In the 1990s, traditional Hispanic kinship patterns, common to most of Latin America, continued to shape family life in Nicaragua. The nuclear family forms the basis of family structure, but relationships with the extended family and godparents are strong and influence many aspects of Nicaraguan life. Because few other institutions in the society have proved as stable and enduring, family and kinship play a powerful role in the social, economic, and political relations of Nicaraguans. Social prestige, economic ties, and political alignments frequently follow kinship lines. Through the compadrazgo system (the set of relationships between a child's parents and his or her godparents), persons unrelated by blood or marriage establish bonds of ritual kinship that are also important for the individual in the society at large.
Nicaraguan institutions, from banks to political parties, have traditionally been weak and more reflective of family loyalties and personal ties than broader institutional goals and values. For several decades prior to 1979, the Nicaraguan state was scarcely differentiated from the Somoza family. Family ties played a diminished but still critical role in the politics of the 1980s and early 1990s. The Roman Catholic Church, which, until recently, had little or no presence in the countryside, still does not touch the lives of most Nicaraguans. To survive in a country whose history is replete with war, political conflict, and economic upheaval, Nicaraguans turn to the one institution they feel they can trust--the family. As a result, individuals are judged on the basis of family reputations, careers are advanced through family ties, and little stigma is attached to the use of institutional position to advance the interests of relatives. For both men and women, loyalty to blood kin is frequently stronger than those of marriage.
Most Nicaraguan families are built around conjugal units. Outside of the upper and middle classes, however, relatively few couples formalize their marriages through the church or state. Legislation passed in the 1980s recognized this situation by giving common-law unions the same legal status as civil marriages. Although stable monogamous unions and strong patriarchal authority at home are deeply ingrained cultural ideals, at least a third of Nicaraguan families were headed by women in the 1980s. Among urban households, this proportion is even higher.
Because of high fertility and the presence of relatives beyond the nuclear family, households are large--six to eight people are common. The Nicaraguan household is typically augmented by the presence of a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, an orphaned relative, a poor godchild, or a daughter with children of her own. Newly married couples sometimes take up residence in the home of one of the parental families. In the countryside, peasants feel that a large number of children helps them meet their everyday labor needs and provides for their own security in old age. Families are smaller in the city, but housing shortages and low incomes encourage the urban poor to create expanded households that can share shelter and pool resources.
Both traditional values and practical considerations support the maintenance of strong ties with a large kinship network outside the household. Nicaraguans maintain ties with kin of the same generation, which may extend to fourth or fifth cousins. Peasant patriarchs build rural clans by accumulating small parcels of land near their own land for the families of sons and daughters. City people of all classes look to relatives for jobs and other forms of economic assistance. In times of economic crisis, the survival strategies of the urban poor often center on mutual assistance among kin.
Like other Nicaraguans, members of the upper class maintain relations with extensive numbers of kin. In addition to these "horizontal" ties, however, they place special emphasis on "vertical" descent. Upper-class Nicaraguans are much more likely than their compatriots to be aware of ancestors more than two generations removed from the present. This tendency is supported by shared family fortunes, which have been passed from generation to generation, and by the prominence of historical surnames rooted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Through the institution of compadrazgo, the attributes of kinship are extended to those not related by blood or marriage. When an infant is baptized, the parents choose a godfather (padrino) and godmother (madrina) for their child. This practice is common to Roman Catholics around the world, but in Nicaragua and many other Latin American countries, it assumes a broader social significance. Compadrazgo establishes relationships similar to those of actual kinship not only between the child and the godparents, but also between the parents and the godparents. The latter relationships are recognized through the use of compadre and comadre (literally, co-father and co-mother) as reciprocal terms of address between the child's parents and godparents. The godparents are responsible for the baptism ceremony and the festivities afterward. They are also expected to concern themselves with the welfare of the child and his or her family, and come to their aid in times of hardship.
Godparents are typically trusted friends of the parents. However, lower-class families (for whom the compadrazgo has the greatest significance) often chose godparents of superior economic, political, or social status, who are in a position to help the child in the future. Large landowners, affluent businesspeople, government officials, and political leaders may become godfathers to the children of social inferiors in order to build up a system of personal loyalties. In such cases, compadrazgo becomes the basis of a network of patronclient relationships.
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