Friday, May 29, 2009

Guatemalan Families and Community

One thing that is very obvious is you stay with a Guatemalan family is that their idea of a family unit is very different from ours. In the upper middle class family we stayed with, the grandmother, her daughter, and her daughter's three kids all lived in the same household. The grandmother's son lives elsewhere with his wife, but eats at the house for almost all meals, and his 5 year old lives about half the time with him and half with the grandmother. In poorer and more rural households, it is apparently not uncommon to have up to 4 generations under one roof, sometimes with only a single room.

Some of this is definitely due to different levels of wealth. When you are very poor, combining living expenses with as many people as possible is a good idea. However, another contributing factor is a very different view on family and community than exists in the United States. In the United States, it is encouraged to strike out as independently as possible. Living with your parents past the age of 18 is generally looked down upon, and certainly once you have a steady income you are expected to be living on your own, likely in a different city.

Similarly, it is entirely common to travel from city to city as school and different jobs require, without strong regard for living near family or friends. This independence certainly has some value; there is a sense of freedom in being able to pack up your things and leap into the unknown, following a great opportunity. However, I think there is something we have lost as well. Here, there is a sense of roots, of belonging, and of continuity that I have never sensed anywhere I have lived.

The Value of Community

We are social beings, even those who like me are introverts at heart, and seek to connect with others who are like us. Witness the rapid growth of online social networks like Facebook; These tools offer nothing new; social networks have always existed. Instead, they bring the power of the internet to bear in allowing people to connect with less regard to distance, and have grown like wildfire. There is a strong desire to forge a sense of community, despite our tendency to spread ourselves so far apart.

It was our community that made our wedding such a memorable one; with friends and family providing the food, the cake, the wine, the Huppah (wedding canopy), the artwork on our Ketubah (wedding vows), and of course the ambiance, turning our special day into one we will remember forever.

And it was our community that made living where we did, in a single bedroom apartment in an expensive and not very interesting city near Stanford an amazing and wonderful experience. Our memories are filled with meals together and trips for milkshakes, crazy parties and mellow games of cards while sipping warm drinks, mornings spent sitting on the grass playing guitar, and making pancakes. All with members of our wonderful community.

Yet we too, leave it behind

Fully aware of how amazing our community is, we still left to travel to Guatemala, and we still are leaving it behind when we get back to move for T's graduate school. Not as far as we might have gone, and to the place where I went to school, so we have some remnants of community, but still leaving our bedrock behind.

It makes sense to do it. Graduate school is a necessary step upon the path T wants to walk, and we are by no means alone. This is the time in life when many people in the States scatter to pursue dreams, and we had already felt the fragmenting of our community as many friends left to pursue theirs. But it makes me wonder...

Will there ever be a time when we're all ready to settle together?

Will we ever be willing to say no to the opportunities that require traveling from each other, no to the things that 'make sense', and agree with each other to settle in one place, where we can live and grow and build a community together? It seems almost antithetical to the American way, to deliberately give up some possibilities, and be less independent, in order to continue living with the same people in the same place.

But it is a way that also calls to me. Another dream, this time one of interdependence instead of independence. Of deepening and lengthening relationships over years of time. Of teaching each other, and learning together. Of knowing that I can count on my friends to be there, and that they can count on me to be there, not just day after day but year after year. Of setting down roots, the kind of which seem natural in places like Guatemala, that you read about in stories where families have lived in the same homes for years, generation after generation of children playing with each other and growing up together.

We have gained some measure of independence in the United States, and I value that. But it seems in many ways we have given up community as it used to be known. And I wonder... was it worth it? And if not, can we get it back?

Leave me your thoughts in the comments!


  1. As a single person, an individual with an identity, I can take into account my weakness and strength. Working with these, I make my choices and walk a path through life.

    I've had a very similar notion, in the back of my head, for some years now. As I focus and strive every day to grow and mature as a person, I've often felt limited.

    I think the notion of interdependence, is a progression of personal growth. When we see ourselves not as solitary pieces, but as part of a greater community which we cannot distinguish ourselves from as being separate. Like all things.

  2. Hi Chase,

    Thanks for reading and posting! I really like and agree with the idea of a view of interdependence as a progression of personal growth. I worry, though, that independence is so ingrained in our culture that it will always have fingers leaking in where they shouldn't.

  3. Interesting post. I think you'll find that US culture values independence in the extreme. (I come from a town with a lot of summer tourists from the US, and I always felt I could tell them by volume, and the use of "I" more than was seemly.) It does have a certain kind of charm, to be sure.

    I can't but think of interdependence in terms of selective pressure on some level, perhaps on its primary level. It strikes me as the natural human condition--but since the natural conditions are also privation, hunger, and disease (not cynically, but clinically), I do think that these things go hand-in-hand. In Dubai, where the family structure is still extremely important to the culture, it no longer seemed essential. That was as of last year. Into the recession, which has hit many Arabs hard, I imagine that the family-solidarity model is vindicated; or as a friend of mine might say: they are back to "eating coffee and dates."

    Economic development would have a certain character up to the point where people's basic needs are met; and after that, it would take on another character. The great wealth gap arising from this is the crux of the problem; and whereas it's relatively acceptable in the US, because it marks the rich as successful, it's social poison elsewhere. (Someone explained to me once that Omanis don't respect land ownership, because they feel that 30 years ago, no one hand anything, so if someone has something now, it's because he was either lucky or corrupt. It is certainly not because he is inherently more worthy.)