All in the Family


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I had just finished cleaning the second story guest house that we built for our son, when Marina crouched under the barbed wire fence with a glass of warm, delicious atol. (a strawberry flavored, sweet liquid pudding drink). “Marina.” I commented between sips, “I haven’t seen you for ages. Where have you been?” “I have been very busy,” she responded. “Jose’s girlfriend and their two babies are living with us.”

If there is one thing that I have learned while living in Nicaragua, it is that few Nicaraguan homes consist only of the parents and children. Typically, one finds the presence of grandparents, aunts, uncles, grandchildren, and a few friends thrown into the mess of people living under one hot tin roof…usually in one bedroom!

Economic factors play an important role in this phenomenon of the extended family; however, I like to think of it as a raucous episode of All in the Family, whose family members become an efficient nucleus, supporting one another, interdependent, and responsible for each others’ well-being. I wanted an extended family, too.

Draped over the barbed wire fence, snow-white diapers flapped in the wind like the Egrets’ nightly ritual at sunset. Marina stoked the cooking fire, while the chop, chop, chop of Don Jose’s ax whittled the mounds of sticks and logs to usable fuel for the fire. Jose’s girlfriend tenderly nursed four-month old Dustin in the backyard, while balancing on a broken plastic chair with only three strong legs. Meanwhile, two-year old Stephen chased the litter of puppies through the dirt-floored kitchen and into the backyard. He dragged one of the yelping puppies around the yard like Pigpen’s blanket. Julio swung a small plastic bucket, as he walked along the volcanic black sand ruts of the beach to the dairy farmer’s house to get milk for breakfast. And his brother, Jose, prepared for work at the water department. Jose’s job is to repair the water line breaks. He always notifies us when he is repairing a water line break because that means that we will be without water for the entire day. Today was one of those waterless days.

Don Jose, the 77-year-old patriarch of the family, waved goodbye to Luvis. She was taking their one shared bicycle into town to deliver breakfast to her sister, who had been sick. Don Jose’s presence emanates throughout the family, although the classical patriarch pattern of a macho man who beats his wife, is not reinforced in this family. Everyone knows that Marina, his wife, is the boss. She is the glue that holds this nucleus together. Every cell in her body oozes strength, fortitude, and persistence.

“Marina,” I asked between sips of the delicious atol, “Cory will be here in a few days. I’d like to find him a Nica girlfriend. Do you know of any good Nica girls?” She grabbed my arm, pushed me into the rocking chair on my porch and said, “Sit and listen to me carefully. We need to have a mother to mother talk.” In my idealistic fog, I expected to hear condolences and thoughts on how she cherishes her extended family and tends to all their needs.

Instead, she admonished, “I refuse to find Cory a Nica girlfriend. You have no idea what will happen, do you?” “No,” I replied na├»vely. “But it sure would be great to have a cute Nica grand baby.”

She waved her arms like she was shooing the dogs, cats, chickens, and pigs out of her kitchen. “Fueda!” she shouted. (Out!) “You and Ron will be out! Out of your minds and your house because a Nica girlfriend will bring her entire extended family to live in your house.”

That thought never entered my mind. I shuddered with the thoughts of a Nicaraguan family blowing up my house because they wouldn’t know how to use a propane oven, or breaking all of my electronic equipment that I so carefully protect from the harsh tropical elements, or reprogramming my satellite TV, or burning plastic bags because they know nothing about recycling or protecting the environment. My beautifully trimmed grass would be littered with green and pink plastic bags, and poopey diapers..the national flowers of Nicaragua.The toilet would overflow constantly, with the novelty of a swirling flush…over and over…and over again.

“You are manna from heaven… rich gringos,” she stated like it was a common fact. “But, Marina,” I whined, “we are not rich. We worked very hard for what we have. I can’t help it. I am a gringa.” She laughed, not understanding our economic differences, but fully understanding the implications of a Nicaraguan girlfriend for Cory. “People have taken advantage of you because you are gringos,” she said. “I’ve seen how they charge you ‘gringo prices’ for your house. People, who do not know you, cannot look past the color of your skin. Listen to me, because I know. You are part of our family now. I am telling you the truth,” she whispered in a motherly voice.

Cory arrived the following Monday. He and his friend, Sam, moved into their new second story casita. They will be here for six months, taking Spanish lessons, exploring Nicaragua, and developing cultural programs. This morning, they walked past Marina’s house on their way to a weekend trip to San Juan del Sur, a touristy little fishing village on the Pacific coast. I overheard Marina shout to them, “Adios mi familia. There are a lot of beautiful gringas in San Juan del Sur. Have fun and good luck.”

I just had to laugh! For in my search for an extended family, and beautiful Nica grandchildren, Marina had given me a precious gift. We are part of her extended family. I can visit those beautiful grandchildren of hers any time and share our stories of love and compassion for our families, as only mothers know. I think I have the best of both worlds, now….I just have to keep it all in the family.

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7 thoughts on “All in the Family

  1. I like how this piece pits the overdeveloped first world view of objects/things and human relations against the on-the-ground struggles, and astute perspective of your Nicaragua neighbors. By situating your comparison within a conversation between two women of strikingly different worlds, you offer “first world” women readers an opportunity to interrogate one’s own position concerning the impact of nation, race, class, and gender (at the very least) in shaping our assumptions, expectations and blindness. Your piece reminds me that, for instance, while many people across the globe “work hard”, a strikingly unequal distribution of recesources suggests that issues other than “hard work” are a play in creating wealth. Likewise, your wish for a “Nica grandchild” , and Marina’s generous debunking of your fantasy recalls histories of colonization where colonizers extracted/appropriated aspects and artifacts of “other culture” they deamed valuable . . . . actually a more complex interaction than my “reply” message can provide. All this to say this piece outlines some very important issues for us “first world” readers through an everyday interaction of 2 very different women. Write on!
    Caren
    Ps there are books, email me .

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