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date: 24 February 2024

The Three Faces of the Mexican Family, 1872 to the Presentfree

The Three Faces of the Mexican Family, 1872 to the Presentfree

  • Elena Jackson AlbarránElena Jackson AlbarránDepartment of History and Department of Global and Intercultural Studies, Miami University of Ohio


The shape, function, and social meaning of the Mexican family changed alongside its relationship to the state, the Catholic Church, and popularly held beliefs and customs over the course of the 20th century. Liberal reforms of the 19th century, and in particular the Penal Code of 1871 and the Civil Code of 1884, accelerated the intentionally political function of the family, as policymakers sought to bring the domestic sphere into the service of the state. Although domestic policies aimed to wrest influence over the private sphere from the Catholic Church, both the secularizing effects and economic impact of these efforts resulted in markedly unequal gender standards. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 wrought some dramatic demographic changes that had a long-term impact on family structure, gender roles within the family, and, perhaps most significantly, the resulting revolutionary government’s conception of the role that the family unit ought to play in nationalist development projects. The post-revolutionary decades saw the reinterpretation of late-19th-century liberalizing tendencies to align the family more consciously with a vision of a modern, collectively identified economic nationalist vision of the future. Men, women, and children saw their social roles reimagined in the rhetorical ideal, even as agrarian and educational reforms revised individuals’ relationships to the labor and socializing institutions that had come to define their identities. By the 1940s, economic growth, political stability, and technological advances in medicine and healthcare all contributed to the beginning of a surge in population growth that continued until the early 1970s. Coupled with a radical shift in population density to the urban areas, these changes contributed to transformations in family residence patterns, the division of labor, and the role of children and young people. But events in the 1970s conspired to bring a radical end to the high birth rate. These included the conscious domestic-policy reform of the Luís Echeverría administration (1970–1976); the availability of contraception and its tacit approval by the Mexican Catholic Church; the transnational feminist movement, culminating in the 1975 meeting in Mexico City of the United Nations’ Conference on Women to commemorate International Women’s Year; and, not least of these, preventive measures taken by citizens themselves to reduce the strain on the family unit. By the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, transnational migrations and remittances came to define an increasing percentage of families and kinship structures.


  • History of Mexico
  • Social History

Church, State, and Popular Visions of the Family

The family unit intrigues historians, psychologists, educators, clerics, and politicians because of its powerful socializing potential. The family structure, both nuclear and extended, often functions as a microcosm of the institutional organization of power. Historian Soledad Loaeza has noted that this comparison goes beyond a facile metaphorical observation; within the family, individuals experience their first contact with authority, and they first begin to construct their social and political identities within the context of this power rubric.1

The shape, function, and social meaning of the family changed alongside its relationship to the state, the Catholic Church, and popularly held beliefs and customs over the course of the long 20th century. The rise of liberalism in the second half of the 19th century proved instrumental in adjusting, though not fully dismantling, the colonial structures and mentalities that had an impact on organizing family life. Economic forces, both those controlled by the state and those global currents that swept over Mexico in waves, also bore significant implications for the ways that families reproduced, participated in the market, or migrated. This article traces a rough chronology of three of the most powerful forces that shaped the family from the heyday of Liberalism to the transnational present: the state, the church, and popular beliefs and customs. It is important to note that many families responded to all three forces in unique ways.

Legislating the Family: Gender and Marriage

Liberal reforms of the 19th century accelerated the intentionally political function of the family, as policymakers sought to bring the domestic sphere into the service of the state. The reforms ushered in during the period known as La Reforma (1855–1861) irrevocably wrested control over the family from the church, which had enjoyed considerable cultural sway over the family unit since the colonial period. In particular, the Ley Juárez (1855) established a civil registry for births and deaths and required that all marriages be registered in a civil court to be considered legal. This transformation of marriage from a sacrament to a civic duty was strengthened by the 1859 Epistle of Melchor Ocampo, a document that affirmed marriage’s role in maintaining the family at the moral core of society and that reinscribed the gendered expectations of a strong, providing husband and a beautiful, self-abnegating wife. The epistle, a florid literary tribute to marital duty and fidelity, was read by judges officiating marriage ceremonies. By assuming control of the records of life’s milestones, the state gained both symbolic and legal power over the family.

The legislation of morality, previously the concern of the church, now fell under the state’s purview. Rather than frame breaches of morality as spiritual threats, state laws interpreted immoral behavior as anything that constituted a threat to public order, one of the sacred hallmarks of a modern liberal nation. The implementation of the Penal Code of 1871 allowed the state to intervene in domestic issues previously considered private crimes—rapto (elopement or forced abduction) and estrupro (statutory rape), for example. Scholars remain ambivalent about assessing the impact of Liberal reforms on women’s position in the family.2 On one hand, the 19th-century codes were generally more permissive about sexual mores than local, traditional, or popular beliefs were, driving some women to seek recourse in the legal system for protection from punishing retributions by a morally scandalized patriarch or community. On the other hand, the codes did tend to punish only crimes carried out against the patriarch, rather than those committed by him, lending to a gendered imbalance in the legislation of morality. Furthermore, the liberal reforms related to private property holdings resulted in a net loss for women, diminishing their economic power within the family unit.

