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Ethnogrpahy of a Mexican American Family

By minashbzz Jul 31, 2012 3319 Words
The United States is a melting pot of different cultures, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, traditions, and beliefs. All of these cultures and traditions have roots in their homeland, and many of them have evolved and changed since coming here to the United States. One such culture that has undergone a change since being here in the United States is the Mexican culture. I have some experience regarding the traditions of Mexican American family. My Mother is of Mexican descent and I grew up learning many of the beliefs and customs of Mexican American families. However my traditions and cultural identity are not one strictly of Mexican origin because my father is African American. And so while I am of Mexican descent, I am, because of the way that I look and the way society views me (as an African American woman), more strongly tied the cultures and traditions of African Americans. The Mexican American family is a unique one. It’s customs and practices are a blend of the culture of both countries, however it is distinctly being Mexican. This intricate cultural mix makes them distinctive and stands out along with many other ethnic groups living in the United States. There are various questions that I have compiled in an attempt to understand the cultural traditions of the Mexican American family. From the way they celebrate births and weddings, to the way they mourn death, and everything in between. Such questions include “Who baptized you? What did you wear on your wedding? Who is the head of your household? What type of food did you eat at your Quinceanera?” In addition to my using my own personal questions to unearth the mystery behind the Mexican American family cultural traditions, I also relied on the book Mexican American Family Tradition and Change by Norma Williams. In it she presents readers with an overall understanding of changing patterns in the extended and conjugal family relationships of the Mexican American family. With all of this I hope to shed some light on the Mexican American family and its traditions, how it has changed, and its cultural impact. Method To begin researching Mexican American family customs and such, I decided to interview a Mexican American family. A close friend of mine, Nidia Esquivel, was happy to share her time and knowledge with me. Nidia is a 23 year old senior at the University of Houston. Her parents were both born and raised in Mexico. They moved to Texas right before her birth and they have lived here ever since. They are a working class family, and she has firsthand experience and familiarity regarding the customs of the Mexican American family. In addition to interviewing her, I also interviewed her mother and father to gain a better understanding of just exactly how different things have changed since they’ve come to live in the United States. My interview took place over a span of two days at her home here in Houston. She lives in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, and it was most certainly a lively place to be. As I pulled up to her home I saw 2 little girls eating popsicles, yelling in Spanish, throwing things, and playing with a pink ball in the middle of the street. A frail old man was seated on the sidewalk near her home staring off into the distance while an even frailer old woman peeled what appeared to be potatoes right next to him. As soon as I entered Nidia’s home I was greeted by a little yellow mutt of a dog who tried to eat my toes off. He would have succeeded had Nidia not stepped in to save me. I was given a tour of the house and saw that this family was a religious one. All over the walls were pictures of Jesus, Santa Maria, crucifixes, rosaries, literally every catholic religious symbol that exists. The living room was the most extravagant, with a 4 ft. wooden crucifix with a pointed silver top hanging right above the fireplace mantle. I was seated in this extravagant living room and her sweet mother served me water and vanilla wafers. Her dad was at work and would join us on another day for the interview. Baptism The first topic we discussed was baptism. Nidia says that she was baptized when she was 5 years old, and says that being baptized at 5 years old is pretty old, but her family has never really stuck to following traditions. I must note that according to traditions 5 years old is extremely old to be baptized. Norma Williams states in her book, “because of the deeply held religious commitments of Mexican Americans some decades ago, a baby was baptized within three to five weeks after birth. There was a sense of urgency because if an unbaptized child died, his or her soul would go to Limbo” (Willams, 2003). Her padrinos at her baptism were not friends of her parents,as is traditional, but they were her aunt and uncle from her mother’s side. Her parents chose them because they knew that they would take on the responsibility of raising her one day if something were to happen to her. Williams says, “Relatives are becoming more important in the baptismal ceremony because the parents do not expect friends to care for their children in any significant manner” (Williams, 2003). During her sister’s baptism she remembers seeing her padrinos hold the child. According to her, the padrinos are responsible for pretty much everything, and on the day of the baptism they are responsible for the child’s clothing, candles, and other things. Her own padrinos were responsible for her dress and accessories that went with it. She does stay in contact with her padrinos and states that they are like her second set of parents. Her padrinos are also her sister’s padrinos, and that has made their bond with her family strong and unbreakable. Marriage I did have many questions regarding her parents’ marriage process and ceremony (since Nidia is still single) however they declined to answer most for personal reasons. Nidia did briefly state that when it comes to marriage and divorce, she and her family are very open minded. According to her beliefs, if a marriage is not working out the couple has a right to get a divorce. They do not believe in living together just because it is what society expects from them.

