A Comparison of Costa Rican and American Families

There are several differences between Costa Rica and the United States, such as sports preferences, language, and street culture. One of the largest differences is in the family. Costa Rican families are a much more important part of daily life to Costa Ricans than American families are to Americans. There are many reasons for this, and some factors affect both the United States and Costa Rica. In general, the Costa Rican family is close because of Familism and Machismo culture, Religion and household size. According to Bron B. Ingoldsby, an associate professor at Brigham Young University: 

Familism places the family ahead of individual interests and development. It includes many responsibilities and obligations to immediate family members and other kin including godparents. Extended family often live in close proximity to each other many often sharing the same dwelling. It is common for adult children to supplement their parent’s income. In many ways, the Hispanic family helps and supports its members to a degree far beyond that found in individualistically oriented anglo families. (Ingoldsby, 57)

This quote captures the positive character of families in Costa Rica. They are extremely supportive and tend to share their issues with each other in daily conversations. It is common for adults to live with their parents, and it is not seen negatively as it would be in the United States. In the United States, an adult living with his or her parents is typically seen as someone who has not really put in the effort to be self-sufficient, or someone who has not matured. It is even common for parents to charge their children rent after a certain age because Americans feel growing up necessitates independence from one’s family. This also means that Americans tend to feel less close to their family, whether it be that they spend less time with them daily or just do not share the happenings of their day because of feelings of independence. On one hand, it probably does mean that Americans are more independent from a young age, but they also lack mental health support and have to fend for themselves.

Harvard, 2017

This could lead to abuses of substances, media or consulting mental health professionals to fill the gap, which many Americans cannot afford. It also says that Hispanic children also supplement their parent’s income, this is pretty rare in American families unless there is some service being exchanged or a parent is sick or needs it badly, in which case American children would definitely support their parents in any way possible if they have a close enough relationship and the means. Another possible contributing factor to the closeness of Hispanic Costa Rican families is Machismo. According to Ingoldsby, there are two principal characteristics of Machismo.

The first is aggressiveness. Each macho must show that he is masculine, strong, and physically powerful. Differences, verbal or physical abuse, or challenges must be met with fists or other weapons…The other major characteristic of machismo is hypersexuality. The impotent and homosexual are scoffed at – the culturally preferred goal is the conquest of women, and the more the better, (Ingoldsby, 58-59)

Another key part of understanding how Machismo ties into family bonds is purity, and how that concept applies to women’s role in Machismo. Under Machismo, women are “submissive, dependent, and can even endure physical punishment from men…According to the dominant cultural stereotype, a man must protect his female relatives from other men because they should be virgins when they marry. Knowing that other men are like himself, the macho is very jealous, and, as a result, allows his wife very few liberties” (Ingoldsby 58- 59). Essentially, Macho’s understand the culture they live in and therefore inadvertently perpetuate the loop by establishing strong family ties and specifically control over female members. However, sometimes this leads to a lack of affection from the father towards male children, because he must keep his status. This is not representative of all Hispanic families, but plays into the idea of family nonetheless. In the United States, there is also the influence of patriarchal structures such as machismo, whether it be from European, indigenous, or even Machismo influence. However, the lines blur and one could say that strong family bonds in Latin America counter Machismo. For example, Ingoldsby says that “In summary, poor family relations, plus low-income lead to feelings of inferiority (though there is evidence that machismo exists in middle and upper classes as well)” (Ingoldsby 60). They probably are not mutually exclusive issues. For example, one could see a family under the effects as machismo as close, but authoritarian. Less emotionally close, but closer in the sense that they spend more time together because they are required to be under the control of the Macho patriarch. In another situation, there could be a family that loosens up after being emotionally open and building understanding, therefore crumbling the authoritarian control. 

