. Although individuals might criticize and argue with relatives, such actions with compadres would be unthinkable.

The occasions for selecting godparents varied from group to group; Christian Indians and Hispanics commonly choose them at baptism, confirmation, and marriage. In each instance, the godparents assumed ritual and financial obligations to the child (or couple) and the parents involved. In the case of baptism, the tie between the child's godparents and parents persisted even if the child died. Marriage compadres were part of a four-way relationship linking the couple, the compadres, and each spouse's parents. Beyond their immediate responsibilities in the marriage ceremonies, compadres had a duty to take an ongoing interest in the marriage. Great care went into the choice of godparents for every occasion.

Compadrazgo ties cut across class and ethnic boundaries. Indians and mestizos often asked wealthy and influential whites to serve as godparents. In so doing, they established a patron-client relationship with the higher status person. The lower status person expected to receive various forms of assistance; in return, the higher status person gained a loyal follower. For Indians the link with white or mestizo compadres represented one of the few relationships of trust with members of the dominant ethnic group.

People also chose compadres of equal status, selecting distant kin, close friends, business associates, or neighbors to serve as godparents. The advantage in asking neighbors and kin was that the parents knew their reputation and standing in the community more thoroughly than they knew this about the others. Among compadres of equal status, people tried to match the economic resources of the couples involved, so that the reciprocal obligations and gifts between the two families balanced evenly.

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