Family

If one were to identify the single attribute most politicians incessantly assign Latinas/os—and assume and emphasize as a  point of  solidarity for  the sake  of vote procurement for their campaigns—it would indisputably be the salutary possession of “family values.” Although what counts as “values” in the electoral context tends to rely on ethnic and religious typecasting and ideological  supposition,  the family is nonetheless crucial for Latinas/os as it has long functioned as a “crucial symbol and organizing principle” for collective mobilization and quotidian affairs (R. T. Rodríguez 2009). Indeed, as politicians and others are astutely aware, the family is almost impossible to disentangle from how we understand Latina/o cultures, histories, and politics.

Notwithstanding the intermittent praiseworthy family qualities granted to them, the “problems” ailing Latina/o communities are routinely held responsible for maladjusted relations. Contrasting with a family values ideal that conforms to a nuclear kinship network— one that historian Stephanie Coontz (1993) argues is animated by an unfeasible nostalgic longing—Latina/o family dynamics have long been subjected to derision and pathology. Foundational scholars in the social sciences (particularly in the fields of anthropology and sociology) who investigated Mexican and Puerto Rican families, for example, were instrumental in attributing factors such as poverty and machismo to reputed cultural beliefs and habits fueling familial  dysfunction. Writing about the work of William Madsen and  Arthur J. Rubel, sociologist Norma Williams maintains that such early scholarship on Chicano families “adopted the stereotypical definitions of the  majority  society in describing Mexican Americans” (1990, 2). Because many Latina/o family practices did not correspond with those of the dominant culture, the value of moving beyond nuclear models of household formation would be lost on those invested in upholding normative perceptions of family arrangement. Indeed, fictive kinship practices like compadrazgo and comadrazgo exceeded the ties between immediate blood relations by counting extended relations and unrelated community members as family.

Responding to social science distortions and emphasizing the distinct modes of fashioning family in light of the various forms of discrimination experienced by Latinas/os in the United States, scholars like Octavio Ignacio Romano-V., Virginia E. Sánchez Korrol, Miguel Montiel, Patricia Zavella, and José Hernández aimed to set the record straight by showing the plethora of familial experiences that do not subscribe to hard and fast notions of gender relations and inflexible ideas of tradition. Recently, anthropologist Brian Montes (2005) has shown how the work of anthropologist Oscar Lewis— whose books Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty (1959) and La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty—San Juan and New York (1966b) are representative—holds persistent sway in some quarters of the academy as his “culture of poverty” thesis continues to be lauded despite the critiques of it made by Latina/o scholars.

With many scholars studying Latina/o communities intimately connected to emergent social movements, the reclamation of the family took on symbolic significance for galvanization purposes. Various segments of the Chicano civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s—from student activists to the United Farm Workers, for example—deployed the family (or la familia) as an organizing principle to bond unrelated yet similarly disenfranchised individuals as a community.  Writer and activist José Armas self-published a  manifesto  in 1972 whose title alone, La Familia de La Raza, signaled the importance of casting “the people” as an extended family. The impulse behind Armas’s call to mobilization was also at the heart of “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán.” Also known as the Chicano Movement Manifesto, “El Plan” was drafted at the historic Chicano Youth Liberation Conference in 1969 and identified Chicano culture as that which “unites and educates the family of La Raza towards liberation with one heart and one mind” (Chicano Youth Liberation Conference 1972, 405). Exemplifying what sociologist Maxine Baca Zinn designated “political familism” (1975), la familia de la raza functioned as the fundamental cultural nationalist beckoning for collective empowerment and action.

Yet well before Chicanos/as would reclaim the family for nationalist self-determination, the linkage between family and nation that materialized in Puerto Rico during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was emblematized as “la gran familia jíbara” (or the great jíbaro family). Like the mestizo who stood at the center of Chicano cultural nationalist ideology, the mytho-historical figure of the jíbaro, or the peasant, served as a decisive symbol for Puerto Rican nationalist ideology given its adaptability within a range of historical, social, and political contexts. Identifying  a recharged significance of la gran familia jíbara as an organizing strategy in the early twentieth  century by the creole elite to oppose the colonial authority of the United States, Arlene Torres (1998) notes how blacks and mulatos surprisingly found themselves integrated into the Puerto Rican national family despite past and enduring marginalization based on racial difference.

Whereas Latinas/os might be said, in the words of Chicana lesbian writer Cherríe Moraga, to “fight back with the family” (1993b), the nationalist impetus to conflate the nation or the community with the family tends to overlook the hierarchies that exist among those comprising a presumably cohesive constituency. To be sure, racialized, poor, gendered, disabled, and non–sexually normative subjects are granted secondary status if not excluded entirely from cultural nationalist constructions of the family. Tallying the affirmative attributes of cultural nationalism and extolling its upholding of familiar principles, Moraga also names institutionalized heterosexism, inbred machismo, and a lack of cohesive national strategy as pitfalls that always foreclose the possibility of unity.