Despite deriving from liberal views of civil society that privileged “modern” individual rights over “traditional” subordination to institutions, the changes ushered in by the 1870 and 1884 civil codes did little to upend colonial attitudes and practices toward family law. The codes did legally weaken patriarchal control but were limited in their scope. Most significantly, the Penal Code of 1871 lowered the age of majority (a designation that also released offspring from patria potestad, or paternal control) from twenty-five to twenty-one years, allowing children to claim earlier control over their property and actions. Yet, this change affected only unmarried children, since marriage allowed for the immediate onset of autonomy, and it was common practice to marry before reaching the age of majority. Women also enjoyed more protections against such personal crimes as domestic violence and gained a greater measure of legal authority over their children through the Civil Code of 1870; in the event of her husband’s death, a widow was given patria potestad over her children in addition to legal guardianship. But such rights were granted only to widowed or single women and not to married women, betraying a legal system intentionally structured to treat women as more different and more subordinate than their predecessors. The 1870 code also permitted for legal spousal separation but not absolute divorce, on the basis of demonstration of mutual consent. The law also redefined adultery in ways that were much more punishing to women than to men; all forms of adultery committed by women were considered grounds for separation, while for men the definition of adultery was confined to liaisons taking place within the conjugal home. The expansion of individual rights and the secularization of society thus benefited men more tangibly than women.3 Yet, the parameters of marriage as they were redefined in the late 19th century allowed for a measure, however small, of liberty for most of those who entered into and departed from spousal partnerships.

Overwhelmingly, legislation of the family unit targeted the working and impoverished classes and, despite reformist rhetoric, often took on a tone of condescension. The Porfiriato (1876–1911) saw a considerable acceleration in efforts to modify the state’s response to the evident struggles of the working-class family, in part to project the image of a modern welfare state. In particular, the Díaz regime sought to wrest the social control of the family from the Catholic Church by developing the guise of a welfare state, manifested in a select few conspicuous institutions for the urban poor (an orphanage, a prison, an asylum, hospitals, and schools).4 Yet, a parallel signal feature of Porfirian welfare was a reliance on charity over centralized services. First Lady Carmen Romero Rubio founded the Casa Amiga de la Obrera in 1887 as a care center for children of working mothers, a gesture that helped lift the stigma surrounding women’s participation in the workforce. Even as a culture of pious charity expanded among society women, the rhetorical treatment of the poor that resonated among policymakers maintained that working-class individuals ought to lift themselves from their condition through grit and determination, from as young as seven years of age.

Liberal concerns with legislating the family in the 19th century resulted in some individual freedoms, especially for women, and elevated a sense of national consciousness about morality and charity. These ideals, progressive though they may have seemed, failed to gain the support of the state through the dedication of funds or the creation of institutions. Liberal reforms were effective in removing the Catholic Church as a cultural and economic stalwart in the lives of 19th-century families but provided nothing to these families by way of support to fill the vacuum. For example, in the late colonial period, many disgraced single mothers fell back on the support of extended family networks. The 19th century saw a rise in the number of single, poor, mothers—often new urban transplants who had been taken advantage of in the workplace, and who could not find a support system among the increasingly stratified social matrix. They formed a new social group that defined themselves as “poor, alone, and abandoned,” and used that distinction in the courts to try to gain some monetary benefit, often little more than a pittance.5 Ironically, for women who fell into this category, their most empowering option was to embrace their identity as victims and to claim status as such in the courts.

The Family during the Revolution

The Mexican Revolution of 1910 wrought some dramatic demographic changes that had a long-term impact on family structure and gender roles within the family. During the armed conflict, women primarily from urban and rural poor families left the hearth and took up with their insurgent male counterparts to contribute to the revolutionary effort. Some of these women, known as soldaderas, assumed the expected gender roles of cook, nurse, sexual partner, and caregiver, converting the makeshift camps and train cars into feminine spaces of labor and sociability that did not mark a radical departure from the traditional domestic sphere. Others—a tiny minority—experienced degrees of liberation, either by exercising freedom of choice in sexual partners or, as in the case of Colonel Amelia/o Robles, by assuming a transgender identity fighting under the Zapatista faction, which Robles maintained after the revolution’s end.6 Outmigration to the United States, primarily by families of means, resulted in the reorganization of kinship structures both in Mexico and in its diaspora. For some, relocation to California, or Texas, or Chicago meant connecting with distant cousins to forge a new family unit. In these contexts, family cultural traditions were often rekindled, fueled by collective memory and oral traditions. The Catholic Church became not only a spiritual resource but also a cultural hub for those Mexicans living outside their national territory who sought familiarity. The services provided by the church—for example, a Mass for named departed souls—allowed individuals to maintain ties with deceased loved ones buried in Mexican soil. Generations of extended family and the cultural vitality of the Catholic Church thus contributed to reconfiguring and reinforcing family relationships in the turbulent revolutionary era.

The equalizing goals of the Mexican Revolution opened up discursive spaces for the renegotiation of the legal definitions of the family, particularly as this came to bear upon women’s relationship to the state. Even as the bullets continued to fly, the nascent revolutionary government began to legislate on the basis of an official conception of the role that the family unit ought to play. The administration of Venustiano Carranza legalized divorce in 1914 and further broadened its scope to allow women to gain child custody in 1917 through the Law on Family Relations, thus amending the pre-revolutionary option that allowed only for legal separation and precluded remarriage. Response to this legislation proved to be uneven across the country; states such as Yucatán, under the radical socialist government of Felipe Carrillo Puerto (1922–1924), saw rural and urban women alike take advantage of the new social mobility offered by the expansion of divorce laws, while more-conservative regions saw little flux in marital status due to the law.7 Feminism grew alongside the revolutionary momentum for political change, though women at the forefront of this movement—primarily elite literary women publishing in magazines, but also textile workers operating in public spaces—found their social concerns constantly shuttled to the side. Educated, upper-class women convened at the First Feminist Congress held in Tabasco in 1915, followed by a second congress in Yucatán the following year. An exceptional advocate of feminist issues was General Salvador Alvarado, governor of Yucatán and convener of the second congress, who substantiated the meeting’s proceedings by issuing a spate of labor and housing reforms that promoted women’s health, hygiene, well-being, employment, and education in the state.8 Nevertheless, the feminist program failed to gain traction in the immediate term; the demand for women’s suffrage expressed at the conferences by a vocal minority was still dismissed by most attendees and did not come to fruition until 1953.

