4 Culture Shock Lessons of Latino Family Values
My first lesson of Latino Family Values 101 began when I lived abroad. I didn’t yet live with my boyfriend, but from my apartment down the street, I got my first taste of just how important family is. Yes, you could argue that family is important across all cultures, but in Colombia, familia takes up an extra special place in the heart of the people.
Coming from a mixed background, I was raised to different beat, where everyone was expected to start standing on their own two feet by 18-years-old, senior citizens included. Out of high school (and even during), it was normal to start working part-time jobs, and for many, finance their own university education. Where I come from, the elderly who can no longer care for themselves are usually placed in retirement homes. This sort of thing…
This is not the norm of Colombia. Colombian families tend to provide an enormous amount of support. Whether it be for the better or for the worst, I leave that up to you. For families who can afford it, they will finance their children through their post-graduate education until they have a steady job, with children never having the need to work small gigs. For the less fortunate, children more often than not work to contribute to the family’s household expenses (as kids usually don’t move out until marriage anyways) and the abuelos who can no longer live alone will most likely be under the care of their loved ones.
These are just a few examples of the differences I was about to encounter.
I didn’t understand how my 20-something boyfriend who had just started to live away from home thought that spending one month during summer vacation and 3-4 weeks during Christmas with his family was too little! I was relishing in my independence away from mom and dad and seeing them for Christmas only was fine by me, as it would allow me to have the entire summer to explore on my own.
When the family would visit their son in Europe in his small, shared, apartment, they would all squeeze together. This was beyond me as the common rule of thumb was that if your family didn’t fit in your house, they should simply get a nearby hotel so as not to disturb and so everyone remains comfortable. But in this case, it seemed there was always room no matter how small and being comfortable was no issue as they would be fine even if they slept at 3 on a small sofa bed. What mattered most was that they remain together.
Years later, when we moved in together, I was worried I wouldn’t adapt to the tight-knit family culture. I had a hard time not stressing out meanwhile having to accommodate 5 people in 50m2. While I understood it made no sense to them to stay at a hotel if they had come all this way to visit, it still seemed a bit insane.
I also had the notion that people saved the majority of their vacation to get escape with their partner and/or friends. However, I quickly learned while planning our couple vacation, that the large majority of days off was reserved for family. So if I didn’t join in on the big latin family vacation, I would simply have to travel solo on my 28 days of paid vacation.
This was Lesson #1: Family is the single most important social unit.
My first taste of South America when living in Miami was along the lines of spicy guacamole, dirty reggaeton and hot chicas in skimpy clothing. I’m sure you can imagine my surprise when I landed in Bogotá! Lovely but much somber than I had pictured, Bogotanos did not fit the bill of my fantasy. They were…how to say…more serious. At the time of this first trip to Colombia, my boyfriend and I had been dating for a few years, however, I was still made to sleep in a separate bedroom. So taking in from the cues of my surroundings, I reassessed my stereotypes and concluded that:
Lesson #2: Latin American families are conservative.
During that same trip, I was immediately presented to the grandparents. I also noticed that at almost every activity and meal, the cousins, grandparents, aunt and uncles were usually present.
Lesson #3: A Latin family unit doesn’t limit to mom, dad and children but extends to grandparents, cousins, etc.
And during those get-togethers, everyone from grandpa to cousin got up to dance salsa. After much reluctance, I soon came to realize I had no choice but to shuffle my feet however I could manage if I didn’t want to be a social reject. No family or friend reunion is complete without some dancing so next time you are invited to a BBQ, be ready to pull out your best moves!
Lesson #4: Dance or Die.
Now years later, here I am in Colombia, bathing in Latin culture, still adapting slowly all the while maintaining a healthy personal space. I think it’s important to stay true to oneself all the while accepting the differences and treasuring the beauty and support a close Latin family has to bring.
Soon enough, I might be the one bunking with my children in their dorm rooms, being the first to shake my hips at parties and telling my hija that she can’t date until she marries.