Despite the heteronormative and homophobic renderings of the family in Latina/o cultural politics and  in the everyday lives of Latinas/os, struggles have been waged by queers (particularly gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender individuals) to gain acceptance by families into which they were born as well as to forge kinship relations extending beyond biological ties. During the 1970s the San Francisco-based Gay Latino Alliance (GALA) was formed by gay and lesbian Latinos and Latinas seeking to forge an alternative family with others who shared not only a nonheterosexual identity but similar political sensibilities. In spite of the factors that brought them together, for some, belonging in GALA proved difficult, with women in particular feeling disrespected and silenced by male members. Thus the organization did not fulfill its goal of achieving a sense   of kinship rooted in democratic egalitarianism (Roque Ramírez 2003; R. T. Rodríguez 2009). While queer Latinas/os hold no other option but to create family with strangers given their banishment from their biological families, sociologist Katie L. Acosta (2013) has shown how  “sexually  nonconforming  Latinas”  both create and  negotiate their families of  origin. According to    a report released by the Williams Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles (Kastanis and Gates 2013), an estimated 1.4 million Latinas/os in the United States identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). Detailing an  estimated 146,000  Latinas/ os living in same-sex households, the report further notes that same-sex Latina/o couples are 1.7 times more likely than white same-sex couples to be raising children. Just as they choose those with whom they make family, many LGBT Latinas/os simultaneously hold on to relationships with their biological kin as a means of economic, social, or emotional sustenance.

The family is nothing short of central to scholarship on migration, which has long remained a vital strand  of Latina/o studies. And an unabashedly visible and influential undocumented rights movement emerging in the early twenty-first century in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York (Gonzales 2013) has shifted the terms of debate as immigration policies and laws have changed in tandem with more recent waves of migration from Latin American and the Caribbean. The current embrace of the family as an organizing principle by undocumented justice advocates, however, remarkably mirrors the efforts of Chicanas/os in the 1960s and 1970s. Identified by political scientist Amalia Pallares as “family activism” (2015), the move toward politicizing the family—in large part due to enforced laws dividing and displacing relatives—has enabled immigrant rights activists to make compelling claims for family reunification in order to supersede legal notions of citizenship that rigidly fix familial belonging in a narrowly conceived national frame.

From another trajectory, Latina/o immigrants living and working in the United States have forged and struggled to sustain cross-border family ties amid economic struggle. Examining the circumstances of transnational Salvadoran families, sociologist Leisy J. Abrego (2014) has noted the complications stemming from the severed family ties generated by the need to provide monetary support for an extended familial support network. Indeed, remittances are what solidify the transnational kinship networks that are equally maintained and tested, given the overwhelming political economic circumstances experience by those providing them. As part of an increased awareness and concern for undocumented people who are positioned differently with respect to gender and sexuality, younger activists in an “undocuqueer” movement (which extends the goals of DREAMer actions that seek to grant rights to undocumented youths brought to the United States at an early age) embraced the notion of “queer familia” to rally undocumented LGBT Latinas/os. Fittingly, an organization named Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement took flight in 2014 in order, as its website announces, to “address, organize, educate and advocate for the issues that are important to the LGBTQ Latin@ community.”

Although scholarship on the Latina/o family has emerged chiefly from the province of the social sciences, the humanities and creative forms like literature and film have generated a stunning range of family representations that either complement or complicate the important work in, for example, sociology, anthropology, or political science. Cultural expressions, although sometimes discounted as fictional or said to be lacking empirical evidence, often broach a wide array of issues and concerns that may escape the purview of scholarly work.

Novels by Sandra Cisneros (Caramelo), Arturo Islas (The Rain God and Migrant Souls), and Loida Maritza Pérez (Geographies of Home); short story collections by Helena María Viramontes (The Moths and Other Stories), Manuel Muñoz (Zigzagger and The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue), and Junot Díaz (Drown); plays by Cherríe Moraga (Giving Up the Ghost and The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea); and memoirs by Piri Thomas (Down These Mean Streets), Judith Ortiz Cofer (Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood), and Sandra and Sheila Ortiz Taylor (Imaginary Parents: A Family Autobiography)—all elegantly represent Latina/o families from a kaleidoscopic perspective. A number of films and videos—from narrative shorts to documentaries, and from feature-length to experimental productions—highlight the complexities of family dynamics in Latina/o cultural contexts. León Ichaso’s El Súper (1979), Harry Gamboa Jr.’s Baby Kake (1984), Darnell Martin’s I Like It Like That (1994), Gregory Nava’s My Family (1995), Laura Simón’s Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary (1997), Aaron Matthews’s My American Girls: A Dominican Story (2001), Patricia Riggen’s Under the Same Moon (2007), Gloria La Morte and Paola Mendoza’s Entre Nos (2009), and Fro Rojas’s Tio Papi (2013) illustrate how a focus on the family necessarily encompasses deep concerns with immigration, gender, citizenship, sexuality, blackness, and economic disenfranchisement particular to transnational and translocal Latina/o communities whose origins stem from the United States, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

Some scholars have expressed frustration with constantly equating Latina/o issues with family issues, insisting that the seemingly inextricable bond Latinas/os share with the family is an exaggeration bordering on stereotyping. There is no denying that the family persists across decades as a symbol and principle to which Latinas/os have turned for support or necessary reinvention. Yet the crucial function of the family for Latinas/os cannot be understated. And despite calls by white queer theorists to forget the family (a call that evidences an unfamiliarity with or disrespect for a decades-long history of writing emphasizing the vital meanings of familial ties for queers of color), the family will persist as a means to subvert racism, homophobia, sexism, and class discrepancies, while always running the risk of reproducing those very inequalities in its uncritical adaptations.

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