The Rise of the Welfare State

The upheaval of the Mexican Revolution had disrupted the conventional order of the nuclear family. In the wake of the violence, fragmented and displaced families sought refuge in the cities’ overtaxed asylums, soup kitchens, shelters, and orphanages. The constitutionalists, under the leadership of Venustiano Carranza, turned to these welfare-based public institutions as sites for the imposition of social order.

The revolutionary decades saw the reinterpretation of late-19th-century liberalizing tendencies to align the family more consciously with a vision of a modern, collectively identified, economic nationalist vision of the future. Men, women, and children saw their social roles reimagined in the rhetorical ideal, even as agrarian and educational reforms revised individuals’ relationships to the labor and socializing institutions that had come to define their identities. President Plutarco Elías Calles (1924–1928) drew upon a conventional interpretation of a patriarchal nuclear-family structure to construct a metaphor for the shape and function of the revolutionary national government, taking form under the auspices of the National Revolutionary Party (Partido Nacional Revolucionario, or PNR). In 1928, Calles coined the term “Revolutionary Family” as a metaphor for the stronger caretaker role that the state would assume of its citizens, insinuating as well a set of mutual filial obligations that would naturally arise as a result. Politicians mobilized the idea of the Revolutionary Family as way to embody the changing relationships among women, men, children, and the state as welfare institutions became sites of increasingly centralized state authority over the population. Perhaps the clearest articulation of this position came in the form of a 1934 speech by Calles known as the Grito de Guadalajara, in which he firmly claimed the nation’s children as resources for the development of revolutionary nationalism, symbolically strengthening the Revolutionary Family metaphor even as he undercut the private authority of parents over their offspring. Calles’s declaration reiterated the liberal-era reforms that claimed the family for the state and rejected the church’s influence. Although his statement came to represent the official position toward the family and heralded a rash of institutional endeavors, the staunchly anticlerical overtone of his message provoked popular discontent and even reignited some of the dwindling Cristero War reaction.

From the 1920s to the 1940s, then, the revolutionary government increasingly drew strength from the family unit, both economically and metaphorically, substantiated by a vast program of institutionalization of social and welfare services designed to modernize the Porfirian charity-based models targeting the working classes. One of the legacies of the expansion of the welfare state during these decades was ambivalence toward women in their roles as mothers. Child health campaigns in the 1920s and 1930s delivered public services to populations identified as the weakest and most vulnerable, but accompanied these with a liberal dose of patronizing reformist programs aimed at reshaping the reproductive and maternity practices of primarily working-class mothers. The emergence of puericulture, the studied approach to scientifically sound childrearing, gained popularity among professionals following the 1921 First Mexican Congress of the Child. Government agencies depended on the cachet of (sometimes pseudo) science to justify asserting authority over day-to-day childcare, housekeeping, and hygiene practices. Radio bulletins exhorting mothers to follow a multipoint list of sleeping conditions to guarantee healthy children, for example, were reiterated in print through women’s magazines and “Home” sections of the daily newspapers. A new set of scientifically proven behaviors became established mainstream culture as the ideal, supplanting generations of parenting practices suddenly dismissed as antimodern. In the meantime, for a rural family without running water, expectations that children should wash their hands with soap five or six times daily proved unrealistic.

Building on a clause of Article 27 of the Constitution of 1917 that asserted state control over benevolence programs, the National Revolutionary Party (Partido Nacional Revolucionario, or PNR) created the Ministry of Public Assistance (Secretaría de Asistencia Pública, or SAP) in 1937 (changed to Ministry of Health and Welfare, or Secretaría de Salubridad y Asistencia [SSA], in 1943), an agency that expanded its services over the middle of the 20th century, even as other branches of the government saw cutbacks in social spending by the 1940s. The promotion of civil marriage, establishment of state-run family dining halls, and growth of the foster care system that this agency promoted served to strengthen the nuclear, male-headed family as the image of the ideal economic unit. But the profile of the rapidly urbanizing family was increasingly female, as recent widows and refugees filtered into the cities from the countryside, with the female population of Mexico City nearly doubling the male population between 1910 and 1921.9 The rising participation of middle-class women as employees of the SAP/SSA allowed for this agency to subtly undermine male patriarchal authority by extending services such as maternal health centers to female-headed households as well.10

The social security code implemented in 1943 created the Instituto Mexicano de Securidad Social (IMSS), the basis of the modern welfare system that remains in place today. This legislation guaranteed the delivery of basic services and benefits to working families, thus establishing the expectation that the ideal modern family should contribute to the national economy. On one hand, the code put some flesh on the bones of the revolutionary Constitution of 1917. On the other hand, it rewarded families that conformed to the national ideal envisioned by policymakers; namely, the working- and middle-class families that had formal working relationships readily legible to the state. The many who remained in the informal economy, or who had more-complex family structures, could not fully benefit from the social security system.

The success of PRI-driven welfare delivery to the popular classes notwithstanding, accelerated urban migration in the middle of the 20th century strained the system. By 1960, Mexico’s urban population surpassed the rural population.11 The change in setting had a noticeable impact on the way that labor was structured within the family unit. Many women arriving from the countryside entered into positions, often through the informal economy, as domestic servants. By the same token, the increased availability of cheap domestic labor facilitated the growth of the middle-class practice of employing (often exploitatively) full-time help in the home. Telling examples of the class stratification that intensified during the middle decades of the 20th century can be taken from Oscar Lewis’s heavily critiqued yet still-unparalleled longitudinal ethnographic studies of urban families in the mid-1950s. In his Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty, Lewis and his team of North American anthropologists documented the daily activities, occupations, concerns, and lifestyles by examining a day in the life of a cross-section of Mexican families. In it, Lewis’s bias about the corrupting forces of urbanization and modernization shine through the narratives, but the story he tells is not without basis in fact. The wealthy Castro family, residing in the posh Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood of Mexico City, appears preoccupied with marital fidelity, and the husband and wife occupy different social and professional domains. By contrast, in the village-dwelling Martínez family, the husband and wife toil alongside each other in what appears to be a seamless division of labor to keep their six remaining children (of twelve births) alive and fed. Direct comparison of the Castro and Martínez families, and their three other counterparts, risks romanticizing the impoverished families, living in a unity forged by necessity. Yet, the value of this study lies in its documentation of the diverse family structures that prevailed in this moment of national demographic transition and the complex economic behaviors of individuals and the kinship networks to which they contributed.

