Interpersonal relations are more important in the functioning of Mexican society than impersonal, bureaucratic norms and regulations. Parentela (extended family) members, compadres (godparents), cuates (very close buddies), and friends expect from one another various degrees of loyalty, material and spiritual assistance, emotional support, physical protection, and even flexibility in the enforcement of laws, norms, and regulations.
Primary ties are structured through blood descent, which is traced equally through the father's and mother's side. Every person is, therefore, a member of two family lines. The person's name, which often includes the matrilineal after the patrilineal, represents this arrangement.
One's parentela usually includes all the descendants of a great-grandparent or of a grandparent on both the father's and the mother's sides. Thus, it is fairly common for a person to claim having a dozen or more "uncles" and "aunts" and several dozen cousins. However, this same person can easily identify the several degrees of the specific type of relationships that exist within the family.
The Mexican household--that is, those family members who dwell under the same roof--differs from the North American household. Mexican households can include the parents' nuclear family as well as that of a married son or daughter and their young children. Living arrangements vary among the different kinds of households. In most cases in which two or more nuclear families share the same roof, each nuclear family keeps its separate budget and, often, a separate kitchen. After a few years of living with their parents, married children who opt for this arrangement often set up independent households. Other household members can include out-of-town relatives, fellow townsmen, and arrimados (literally "the leaned-on," that is, renters or "permanent guests").
Family membership presupposes an inalienable bond among first-, second-, third-, and fourth-generation relatives, a bond that is accompanied by a corresponding set of rights and obligations. Family members are expected to display affection openly and reciprocally, as well as provide each other material and moral support. The traditional family has the power to enforce these virtues through the exercise of pressure over its members and through a series of actions usually performed by its elder members. These include social pressure, manipulation, and gossip.
Despite the dramatic changes that have occurred in Mexican society since 1940, the family remains the most important social institution. Indeed, the economic crisis of the 1980s may have enhanced its role as the place to turn when in need. A national opinion poll conducted in 1982 by the Center for Educational Studies confirmed the centrality of the Mexican family. The majority of those surveyed identified the family as the institution where they felt most secure and confident. Most viewed the family as the essential safety net providing help and protection. Economic survival often requires several family members to enter the workforce and pool their incomes. As noted previously, remittances from one or more children working in the United States allow many families to continue living in rural areas.
The critical role of the Mexican family was also confirmed in a 1995 national survey sponsored by the Institute of Social Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México--UNAM). Respondents associated the family with such positive terms as love, household, children, and well-being. Respondents also identified rejection by one's family as a worse occurrence than injustice and abuse of authority, poverty, and work conflicts.
Although Mexicans generally hold their families in high esteem, such may not be the case with those outside the family web. Eighty percent of those interviewed by the Center for Educational Studies agreed that one should be cautious in relations outside the family. The center's analysts linked this low level of confidence and trust with a distinction most Mexicans made between their own moral codes and those of others. In general, Mexicans feel that they adhere to a much higher moral standard than do their neighbors. Thus, for example, 80 percent of those interviewed believed it important to honor one's parents. However, when asked if others felt the same way, only three out of ten agreed. As a result of the focus on one's family for trust and help, fewer than half of those surveyed reported membership in civic or social organizations.
Attitudes towards non-family members may be evolving, however, as Mexicans increasingly endorse the tenets of a modern and open society. The UNAM researchers found considerable evidence that Mexicans had become tolerant of others and supportive of cultural differences. Such attitudes are particularly prevalent among Mexican youth and those with higher educational and income levels.
For many families, however, compadrazgo , or the system of godparenting, offers a way to expand their support structure. A family initiates this ritual kinship network by inviting a man and woman to serve as godparents for a child. Through compadrazgo , the child's parents and godparents--now known as compadres (literally "co-fathers") and comadres ("co-mothers")--enter into a complex relationship of rights and obligations. Often, the relationship cuts across social classes. When in need, a family often turns to its children's godparents for assistance. For instance, an employer is expected to look first to his or her children's godparents when hiring additional workers. In exchange, the compadrazgo demands intense loyalty to the employer from the worker hired by that means.
"Permanent" social relations also are built through cuatismo a mong men and comparable associations of women. Cuate (from the Náhuatl word meaning twin brother) is used throughout Mexico to describe a special male friend or group of friends with whom one spends considerable leisure time and who can be trusted with intimate information. Cuate groups can include up to ten members who share common interests, who are bound by intense friendship and personal relations, and who commit themselves to assisting each other in case of need.
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