All in the Shrinking Mexican Family


Family is a big deal for Mexicans. If you’re Anglo-, African-, Jewish-, Italian-, Arab-American, Asian-Indian or any other combination, and you’re ready to protest that family is important to other ethnic, cultural and racial groups, point granted. On the flip side, there are Latinos who don’t get along with other family members, especially on telenovela soap operas. In general, though, in Mexico, family matters a lot.

Family Those stories of big, long dinners with grandparents, cousins, great aunts and a godparent or two thrown in for good measure are common occurrences. Maybe the closest relative between you and your “cousin” is your great great grandmother. In Monterrey, girls frequently use tía (aunt) with a woman who’s not actually a blood relative but is like family. And, of course, all your nieces’ and nephews’ kids are also your nieces and nephews.

I spent the last week and a half in Monterrey where the Patiño clan gathered to fete the family matriarch on her ninetieth birthday. Talk started months ago about how to celebrate. The decision was to keep things low-key since the matriarch has limited mobility and stamina these days. The “simple celebration” the Sunday before her birthday included 27 family members spanning four generations, a Mass led by her son the priest, a giant paella and several hours of noisy sobremesa. English doesn’t have a single-word translation for “the talk around the table after a meal” that can go on for hours. At Patiño celebrations, the sobremesa usually involves a piano and lots of singing and laughter.  

Family Two days later, on the matriarch’s actual birthday, the celebration was open-house style with pots of self-serve tamales and beans along with guests dropping in during several hours. Well wishers had called throughout the morning. Pretty impressive when most of the people who have been important in your life are no longer here.

But Mexican families are shrinking. According to a 2010 article in The Economist, in the 1960’s Mexican mothers had nearly seven children each. Today, the average is just over two. The reasons for this drop are similar to those in the U.S.: reliable and widely-used family planning, more women studying longer and entering the workforce, and the cost of living.

Family My mother-in-law gave birth to the last of her six children in 1962. Among them, they had a total of ten grandchildren, or an average of 2.0, not counting the priest. That does include a sister-in-law and her husband from a family of 12 siblings. To date, the four married grandchildren have a total of seven children. The declining birthrates started in the more educated classes, but today, the numbers are falling among all socio-economic and education levels. The same is true for Mexican immigrants in the U.S. and their children.

The Economist article states that in 1980 the median age in Mexican was 17; in 2010 it was 28. You don’t have to do complex math to get a feel for the future. The world can’t sustain unbridled growth, but it’s sobering to think that my great grandchildren will probably never complain, like their grandparents did as children, that the older relatives’ sobremesa, with the same boring stories and loud laughter, went on forever.


  1. Another valuable insight into Mexican family life, Leslie. I especially enjoy reading your informative articles while I’m here in Mexico – somehow connects me more to the people and the life that is going on around me.
    Viva Mexico!

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