By the 1940s, then, the availability of welfare services along with national economic growth, political stability, and technological advances in medicine and healthcare all contributed to the beginning of a surge in population growth that continued until the early 1970s. Coupled with a radical shift in population density to the urban areas, all these changes contributed to transformations in family residence patterns, the division of labor, and the role of children and young people.

Children and Labor, At Home and in the Streets

Attitudes shifted in the early 20th century, in Mexico and in the world, to privilege childhood as a period of great potential for shoring up social and economic capital for the future. After the revolution, physical spaces and cultural opportunities designated specially for children expanded beyond the traditional spheres of the home and the classroom. In keeping with the Revolutionary Family metaphor, children belonged less to their biological parents and increasingly to the nation—their labor diversified the functions of the socialist education program, their art became the template for a new national aesthetic, and their bodies became subject to universal scrutiny and improvement.12 The renewed vigor of a child-centered culture turned to debates about the ideal function of the child; while child labor in markets, factories, farms, and businesses prevailed prior to the revolution, the new role of the child as a metaphor for the nation’s citizenry brought into question the state’s obligation to legislate children’s economic behavior.

Article 123 of the Constitution of 1917 had put restrictions on child labor (prohibiting the employment of children under the age of twelve and limiting the number of workday hours to six for those twelve to sixteen years old). The 1917 Law of Family Relations had raised the legal age of marriage (setting it at sixteen for men and fourteen for women), effectively extending the category of childhood and parental dependency. Both these legal measures served to uphold the modern Western ideal of childhood as a protected space that should be free of manual labor and dedicated to more educational and recreational pursuits. But practice belied the law, and children continued to work both in the formal and informal sectors of the economy. In fact, for working-class households, child labor lay at the nexus of the family organizational structure, in which an unspoken economic reciprocity between parents and children upheld the core of intimate family relations.

One way that the state inserted itself as a mediator in family relations was through the creation of the Tribunal de Menores, or juvenile court, in 1926. Ostensibly designed to curb the visibility of crime and vagrancy in the city streets, this institution reiterated the official position of the preferred relationship between parents and children, often as this revolved around labor. The Tribunal de Menores, ideologically understood as an institution that corrected for morally impoverished family structures, functionally helped reaffirm certain manifestations of child labor as a vital part of working-class family life. For example, in some cases, the Tribunal de Menores identified their young wards’ behaviors as morally bereft and implemented extrafamilial measures of reform (often in the form of removal from the family and enrollment in residential reform schools). In other cases, children’s antisocial behaviors (such as running away from home and not contributing economically to the family) were deemed justifiable by the court in cases in which parental neglect or abuse suggested that parents were not upholding their end of the unspoken reciprocity agreements. In many cases, the Tribunal de Menores recommended some measure of work in the informal economy and remittance to the family unit as part of a child’s rehabilitation, a reaffirmation of parents’ obligation to provide their children with alimentos—basic food, shelter, and education—in exchange for their economic contribution to the household.13 Yet, this ambivalence about the meaning of childhood and the rightful assessment of child labor demonstrated through the rulings handed down by the Tribunal de Menores suggested a tension between the state and families about competing models of childhood as a protected or a productive space.

By the 1940s, child labor of any form was widely considered to be antimodern, and the 1943 social security code defined children as nonworking dependents of their parents.14 Yet, poor urban children who worked in the streets as paperboys, shoeshines, and errand boys, like their rural counterparts who continued to toil in the fields alongside their parents, still performed a vital economic service to their family economies.15 Their labor remained unrecognized by the state, driving a deeper wedge between the official ideal family structure and the everyday experiences of the majority of the population.

The Catholic Church and the Middle Class in the 20th Century

Catholic piety has often been cast as the counterdiscourse to secular revolutionary nationalism, particularly in the official narrative of the early revolutionary years, which were marred by the violent Cristero uprisings (1926–1929) in reaction to anticlerical state policies. Indeed, in the context of family history, since the early colonial period the Catholic Church enjoyed a long tenure of authoritative cultural influence over the family structure through its power to legitimize unions, deaths, and births until the middle of the 19th century. Many families, of course, continued to disregard the mandates of the church and constructed their families outside the moral strictures that church bureaucracy sought to uphold, by “living in sin,” having children out of wedlock, engaging in bigamy, and other practices not condoned by the church. Much of the church’s effort went into curtailing these practices considered amoral, in order to ensure the conformity of the family unit to the religious ideal. But despite the legislative shift heralded by La Reforma and fortified by revolutionary secularism, it would be wrong to characterize Catholic influence over the family as reactionary and antiprogressive, and it would be misleading to suggest that the Cristero rebellion resulted in a permanent rupture along a linear trajectory.

Many women identifying as Catholic found their piety, resolve, and activism galvanized through the state-driven secularization campaigns that culminated in the 1920s. The rise of Catholic social action in the early 20th century resulted in organizations that allowed women to become activists in defense of moral order and traditional family structures. During the years of revolutionary turmoil, women across the nation joined chapters of the Union of Mexican Catholic Ladies (Unión de Damas Católicas Mexicanas, or UDCM) to provide material and moral support in their communities in the form of distributing food, providing educational opportunities, and transporting medical supplies. These activities accompanied others that attended to more-spiritual matters; the UDCM also concerned itself with rebuking morally corrupt behavior (drinking, dancing, popular film, fashion trends) and encouraging a return to traditional mores and practices that drew the family back into the purview of the church. By the 1920s and 1930s, some Catholic women’s activism became radicalized and even militant in some cases.16 While ideologically distinct, these trends ran parallel to those experienced by women who accompanied their men to the battlefield during the revolution, in that women’s participation in increasingly active religious organizations brought them out of the domestic sphere and thus removed a degree from a direct symbolic association between passive women and the hearth.

