I have what could be considered a textbook American family on my dad’s side of the family: one aunt and uncle, two cousins, a few great-aunts, great-uncles, and other more distant relatives I’ve gotten to know to one degree or another. On my mother’s side: seven aunts and uncles, more cousins than I can count, and I couldn’t keep track of my extended family without a seriously detailed family tree.
People have tried to convince me that in Latin America, families are closer. Más unidas. I don’t subscribe to that theory at all—but they’re definitely different. When I was a kid, my American family was the family I visited over summer vacation. I got to spend lots of quality time with my grandparents, my cousins and my aunt and uncle, and I treasured those vacation months when I was growing up. My Costa Rican family—well, if you have a Latin family, you probably know what it was like. We were geographically closer together, for sure. Every Sunday was spent at my Abuelita and Abuelito’s house. The place was always packed, cousins were always there, and we made our own fun in the backyard while the adults talked inside.
I find that the lines in my Costa Rican family are blurrier, less defined. Anyone could be a primo or a tía. In fact, one of my dearest friends and I met when we were in the sixth grade. The first time our mothers got together, it took them all of five minutes to figure out they were related. And even though I know it’s common for people to call close friends “Auntie” or “Uncle” in the United States, there are such differences in the way words that describe family relationships are used in Latin America. My sister-in-law and I began calling each other cuñada about eight years before she and my brother were even married. The first time my brother talked to my future husband over the phone, he cheerfully announced, “Hi, this is your brother-in-law!” This was way before our engagement—my Midwestern husband was both amused and taken aback, and many explanations about cultural differences ensued. The role of godparents is so important that my sister-in-law actually prefers being called madrina. When I interpret in court, I know that a witness who talks about his esposa, hermano or primo is not necessarily talking about his wife, brother or cousin—much to the chagrin and confusion of judges and attorneys.
That’s a long preamble, but here’s the thing: I feel like my family—and thus my children’s family—is getting smaller. We live in the United States, far from any family at all. My boys are lucky to have three out of four grandparents around, and they have a few doting aunts and uncles, but visiting any of them involves at least one flight. They have exactly one cousin, who is twenty years their senior (and happily goes by tía). And as time goes by and we no longer see each other every weekend, all but a few of my cousins and I grow a bit farther apart.
And so I find myself blurring those family distinctions for my own children, as well. My cousin who’s more like my sister? She’s their tía. Her daughters are their primas. So is my sister-in-law’s niece who we see in Costa Rica every summer. A few of my fabulous friends are tías, too.
I try hard to reinforce those family ties when we visit, I constantly show my boys pictures of all of their family members, and I’m grateful for the family we have here. I comfort myself with the thought that more family does not necessarily mean better. But I think of the Sunday afternoons my cousins and I spent gleefully harassing my tíos who were trying to nap or watch the partido de fútbol in my Abuelita’s TV room and I think, well, they’ll be missing out, just a little.