Family Life
Gender roles in Mexican American family are very traditional. When I asked her who does the cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, house work, and takes care of the children her response was that the women in her family do all of that. While the men in her family are responsible for tasks like car maintenance and buying, home repair, and work outside of the home. The man is the provider and the woman stays at home. These types of gender roles have been noted by Norma Williams in her research. In her book she states that, “among working-class couples the wife is expected to care for the children and perform household duties such as cooking, washing and housecleaning. The husband is perceived as the provider for the family” (Williams, 2003). However, Nidia does go on to state that many of her married female cousins are breaking those sex role expectations because parents now work for a living to support the family. Her family is obviously more traditional. Her dad works outside the home and her mother works inside the home. I was curious about whether her mother had ever desired to work outside the home as well, and she stated that she would have liked to work outside the home only to help provide more for her family and so her husband would not be so stressed out, but overall she does prefer staying home. She believes that it is a woman’s responsibility to be a home maker and man’s to be the provider. When I asked Nidia the same question, her views, as a Mexican American, are much different. She plans on being just as much a provider as her husband. According to her times are different and she is getting a college education for a reason, not to sit at home and knit sweaters and cook dinner. Her mom wasn’t at all upset with her response. In fact she leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek and was beaming with pride. In the Mexican American culture, families are the foundation of life. Mexican Americans display deep family ties and they take care of their family and extended families. Nidia said that when it comes to her family they are very much the same way. I asked she has experienced abuse in her family and she vehemently denies that. She says that any form of abuse is not acceptable in her family. She says that she is happy to say that they do not have a stereotypical “macho” man in the family. When asked if anyone in her family has experienced teen pregnancy and how did the family react she states that this has happened in the past year and although they were disappointed with her cousin for getting pregnant so young, they accepted it and are trying to help her become a responsible mother. At this point her mom mumbled a few curse words in Spanish that I was able to understand (thanks Mom!) but I asked Nidia to translate it anyways. She said that while her family has accepted those relatives who have become pregnant out of wedlock, they will kill her if she were to ever do the same. I’m sure they mean that figuratively. I think. I hope. Regarding the issue of criminal activity and how her family would react she says that if a person in her family was arrested for drugs that they would support them 100% percent and not abandon them but they would want that individual to deal with the consequences and do whatever the judge, court, or law decides. She has a first cousin in Mexico who was recently imprisoned on fraud charges. Her family is extremely stressed over this and saddened by his choices, but they are sticking by his side no matter what. This concluded the first day of our interview. I returned the next day and covered the topics of Quinceanera, holidays, funerals, and folklore.