A similar phenomenon, in which conservative activism under the guise of the Catholic Church served to politicize women, surged again in the 1950s. Like the secular revolutionary state, the Catholic Church identified the family as the most crucial social unit, morally headed by women. Cold War tensions coupled with the emergence of a strong middle class created an opportunity for women to join forces with the Catholic Church to defend the nuclear family from communist incursions and corrupt modern influences. The church was able to regain a significant foothold in the context of rising anxieties about ideological warfare, on one hand, and moral corruption on the other. In particular, Catholic religious elements turned to devout women to help fend off perceived threats to the family posed by global trends such as divorce, rock and roll, and sexualizing fashions and behaviors.17 The precipitous rise in women’s participation in the Acción Católica Mexicana, which counted 80 percent of its 400,000 members as women in 1953, serves as a testament to the role of Catholic organizations in drawing women into the political sphere.18 The conservative turn of the 1950s, primarily among the middle class, sought to shore up the family, but in reality it set up conditions for a generational break in the decade to come.

By the 1960s, the brand of cultural nationalism as a framework within which to socialize children for service to their families and country began to lose traction. In particular, thanks in large part to improved media technologies and increased physical mobility, transnational influences that appealed to the nation’s youth began to circulate in and out of Mexico. Global countercultures of rebellion and liberation grew alongside a growing disenchantment with state patriarchy. The growing middle class, supposed to provide a stabilizing population base to support the growth of democracy, instead produced a generation of youth uninspired by their parents’ complacency. For some such youth, tapping into the global identity of “teenager” meant a departure from the state-crafted Revolutionary Family model, which had held such powerful sway in the early part of the century. Rather than adhere to the social expectations of securing a good office job, some older teenagers chose to break in a different direction: protest movements, pool halls, and hippie sojourns all held enough appeal to disrupt their middle-class destinies.

The social malaise among the youth rapidly became politicized when the global unrest of 1968 came to Mexico in a series of events that drove a permanent wedge between the generations of middle-class urban youth and their parents. What began as prep school rivalries quickly escalated into a student movement galvanized against state authority, embodied by the riot police, the Granaderos. The social spaces of youth exploded into new areas of the city: in the short space of a few weeks and months, young people stopped coming home after school, turning instead to the city’s streets, empty classrooms, open plazas, and working-class neighborhoods. Their activities ranged from the political to the mundane: they exchanged ideas, drafted and distributed pamphlets, recruited workers, fell in and out of love, experimented with modern fashions, grew out their hair, read works by Che Guevara and Mao Zedong, and stayed up all night. Parents expressed their frustration at the loss of control over their children, even as they kept a worried eye on the increasingly repressive police agents who threatened more-extreme measures to bring these wayward children into line with the national moral code. The state-sponsored massacre of anywhere from 350 to 700 of these students, gathered in a peaceful protest in the working-class plaza of the Tlatelolco neighborhood, brought the national myth of the Revolutionary Family to a bloody and startling end.

Cultural and Economic Influences on Family Demographic Shifts, 1970s–Present

A confluence of events in the 1970s conspired to stem the high birth rate that characterized the “Mexican Miracle” of the mid-20th century. By 1970, a population growth of 3.4 percent put Mexico at one of the fastest-growing countries in the world, with 44.6 percent of the population living in urban areas. But while the rate of economic growth, at 6.4 percent, should have sustained this boom, the uneven distribution of wealth ensured that many remained mired in poverty.19 The conscious domestic policy reform of the Luís Echeverría administration (1970–1976) sought to address these inequalities by turning a more rigorous eye to family planning. Family-based reforms included a public education campaign, the opening of family planning centers, and the increased availability of oral contraception and its tacit approval by the Council of Mexican Bishops. A 1974 amendment to the Constitution of 1917 provided a guarantee of the right to plan family size. Perhaps the most visible state-sponsored family-planning campaign flashed across television screens in households across social classes every weeknight in 1977, in the form of a government-funded telenovela, or soap opera, Acompáñame (Accompany Me). As historian Gabriela Soto Laveaga demonstrates in her analysis of this cultural phenomenon, Acompáñame dished up a nightly dose of the new national moral: modern, progressive Mexico would be built upon a smaller family unit. The telenovela and its attendant media propaganda (TV ads, billboards, and other public bulletins) disproportionately targeted the traditionally marginalized classes—the rural, indigenous, and uneducated populations—as the main culprit miring the nation in the past, with their tendency to overpopulate.20

Most of these reforms disproportionately served the urban population; population growth continued to strain the sectors that were the most rural and poor.21 This new direction in public policy set a national precedent for government involvement in the shape and function of the family. Despite the concerted state effort to address social pressures by legislating the family, average citizens did not make decisions about family planning by blindly following dictates from above. Preventive measures were taken by Mexicans themselves to reduce the strain on the family unit. Since the early 1970s, family size has been on a steady decline. Culturally, however, the perception of Mexico as a country plagued by overpopulation continues to echo. National and international discourses alike disproportionately ascribe the perceived social burden to the poor and nonwhite, even as access to new fertility technologies allows women of means to pursue their personal dreams of reproduction.22

Much of the state attention to the family structure has privileged the urban-dwelling population. Scholarship since the late 20th century has indicated the ways that welfare initiatives have assumed a neoliberal mantle, monetizing and incentivizing individuals’ participation in a streamlined set of services delivered in order to encourage conformity with the state’s idea of a normal family. In the early 21st century, this has had an impact on indigenous women, whose participation in government initiatives in maternity health and education, such as the cash-based Oportunidades program (2002), tethers them to a modern, Western set of mothering practices. According to the World Bank in 2010, which contributed financing to the Mexican government, more than 5.6 million poor families have enrolled in this antipoverty program, which provides basic preventative healthcare and nutrition education while facilitating public-school attendance. Failure to comply with the guidelines of the program results in a loss of benefits.23

