Susan's birthday was on Wednesday, and we celebrated by taking a cake and soda over to the house of our friend Julie to celebrate. I was originally contemplating cooking a meal for their family, but after doing the math on the amount of food required to feed the 20-odd family members living on the property, I elected to just bring the sweet stuff. They were remarkably gracious about letting us stuff their children full of sugar and caffeine before bedtime.
Like most families in this area, Julie's family owns a piece of property on which they have built several houses. When one settles down in Nicaragua, one does not buy a house, one buys land and builds a house. The land and whatever houses are on it are passed down through the family. In Julie's case, there are three houses on the property, with family members running around between each one. This system ensures that there are always people around to watch the kids, which is especially important in the case of Julie's severely handicapped cousin Orlando. Julie plays a large part in caring for him and raising the small children, especially her baby brother Victor. “Sometimes he even prefers me to his mom,” she told me.
If the upside of this arrangement is the interdependence between family members, this is simultaneously the downside. If Orlando's mother has an argument with Julie's mother, for example, it would be very difficult for her to go somewhere else, because she would have no one to help her in the enormous responsibilities of caring for her son. This reality similarly prevents abused spouses from moving out. Incest is also a problem, and many children have to grow up coexisting with the cousins that raped them at an early age. Even in cases where there is no abuse, it is simply very difficult for young people to become independent and separate from their parents when they reach adulthood. Anita, my Nicaraguan mother in Nandasmo, feels that this is an important part of growing up that is lacking in Nicaragua. Even Adam and Eve needed to strike out on their own at some point, and their parental figure was God.
The difficulty with becoming independent is both economic and psychological. Selmira, our supervisor, once observed to us that it was amazing that we volunteers at such a young age were able to come so far away from home and be so clear in what we want to accomplish and have the ability to follow through. She made this comment while telling us about her nephews, who had gone to college in Managua, where they dropped out of class and spent the money their mother sent them on alcohol, while lying to her about it for months. Obviously, there are American young adults who squander their resources upon moving out of home and Nicaraguans who go away to college and do just fine. Still, she made a probably valid point that Nicaraguan youth aren't brought up to become independent in the way that American youth are. And with good reason, since many of them probably won't. Whether the cause is economic, cultural, or both, Nicaraguans put enormous value on sharing and mutual care, where the US prizes self-reliance. The result in Nicaragua is very lovely and Christian, wherein even those who are poor will generously share what little they have. But the flip side is the inability to separate from one's family, both economically and geographically.
Despite the negative aspects of large families living in community, it remains quite touching to see a gaggle of ten icing-smeared children spontaneously dancing to Shakira with their brothers, sisters, and cousins in the family living room.