Family vs. Familia

As you know, my mother-in-law and I don’t have the best relationship. The biggest bone of contention has been the living arrangements. Growing up, I imagined myself with a husband and two kids, maybe a dog, but in my perfect little Anglo world, I never considered that I’d have a mother-in-law living with me, too. In-laws and grandparents are supposed to live in their own house, usually a few states away – not down the hallway. Random uncles and cousins also are not supposed to “visit” for weeks or months at a time. When relatives visit, it’s supposed to be for a few days and they’re supposed to use a hotel – That is what my culture told me, anyway.

Well, in Latino culture, which I married into, “family” is not limited to Mom, Dad, Son and Daughter. Besides Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, (not to mention half-siblings in some cases), there’s Grandmother, Grandfather, uncles and aunts, nieces, nephews, cousins and more cousins, not to mention everyone’s in-laws. If that isn’t enough family for you, there are Godparents, and other non-blood related people who get the honorary privilege of being called “familia.”

I’ve become convinced that if Anglos have a “family tree” – Latinos have a “family forest.”

And so for years I miserably asked myself the question, “Why does my mother-in-law want to live with us?” – but I should have been asking “Why would she NOT want to live with us?” Just as much as my culture taught me that this is a strange, uncomfortable living arrangement, hers taught her that this is completely normal and so my resistance to it was incomprehensible, and even deeply hurtful.

This does not excuse any of my mother-in-laws many (many!) faults, but I feel almost like a Zen monk reaching enlightenment for all of this to make sense after so many years – and not just make sense, but to be okay about it.

In my heart of hearts, sometimes I wish I had been able to live my married life in a normal Anglo household, but I would have missed out on so much, and so would my children. My Spanish would not be near as good as it is if I didn’t have to communicate with my non-English speaking mother-in-law on a daily basis. I never would have learned how to pat a tortilla back-and-forth between my palms. I never would have heard the various childhood stories about my husband that she tells every now and then. I never would have gotten a glimpse into the psychology of what made my husband who he is due to her mothering, (the good and the bad.)

My children would never have heard silly folk songs like “Los Pollitos Dicen” – they would have only known of the Tooth Fairy and not of the Latin American equivalent, “Ratóncito Pérez”, (though my husband insists when he was a child, they were too poor to pay him for his teeth so he didn’t know of Ratóncito Pérez either.) My children never would have tasted the mangoes that their grandmother buys, which they love and I hate.

Now looking back, I realize that though my mother-in-law has caused her fair share of discord and misery at times, she also enriched our lives. I’m sure there will be days when it will be hard to remember that, days when I find cilantro leaves littering the kitchen floor that I just swept and mopped, days when I’m trying to write and she has a telenovela on in the living room at maximum volume, but in the end, I guess familia is what you make of it.

(Image source)


  1. Your positive attitude is mind-blowing! Again, you are a better woman than me because there is no way I could do what you do. Kudos!

  2. I can really appreciate your post today. My BIL and SIL were here all day. Not in a bad way. They were tiling my entire living room, laundry room, and bathroom. They also offered(many many times) to work all next week if we buy more tile and grout. Not for pay. Not because we are unable. But because they can and because they are “familia.” I am hard pressed to imagine any of my “family” not only mentioning, offering, and following through, but to offer to do more. I overheard my BIL ask my daughter is she knew why he was working hard to make her house look pretty and when she shook her head he said “porque te quiero y quiero el mejor por ti. Somos familia y es que hacen. Un dia tu vas a entender.” I think I’m just now understanding, thanks to my familia.

  3. What a great post. It is a little hard when people visit for a long time (once my brother in law lived with us for six months!), but I do hear my kids speaking spanish more when my in laws are here, and they definitely learn more about Bolivian culture. My mother in law will be here in one week and we get along really well…even though we’re like complete opposites…she’s a party animal people person, and I’m a quiet, be by myself type of person. She loves to cook when she comes which is a nice break for me and my husband’s taste buds.
    My aunts and uncles live in my same state and have visited our house like once in the last two years…and his family has flown all the way here way more often than that.

    • @ Susan – It’s interesting the type of chemistry that happens between opposite personalities. I’m also very quiet and like alone time and my MIL is an extrovert. I don’t mind staying home all day reading and writing, etc – but she gets very depressed. An American suburb is so different from a neighborhood in El Salvador. We’re a ghost town in comparison. When we stayed at my husband’s childhood home in San Salvador I found the amount of noise going by the house at all hours exciting but draining.

  4. That was a brilliant revelation. I’m sure it will bring more peace.

    My stepmother was a psycho, and an angry unpredictable force in my childhood, but as a grown up I genuinely appreciate how much she had to sacrifice to be a part of my dad’s life. Her children were grown and gone and she accepted my dad’s love with two school-age girls as part of the deal. And though she was not loving, if I hadn’t had her in my life I would not now how to braid onions, snap beans, can veggies or iron properly.

    It’s a hard thing to accept. That the person that is making your life SO DIFFICULT can be enduring their own set of circumstances to be near you (on purpose and for a good reason).

    • @ Pol – Thanks for sharing something so deeply personal.

      What you had to say reminds me of a Mexican “dicho” (proverb).

      “No hay mal que por bien no venga.” (There is no bad from which good does not come.)

  5. I like this post.

    Finally a suegra that is good for something (other than to use her as a bad example).

    As far as I know there is no place in the world where you can fit together an esposa and a suegra under the same roof and expect that no ballistic nuclear war may start at any given time.

    So what you and your suegra are doing is out of this world, really.

    That lady would have been dead a long time ago under my roof, really.

    I would have had my dog trained to kill suegras metiches good for nothing (at least nothing good).

    Yo viví por casi 10 años en Monterrey México cuando era teenager y aprendí muchas cosas de por allá.
    En Monterrey dicen que las suegras son como las semillas del tomate… no sirven para nada pero ya vienen incluidas adentro ¿que le puedes hacer? No hay tomates sin semillas.
    También dicen que en la barra del pan, la primera y la última rebanada son las suegras del pan… porque nadie las quiere.


  6. The relationshipe between a wife and a man’s mother can be rife with tension, so much so that I even wrote a story about it on my blog.
    Even so, many of us can learn so much from these hard working traditional, but strong women. As for myself, I am grateful for having in my life the woman who raised my husband. She’s been gone since 2003, but I think about her and miss her every single day.
    “A Little Cup of Mexican Hot Chocolate”

    • Hola Clementina – Nice to see you here again :) I love the stories and recipes you share on your blog. I think I’m overdue for a visit :)

  7. Beautiful post!

    So many of the quality’s my mother shared with me and I now share with my kids.

    WIth that note, this is the reason I married an anglo, so that the MIL who lives in 500 miles away would stay there…most of the time ( :

    I love how you put your words together.

  8. Family is a necessary evil! :lol: I can relate to what you’re saying and I believe it’s better to have a family forest than a small family tree. That said, boundaries are a key word…

    I’m sure it’s not the easiest living arrangement but you seem to make the best of it.

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