Family and Kin
For Paraguayans of all social strata and backgrounds, family and kin were the primary focus of an individual's loyalties and identity. In varying degrees of closeness, depending on individual circumstances and social class, the family included godchildren, godparents, and many members of the extended family. Paraguayans felt some reserve toward anyone not able to claim relationship through kinship or marriage. Family and kin--not the community-- were the center of the social universe. An individual could expect assistance from extended kin on an ad hoc basis in times of need. Poorer Paraguayans relied particularly on their mother's relatives; the more prosperous were more even-handed in their dealings with extended kin. The country's elite buttressed its economic advantages through a web of far-reaching kinship ties. The truly elite family counted among its kindred large landholders, merchants, intellectuals, and military officers. Political allegiances also reflected family loyalties; all available kin were marshalled in support of the individual's political efforts.
Nonetheless, most people lived in nuclear families consisting of spouses and their unmarried offspring. Most families consisted of a couple and their pre-adult children or a single mother and her children. Individual adults living alone were rare. If a marriage broke up, the mother typically kept the children and home, whereas the father either formed another union or moved in with relatives until he did so. The most typical extension of the nuclear family was a form of "semi-adoption" in which well-to-do townspeople took in a child of poorer rural relatives or adopted (on a more permanent basis) the illegitimate offspring of a female relative. There were few intergenerational households. Adoption conformed to cultural norms favoring assistance to relatives, but intergenerational families were viewed as a source of conflict. This characterization also usually prevented a daughter and her children from moving back home following a divorce or separation.
The nuclear family prevailed, in part, because of the limited economic opportunities available to most families. Few of the traditional enterprises by which most Paraguayans earned a living could support more than the immediate family members.
Surveys in the late 1970s and early 1980s found that nearly 20 percent of all households were headed by a single parent--usually the mother. The incidence was highest in cities outside of Greater Asunción and lowest in rural areas. Households headed by a female generally were poor. Children's fathers might or might not acknowledge their offspring; in either event, admitting paternity did not obligate men to do much in the way of continued support for their children. Most single mothers worked in poorly paying jobs or a variety of cottage industries. In almost all cases, they were consigned to a sector of the economy where competition was intense and earnings low.
Within two-parent families, the male was the formal head of the household. Fathers were treated with respect, but typically had little to do with the daily management of the home. Their contact with children, especially younger ones, was limited. Women maintained ties with extended kin, ran the home, and dealt with finances; they often contributed as well to the family's income. Men spent a good deal of time socializing outside the home.
There were three kinds of marriage: church, civil, and consensual unions. Almost all adults married. Although stable unions were socially esteemed, men's extramarital affairs drew little criticism as long as they did not impinge on the family's subsistence and continued well-being. By contrast, women's sexual behavior reflected on their families and affected family stability; women were expected to be faithful as long as they were involved in a reasonably permanent union. A church wedding represented a major expense for the families involved. The common view held that a fiesta was an essential part of the ceremony and required that it be as large and costly as the two families could possibly afford. The celebrations attendant on a civil marriage or the formation of a consensual union were considerably less elaborate. Typically, the couple's families met for a small party and barbecue. Church weddings were rare among peasants--the expenses were simply beyond the reach of the average farm family. Even a civil marriage was a mark of status among peasants.
So-called illegitimacy was neither a stigma nor a particular disadvantage if the child came from a stable consensual union and could assume the father's name. But children of upper-class males and lower-class women suffered because, although their fathers recognized them as offspring, they could not use the paternal family name, nor did they have a claim to the father's inheritance. Children whose fathers were not known or would not acknowledge them lost the most status. They were typically the offspring of single mothers who themselves were very poor.
Reality was often at odds with the Paraguayan ideal of extended kinship ties. Because the poor migrated frequently and often had unstable marital unions, relatives typically were well-known only for a generation preceding and following a given individual. The wealthy were more adept at tracing lines of descent through several generations. This was a function of their greater marital stability and their vested interest in maintaining the links that tied them to potential inheritance. Relatives in prosperous families often were not as close as their less affluent counterparts, however, because the well-to-do relied less on relatives for mutual aid and were potential competitors for inheritance.
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