By the end of the 20th century and into the 21st, transnational migrations and remittances have come to redefine an increasing percentage of Mexican families and kinship structures. The trailing roots of itinerant workers began to take hold in U.S. soil. While many migrant trails initiated in the 1980s as circuits, flowing across the border as seasons commanded, the enhanced militarization of the border in the 1990s cut many families off more permanently from their traveling members. For those fortunate to live in proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border, ad hoc family reunions could take place on the wall itself, with intimacies once forged on common ground now fed through a few caresses and mementos passed between the chinks of a fence.24 For others, family duties such as parenting become a chore conducted remotely over a longer period of time. For still others, entire families reunited and relocated permanently on the northern side of the border, relinquishing ties to their home country in the face of increasingly dangerous passages.

While Mexican men have migrated north for labor purposes since the 1940s, this disruption in the composition of the family did not disrupt either the gendered economic contributions or the division of labor of the household unit. But since the 1980s, a surge in demand for a racialized, class-based labor pool of Latina women working as domestic laborers in the United States has radically upended the shape and meaning of the families they leave behind. Nannies working in the United States, for example, enact a so-called transnational motherhood for their children back in their home country, through a series of practices that look and feel quite different from the traditional daily nurturing role.25 Not only do these women confront negative stigmas about abandoning their children, but they also must suffer the challenges, and often indignities, of raising other people’s children in the process. Back home, the nuclear families readjust to assign traditional mothering roles to grandparents, fathers, older siblings, and other members of the extended families who come to rely on the remittances provided by the working mother abroad.

The patriarchal family structure might also be compromised by the unlikely incursion of technology in the Internet age. One study observed the phenomenon of educated, self-sustaining, middle-class Mexican women seeking out partners through transnational Internet dating sites—a slightly more upscale and sophisticated market from mail-order brides. These women, self-possessed and globally minded, sought to sidestep the traditional social circles for finding a partner. While their decisions to seek husbands in the United States may have been informed by distaste for machismo (and an accompanying set of cultural expectations about men in the United States), this trend nevertheless speaks to the expanding options for family formation and the proactive role some women are beginning to take.26 These last examples demonstrate that, in the neoliberal era, the labor market and technological forces have come to trump the traditional monoliths of the church and the state as institutional forces shaping family structures and functions. Instead, broader transnational trends, desires, tastes, and urges have come to mold the Mexican family in ever-changing ways.

In 2006, Congress passed a law that brought an end to the customary practice of judges reading the Epistle of Melchor Ocampo at civil wedding ceremonies, drawing to a close a century and a half of institutionalized patriarchy that this ritual bestowed rhetorically at the onset of most unions. For decades, women had balked at the overt sexism embedded in the words habitually included in the ceremony. Between the lines of the respective duties of wives and husbands lay the history of the struggle between church and state, as they vied with each other for influence over that fundamental unit of socialization and the key to legitimization of power: the family.

In conclusion, in late 2009, legislators in Mexico City legalized same-sex marriage—only in the city—heralding a new set of directions for the shape of the family in the modern era and cementing the obsolete nature of the Epistle of Melchor Ocampo as a set of guidelines for marital success. While the rest of the country might remain ambivalent about this piece of legislation, it signals yet another transformation in the long history of the family.

Discussion of the Literature

Early scholarship that addressed the family did so tangentially through the examination of the creation, goals, and function of major welfare institutions intended to serve the poor—for the majority of the 20th century, these were primarily run by the expanding state. This approach set up a relationship between the state and its citizens that implied the family but did not examine it systematically as a historical agent in conversation with macro forces. Oscar Lewis first undertook the study of the family as a unit of analysis in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, through anthropological methodology emblematized by his most famous work, The Children of Sánchez (1961). Since then, scholars have turned to the family to understand not just the endemic roots of poverty, which was Lewis’s central concern, but also the relationships between the family and civic society, political culture, popular culture, and economic behavior. Scholarship on the history of the Mexican family emerged in the late 1980s and rapidly gained momentum in the late 1990s with the rise of social and cultural revisionist approaches to history.

Soledad Loaeza made one of the earliest arguments for the study of the family as a microcosm of structures of power. She argued that especially in the 20th century, the authoritarian power of the state was so complete that it infused civil society with a culture of patriarchal authority; it successfully supplanted the Catholic Church in controlling the socializing auspices of the family unit.27 Subsequent scholarship acknowledged the power of the state in influencing the interpersonal relationships and economic behaviors that stemmed from the family, but this research nuanced the causational interpretation. Gender historians Jean Franco and Steven Stern saw the “modernization of patriarchy” in modern Latin American welfare and populist programs. Looking especially at the revolutionary era, scholars such as Mary Kay Vaughan have identified this process in the way that state programs created new roles for women and children that aligned with national development plans, but that were not fully emancipatory in their scope.28 State initiatives such as the introduction of the molino de nixtamal (cornmeal grinder for preparing tortilla dough) and the availability of vaccinations amounted to a real measure of social security and liberation for many women.

As might be expected, the history of the family has overlapped substantially with gender and women’s history, since many of these are concerned with issues of the politics of reproduction, gendered labor relations, mothering, and welfare.29 Ann Blum has made a major contribution in bringing these fields together in her studies of child circulation, formal and informal family formation, and welfare provision for children from the Porfiriato through the 1940s.30 Nichole Sanders has lent nuance to institutional histories of the family, by demonstrating the ways in which 20th-century welfare agencies transformed the gendered experiences of working women and poor mothers alike.31 But studies of the family have also come to include examinations of the construction of fatherhood, often within the framework of the powerful machismo brand of masculinity as an organizing principle in gender relations.32 The intersection of the state with women’s reproductive health heightens the intimacy, for better or worse, of family planning policy. In 2007, the journal Sexuality Research and Social Policy dedicated an entire special issue to studies of sexual politics, citizenship, and family planning in modern Mexico.33

The relationship between the family and the major institutions that construct it—namely, the church and the state in the 20th century—has become the subject of fruitful scholarly inquiry. The third face of the family—the ways that family units and individuals within those kinship networks construct their realities in spite of the powerful sway of these entities—remains little-studied terrain.

