Family and Kin
For Paraguayans of all social strata and backgrounds, family and
kin were the primary focus of an individual's loyalties and
identity. In varying degrees of closeness, depending on individual
circumstances and social class, the family included godchildren,
godparents, and many members of the extended family. Paraguayans
felt some reserve toward anyone not able to claim relationship
through kinship or marriage. Family and kin--not the community--
were the center of the social universe. An individual could expect
assistance from extended kin on an ad hoc basis in times of need.
Poorer Paraguayans relied particularly on their mother's relatives;
the more prosperous were more even-handed in their dealings with
extended kin. The country's elite buttressed its economic
advantages through a web of far-reaching kinship ties. The truly
elite family counted among its kindred large landholders,
merchants, intellectuals, and military officers. Political
allegiances also reflected family loyalties; all available kin were
marshalled in support of the individual's political efforts.
Nonetheless, most people lived in nuclear families consisting of
spouses and their unmarried offspring. Most families consisted of
a couple and their pre-adult children or a single mother and her
children. Individual adults living alone were rare. If a marriage
broke up, the mother typically kept the children and home, whereas
the father either formed another union or moved in with relatives
until he did so. The most typical extension of the nuclear family
was a form of "semi-adoption" in which well-to-do townspeople took
in a child of poorer rural relatives or adopted (on a more
permanent basis) the illegitimate offspring of a female relative.
There were few intergenerational households. Adoption conformed to
cultural norms favoring assistance to relatives, but
intergenerational families were viewed as a source of conflict.
This characterization also usually prevented a daughter and her
children from moving back home following a divorce or separation.
The nuclear family prevailed, in part, because of the limited
economic opportunities available to most families. Few of the
traditional enterprises by which most Paraguayans earned a living
could support more than the immediate family members.
Surveys in the late 1970s and early 1980s found that nearly 20
percent of all households were headed by a single parent--usually
the mother. The incidence was highest in cities outside of Greater
Asunción and lowest in rural areas. Households headed by a female
generally were poor. Children's fathers might or might not
acknowledge their offspring; in either event, admitting paternity
did not obligate men to do much in the way of continued support for
their children. Most single mothers worked in poorly paying jobs or
a variety of cottage industries
(see Rural Society
, this ch.). In
almost all cases, they were consigned to a sector of the economy
where competition was intense and earnings low.
Within two-parent families, the male was the formal head of the
household. Fathers were treated with respect, but typically had
little to do with the daily management of the home. Their contact
with children, especially younger ones, was limited. Women
maintained ties with extended kin, ran the home, and dealt with
finances; they often contributed as well to the family's income.
Men spent a good deal of time socializing outside the home.
There were three kinds of marriage: church, civil, and
consensual unions. Almost all adults married. Although stable
unions were socially esteemed, men's extramarital affairs drew
little criticism as long as they did not impinge on the family's
subsistence and continued well-being. By contrast, women's sexual
behavior reflected on their families and affected family stability;
women were expected to be faithful as long as they were involved in
a reasonably permanent union. A church wedding represented a major
expense for the families involved. The common view held that a
fiesta was an essential part of the ceremony and required that it
be as large and costly as the two families could possibly afford.
The celebrations attendant on a civil marriage or the formation of
a consensual union were considerably less elaborate. Typically, the
couple's families met for a small party and barbecue. Church
weddings were rare among peasants--the expenses were simply beyond
the reach of the average farm family. Even a civil marriage was a
mark of status among peasants.
So-called illegitimacy was neither a stigma nor a particular
disadvantage if the child came from a stable consensual union and
could assume the father's name. But children of upper-class males
and lower-class women suffered because, although their fathers
recognized them as offspring, they could not use the paternal
family name, nor did they have a claim to the father's inheritance.
Children whose fathers were not known or would not acknowledge them
lost the most status. They were typically the offspring of single
mothers who themselves were very poor.
Reality was often at odds with the Paraguayan ideal of extended
kinship ties. Because the poor migrated frequently and often had
unstable marital unions, relatives typically were well-known only
for a generation preceding and following a given individual. The
wealthy were more adept at tracing lines of descent through several
generations. This was a function of their greater marital stability
and their vested interest in maintaining the links that tied them
to potential inheritance. Relatives in prosperous families often
were not as close as their less affluent counterparts, however,
because the well-to-do relied less on relatives for mutual aid and
were potential competitors for inheritance.
Data as of December 1988