Latin American family systems: complexity and heterogeneity

David Sven Reher, Universidad Complutense de Madrid
Albert Esteve, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

While the basic outline of family systems in Europe is fairly well known, our understanding of families in the Latin American continent pales by comparison. At first glance, families appear to be destructured and dysfunctional, characterized by extremely high illegitimacy (even in the remote historical past), serial relationships and household structures that resist any straightforward definition. Adding to the complexity, it is also likely that family patterns in Latin America varied substantially across the continent though the basic spatial and regional dimensions of this heterogeneity are not well-understood at all. At present, it is safe to say that our understanding of Latin American family systems is far from adequate. In this paper, analytical instruments and perspectives that have proven useful when sorting through family systems in Europe will be used. Key life transitions to adulthood and to old age and dependency, the process of forming and raising families, the ability of the family to generate support for its members that are vulnerable for different reasons and household and marital stability are all component parts of this analytical framework. Our analysis will be based on the first round of census micro data to be available for the region (normally the 1970s) because at least plausibly it should mirror historical patterns of family organization fairly adequately. Our main result will be that there is a veritable kaleidoscope of patterns of family organization on the continent that can be explained by the ethnic and historical diversity characterizing the region. While none of the observed patterns fit any European model for family systems, on the whole the reveal a potent, unique and often efficient form of human organization that continues to be relevant until recent times.

  See extended abstract

Presented in Session 60: Special thematic session on family systems and transitions