Religion, specifically Catholicism, also has a large effect on the intimacy of family in Costa Rica and most of Latin America. According to Álvarro Murillo en La Nación, “El 57% de la gente es hoy católica y, de estos, la mitad va a misa cada semana” [57% of the population today is Catholic, and of those, half go to mass every week] (Murillo). This is a majority of the population, and according to Latinoobarómetro, another 25%, with the majority of the remainder being agnostic. That means, as of 2017, a massive majority of Costa Rica is Catholic, and the majority of the remainder that is not Catholic is Evangelical (Latinoobarómetro). Costa Rica is mostly Christian, which is a similarly important identifier to Catholic. The United States is significantly less religious than Costa Rica as a whole. As of 2014, the United States was 70.6% Christian, 5.9% Non-Christian religious, and 22.8% “unaffiliated”, which encapsulates atheists and agnostics. The remainder were undecided. This means that the United States is less religious, with more religious diversity. The United States is more Protestant than Catholic. The numbers from the United States were also recorded in 2014, where PEW also noted that since 2007, the percentage of Christians in the United States had dropped 7.8%, and unaffiliated had risen 6.8%. It is likely that this trend has continued and that if the polls were taken at the same time in Costa Rica and the United States, there would likely be even more of a difference.

One of hundreds of churches in Costa Rica

Nevertheless, that establishes that Catholic and Christian ideas about what constitutes a good family should hold firm in Costa Rica due to demographics. According to Jaime Septién, writing for Aleteia: “La familia católica pone a la familia primero. Porque nuestra familia es la comunidad que primero Dios nos donó para relacionarnos con el mundo, creamos y protegemos los rituales familiares y nuestras actividades familiares como las más importantes actividades que realizamos durante la semana. [The Catholic family puts the family first. Because our family is that God first gave us to connect ourselves with the world, we create and protect our family’s activities like the most important things we so during the week] (Septién) This means that Catholic families in general strive to spend more time with each other doing family activities. He also says that: “La familia católica reza en común…La familia católica es testigo y signo… La familia católica asiste junta a la Eucaristía” [The Catholic family prays together…The Catholic family is witness…The Catholic family takes part in the act of Eucharist together] (Septién). Doing Eucharist and praying together are both unifying activities that would lead to closer bonds. It is not far-fetched to say that a family that regularly prays together would participate in other activities such as festivals or parties as a family more often. 

In Susan De Vos’s paper, “Latin American Households in Comparative Perspective”, published in Population Studies, she says: “The Spaniards brought with them from traditional pre-industrial Southern Europe the notion that an older male should preside over a family that extended beyond his own nuclear unit to include married sons and other kin.19’20 The older male was supposed to head an economic unit of production and consumption, and he was supposed to have authority over the life and death of his wife, children and grandchildren. Although this ideal was shared by all social classes, it seems to have been actualized most closely throughout Latin America by the landed gentry of European ancestry” (Vos 503). This correlates with the general differences observable in Costa Rica. This includes Machismo and general family composition. The father at the head of the household who controls, while everyone else is under his control in some way. That in itself does not really account for how close Costa Rican families are. De Vos presents this:

The average household size and the crude A/H ratios in the six Latin American countries were larger than in either the United States or Ireland. For instance, the mean household size was around 5.4 compared to 3.2 in the United States and 4.1 in Ireland. (Vos 507)

The significantly larger household size in Costa Rica and Latin America when compared to the United States could show that children in Costa Rican households are more likely to live with their parents for longer.  De Vos also finds in her conclusion that “the nuclear-family household is not the best focus for theories of social reproduction in Latin America, because the extended family household is important there, whether or not it contains a husband/wife nucleus” (Vos 517). This means that the family focus in Latin America is not quite the same is the pre-industrial nuclear concept that the Spanish brought with them to the Americas as the Latin American countries include the extended family strongly in their familial groups. It is not uncommon for Costa Ricans in university, for example, to live with their Aunts or Uncles that live within the vicinity of the university or for families to get together with their extended family and friends to celebrate birthdays. In the United States it is not quite as common for these things to happen, because American universities have dormitories that students are often required to stay in for at least one year and also because of Americans’ belief in independence. Birthdays as well in the United States, tend to just be celebrated with one’s friends, nuclear family, or both. 

Costa Rica and the United States have large differences in their people’s perspectives on the role of family in daily life. The Costa Rican family is wider, and often involves participating in activities as a family. It is more common for Costa Rican youth to live with their parents into their 20s. Americans receive less emotional support from their families, and therefore have to act more independently. In general Costa Rican families are closer than American families because of familism and machismo culture, and household size. 

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