Primary Sources

As mentioned above, the history of the family has largely been accessed through the history of the institutions that have attempted to control its structure and function. Many of the archival holdings regarding these institutions can be found in Mexico City. Collections held at the Archivo Histórico de la Secretaría de Salubridad y Asistencia (AHSSA) contain documents from 1753 to 1970 relating to the creation of the burgeoning number of medical, social, and educational agencies under the umbrella of the Secretary of Public Health. The Archivo Histórico de la Secretaría de Educación Pública (AHSEP), housed in Gallery 8 at the Archivo General de la Nación, contains valuable documentation of the interactions between agents of the state’s expansive public education and the families that it intended to benefit or, in some cases, reform, since this agency’s inception in 1921. This collection can be tricky to navigate, since it has suffered several overhauls to its organizational structure, and the integrity of the collection has been compromised. It is worth noting that citations of documents found in the AHSEP, even in early-21st-century publications, may well be obsolete due to the many layers of cataloguing undergone by this massive archival collection. The archive of the archdiocese of Mexico has documents that date back to 1936, and it grants microfilm access to sacred texts dating back to the 16th century. Popular Catholic magazines that give a sense of the moral and cultural family values being promoted through the Catholic press can also be accessed at the Hemeroteca Nacional, at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).

Some published work contains primary-source material that can be mined for richer interpretations of the history of the family. The aforementioned published work of anthropologist Oscar Lewis continues to provide material for historians of the 1950s and 1960s, though cautionary critiques of his methodology and conclusions have been duly noted.34 The University of Illinois houses the Oscar and Ruth Lewis Papers, which contain documentation of his work carried out observing Mexican (and Puerto Rican) families from 1944 to 1976. This collection also contains rich files on Lewis and his team’s work on Cuban families, which as of 2015 remains closed to the public. Elena Poniatowska’s Massacre in Mexico (1975) contains vignettes of voices—ranging from unpoliticized housewives to student activists, to policemen on the streets, and to local politicians—all stakeholders in the transformative events of the late 1960s.

Researchers might be interested in using visual sources to piece together some of the everyday aspects of family life, nuances of the quotidian that don’t often make their way into the official documentary record through conventional avenues. Footnotes and bibliographies in the vast scholarship of John Mraz about Mexico’s visual culture will provide the interested researcher with many places to start examining the visual documentation, and these sources will also help contextualize these images as they were first produced.35 In particular, the photography of Nacho López (b. 1923–d. 1986) captures mid-20th-century Mexico City at its most barefaced. He evaded the facile romanticization or pictorialism to which revolutionary photographers often resorted, laying the groundwork for a new generation of photojournalism in an increasingly media-savvy culture. His photographic collections, and many others, can be accessed at the Fototeca Nacional, CONACULTA-INAH-SINAFO.

Further Reading

  • Albarrán, Elena Jackson. Seen and Heard in Mexico: Children and Revolutionary Cultural Nationalism. Mexican Experience. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014.
  • Bliss, Katherine Elaine. Compromised Positions: Prostitution, Public Health, and Gender Politics in Revolutionary Mexico City. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.
  • Blum, Ann S. Domestic Economies: Family, Work, and Welfare in Mexico City, 1884–1943. Engendering Latin America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.
  • Lewis, Oscar. Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty. New York: Basic Books, 1959.
  • Lomnitz, Larissa Adler. Networks and Marginality: Life in a Mexican Shantytown. Translated by Cinna Lomnitz. Studies in Anthropology. New York: Academic Press, 1977.
  • Mitchell, Stephanie, and Patience A. Schell, eds. The Women’s Revolution in Mexico, 1910–1953. Latin American Silhouettes. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
  • Olcott, Jocelyn, Mary Kay Vaughan, and Gabriela Cano, eds. Sex in Revolution: Gender, Politics, and Power in Modern Mexico. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.
  • Rodríguez, Victoria Elizabeth, ed. Women’s Participation in Mexican Political Life. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1998.
  • Sanders, Nichole. Gender and Welfare in Mexico: The Consolidation of a Postrevolutionary State. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.
  • Smith-Oka, Vania. Shaping the Motherhood of Indigenous Mexico. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2013.
  • Sosenski, Susana. Niños en acción: El trabajo infantil en la ciudad de México (1920–1934). Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 2010.
  • Tuñón Pablos, Julia. Women in Mexico: A Past Unveiled. Translated by Alan Hynds. Translations from Latin America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999.
  • Vaughan, Mary Kay. Cultural Politics in Revolution: Teachers, Peasants, and Schools in Mexico, 1930–1940. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997.


  • 1. Soledad Loaeza, “La familia autoritaria en México,” Diálogos: Artes, Letras, Ciencias Humanas 18, no. 6 (November–December 1982), 52–57.

  • 2. Kathryn A. Sloan, “The Penal Code of 1871: From Religious to Civil Control of Everyday Life,” in William H. Beezley, ed., A Companion to Mexican History and Culture (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 302–315; and Elizabeth Dore, “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Gender and the State in the Long Nineteenth Century,” in Elizabeth Dore and Maxine Molyneux, eds., Hidden Histories of Gender and the State in Latin America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 3–32.

  • 3. Silvia M. Arrom, “Changes in Mexican Family Law in the Nineteenth Century,” in Gertrude M. Yeager, ed., Confronting Change, Challenging Tradition: Women in Latin American History (Lanham, MD: SR Books, 1994), 87–102.