I returned the following day to continue the interview. This day her father was off of work and was ready to participate. Unfortunately our topics were not exactly male oriented and after a long discussion about dresses and food, he eventually went to his room for a nap. I never saw him again. We began with the topic of quinceanera. Nidia says that she had a very traditional quinceanera. She had several padrinos at her quinceanera, and they all contributed money to help pay for the reception hall, band, food, and cake. Her padrinos were mostly family members and a few close friends that they consider family. Her quinceanera dress cost about $350 and it was pink, strapless, with a heart shaped top. Her baptismal padrinos were the ones that provided her the dress since it is tradition for padrinos to do so. In addition to the dress she also wore a silver tiara that was given to her by her cousin, but she ended up breaking it and had to throw it away. She did not have damas in her quinceanera because it was a last minute thing. She was originally planning on having just a small dinner at home with her family, but they vetoed that idea and strongly requested that she stick to tradition and have a quinceanera. She had one chamberlain, and it was her cousin. Originally she wanted the food at her quinceanera to be pizza, hot dogs, chips, and barbecue, but her family once again went against that idea. And so she had the traditional flavorful Mexican cuisine of fajitas, frijoles rancheros, arroz, ensalada, guisados, enchiladas. Her tia(aunt) was the one that made all the food. Her cake was a 5 layered vanilla flavored cake. Her cousin gave her ultima muneca and the doll wore a frilly pink dress that matched her own quinceara dress. The total cost of her quinceanera was about $6,000 and she did not have a specific theme. She says that she should have stuck to her idea of having a small dinner and used that quinceanera money on buying a car instead. She seems genuinely unhappy about having a quinceanera and when I ask why she says that she finds it to be a meaningless and pointless tradition of her people and wishes it was never a part of their culture. I myself never had a quinceanera because my Dad did not understand why I needed one and my Mom did not care to push the issue,and I sometimes wish I did, so I do not understand her grievance. Holidays Holidays in the Esquivel family are a big deal. First of all, Nidia states that they celebrate Mexican Mother’s day on May 10. To rejoice they barbecue at home, go swimming, and have an outdoor fun in the sun day, or they dress up nicely and take their mother out to eat. Since they live in the US and they are Mexican American, they also celebrate the American Mother’s day. She also added that since they love and respect their mother so much she is happy they get to celebrate it two times with her. This immediately got her another kiss on the cheek from her mother. Nidia says that they also celebrate birthdays,Thanksgiving, however Christmas is the biggest extravaganza in their home. She says that it is one of the few times her entire family gathers together from all over Texas and Mexico to celebrate as one. On this occasion she says that they all sleep over at her family’s house and stay up all night long eating, drinking and reminicising about old times.. It gets so noisy and loud that Nidia sometimes pretends like she has plans just to get out of the house and breathe. But she inevitably returns because, according to her, it’s so rare to see her cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, etc. Funerals: The final topic of the day was funerals. Nidia states that she hasn’t been to many, but the few that she has been to have been similar. After a person dies their corpse is taken to the funeral home. Once there the arrangements are planned out with the family and funeral company, but mostly the funeral company. They have a wake (with a time limit), a funeral( with a time limit), and then the body is taken to its final resting place in the grave yard and people depart. This differs greatly from the traditional Mexican American funeral customs. According to Williams, “today the body of the deceased is not kept in the home. The body is taken to a funeral home and the resultant formalization and commercialization of the funeral rite have affected the way family and friends interact after the death of a loved one” (Williams, 2003.) Like Christmas, funerals are one of the rare occasions that her entire immediate and extended family gets together to see each other. In regards to the clothing of mourning her mother says that is her husband passes away before her, she will wear black the rest of her life. In the meantime Nidia and her family only wear black to the actual funeral that day, and not for extended periods of time. Traditional Medicine/Folklore: I asked her and her mother if they used any traditional herbal medicines or techniques to combat sickness or other ailments. Nidia was quick to say no to the natural herbs and showed me her bottle of good ole’ American painkillers, cold and flu pills, and cough syrups. Her mother, however, scoffed at those and said that Nidia’s medications were bad for you. She then showed me her cupboard full of herbs that she uses. These herbs included Achiote (used for measles and sores), Ahuehuete(used for burns and diarrhea), Aile (used for fever and for cuts and scrapes), Arnica del Pais (used for sore throats), Batamote(used for stomach aches), and many more. I was fascinated by her extensive collection of real life plants, bark, and herbs. I couldn’t believe people still used these all natural things. I inquired about how she had them, and if she had a garden and she immediately closed up and didn’t want to talk about it. After some coaxing Nidia got her to relax and open up to me about her childhood. With Nidia translating I learned that her Mom, as a young child, was taught and trained to be a Curandera. I have heard stories of these healers who perform miracles with herbs and plants and cured sicknesses with the touch of a hand. I was immediately amazed, however Nidia said that her mother was raised to be a curandera and also to communicate with dark spirits. Her mother one day became possessed by the devil and strange things started happening all around them. According to Nidia, crosses would go flying across the room, end up hanging upside on the wall, and even drip blood. Her mother would speak in tongues and become so out of control that they had to call a priest to perform an exorcism on her. After the exorcism her mother decided that she did not want to be a curandera or have anything to do with evil and so she stopped practicing all of that. She still deals in the art of healing sicknesses naturally, however that is the farthest she will go. Sitting across from her mother I immediately felt a chill go down my spine. I didn’t know what to believe, but after seeing her herb cupboard, and Nidia’s expression and absolute belief in what she says she’s seen her mother do and what she’s seen happen in her home made me very uneasy and afraid. After this our interview was pretty much over with and I was kind of relieved to walk outside and see those two little girls still screaming and playing in the middle of the street.

The Mexican American family is a distinctive one. Their traditions and customs have roots in old beliefs and ways of life from Mexico, but with an added twist. Some things remain the same, such as the expected gender roles of men being providers and women being home makers, yet there are those women who choose to work outside the home and be providers as well. They have completely undergone a shift in their structural and cultural values, and while many(especially the older generation) may find it appalling and sad to see, I find it refreshing, modern, and open minded. We must always change and adapt to society in order to survive and thrive, and I see nothing wrong with changing the traditions and customs of your culture as you see fit. We live in an urban, technologically advanced society and people like Nidia are needed to keep society thriving and interesting. Also, Norma Williams did an amazing job documenting the differences in conventional Mexican customs and beliefs versus Mexican American traditions and changes. Researchers like her keep us informed and help society gain a better understanding of the people and world around us.

1. Williams, N. W. (2003). Mexican american family: Tradition and change. (pp. 24). California: AltaMira Press. 2. Williams, N. W. (2003). Mexican american family: Tradition and change. (pp. 67). California: AltaMira Press. 3. Williams, N. W. (2003). Mexican american family: Tradition and change. (pp. 87-88). California: AltaMira Press. 4. Williams, N. W. (2003). Mexican american family: Tradition and change. (pp. 56). California: AltaMira Press.

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