  • 4. Ann Shelby Blum, “Conspicuous Benevolence: Liberalism, Public Welfare, and Private Charity in Porfirian Mexico City, 1877–1910,” The Americas 58, no. 1 (July 2001), 7–38.

  • 5. Ana Lidia García Peña, “Madres solteras, pobres y abandonadas: Ciudad de México, siglo XIX,” Historia Mexicana 53, no. 3 (January–March 2004), 647–692.

  • 6. Gabriela Cano, “Unconcealable Realities of Desire: Amelio Robles’s (Transgender) Masculinity in the Mexican Revolution,” in Jocelyn Olcott, Mary Kay Vaughan, and Gabriela Cano, eds., Sex in Revolution: Gender, Politics, and Power in Modern Mexico (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 35–56.

  • 7. Stephanie Smith, “‘If Love Enslaves . . . Love Be Damned!’: Divorce and Revolutionary State Formation in Yucatán,” in Jocelyn Olcott, Mary Kay Vaughan, and Gabriela Cano, eds., Sex in Revolution: Gender, Politics, and Power in Modern Mexico (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 99–111.

  • 8. Julia Tuñón Pablos, Women in Mexico: A Past Unveiled, Alan Hynds, trans. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), 93–96.

  • 9. Ann S. Blum, Domestic Economies: Family, Work, and Welfare in Mexico City, 1884–1943 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 132–133, 122.

  • 10. Nichole Sanders, Gender and Welfare in Mexico: The Consolidation of a Postrevolutionary State (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011).

  • 11. Paul Gillingham, “Sex, Death, and Structuralism: Alternative Views of the Twentieth Century,” in William H. Beezley, ed., A Companion to Mexican History and Culture (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 616–632.

  • 12. Elena Jackson Albarrán, Seen and Heard in Mexico: Children and Revolutionary Cultural Nationalism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014).

  • 13. Ann S. Blum, “Earning a Place in the Family: Child Labor and Family Relations, Mexico City, 1925–1940,” paper presented at the Simposio Historia de la Infancia en América Latina, 53rd Congreso Internacional de Americanistas, Mexico City, 2009.

  • 14. Blum, Domestic Economies, 256.

  • 15. Susana Sosenski, Niños en acción: El trabajo infantil en la ciudad de México (1920–1934) (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 2010).

  • 16. Kristina A. Boylan, “Gendering the Faith and Altering the Nation: Mexican Catholic Women’s Activism, 1917–1940,” in Jocelyn Olcott, Mary Kay Vaughan, and Gabriela Cano, eds., Sex in Revolution: Gender, Politics, and Power in Modern Mexico (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 199–222.

  • 17. Soledad Loaeza, “Mexico in the Fifties: Women and Church in Holy Alliance,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 33, no. 3–4, Special Issue: Gender and Culture in the 1950s (Fall–Winter 2005), 138–160.

  • 18. Loaeza, “Mexico in the Fifties,” 146.

  • 19. Larissa Adler Lomnitz, Networks and Marginality: Life in a Mexican Shantytown (New York: Academic Press, 1977).

  • 20. Gabriela Soto Laveaga, “‘Let’s Become Fewer’: Soap Operas, Contraception, and Nationalizing the Mexican Family in an Overpopulated World,” Sexuality Research & Social Policy 4, no. 3 (September 2007), 19–33.

  • 21. Brian J. L. Berry, L. Shane Hall, Rodolfo Hernández-Guerrero, and Patricia H. Martin, “México’s Demographic Transition: Public Policy and Spatial Process,” Population and Environment 21, no. 4 (March 2000), 363–383.

  • 22. Lara Braff, “Somos Muchos (We Are So Many): Population Politics and ‘Reproductive Othering’ in Mexican Fertility Clinics,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 27, no. 1 (2013), 121–138.

  • 23. Vania Smith-Oka, Shaping the Motherhood of Indigenous Mexico (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2013).

  • 24. Tom Miller, On the Border: Portraits of America’s Southwestern Frontier (New York: Harper & Row, 1981).

  • 25. Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo and Ernestine Avila, “‘I’m Here, but I’m There’: The Meanings of Latina Transnational Motherhood,” Gender & Society 11, no. 5 (October 1997), 548–571.

  • 26. Felicity Schaeffer-Grabiel, “Searching for Love, Widening Possibilities: Mexican Women and the Transnational World of Internet Dating, 1990s–c. 2000,” in Pamela S. Murray, ed., Women and Gender in Modern Latin America: Historical Sources and Interpretations (New York: Routledge, 2014), 350–361.

  • 27. Loaeza, “La familia autoritaria en México,” 54.

  • 28. Mary Kay Vaughan, “Modernizing Patriarchy: State Policies, Rural Households, and Women in Mexico, 1930–1940,” in Elizabeth Dore and Maxine Molyneux, eds., Hidden Histories of Gender and the State in Latin America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 194–214.

  • 29. For an excellent overview of this historiography, see Nara Milanich, “The Historiography of Latin American Families,” in Jose C. Moya, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Latin American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 382–406; Ann S. Blum, “Bringing It Back Home: Perspectives on Gender and Family History in Modern Mexico,” History Compass 4, no. 5 (2006), 906–926.

  • 30. Ann Blum, “Public Welfare and Child Circulation, Mexico City, 1877 to 1925,” Journal of Family History 23, no. 3 (1998), 240–271; and Blum, Domestic Economies.

  • 31. Sanders, Gender and Welfare in Mexico.

  • 32. Matthew C. Gutmann, The Meanings of Macho: Being a Man in Mexico City (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); and Víctor M. Macías-González and Anne Rubenstein, eds., Masculinity and Sexuality in Modern Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2012).

  • 33. Sexuality Research and Social Policy 4, no. 3 (September 2007).

  • 34. Susan M. Rigdon, The Culture Facade: Art, Science, and Politics in the Work of Oscar Lewis (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988).

  • 35. Among others, see John Mraz, Looking for Mexico: Modern Visual Culture and National Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).