The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1985, Volume 31, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Reviews

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

La Familia: Chicano Families in the Urban Southwest, 1848 to the Present. By Richard Griswold del Castillo. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 173 Pages. $18.95 cloth/$7.95 paper.

Reviewed by Ramón A. Gutiérrez, Professor of History, University of California, San Diego.

La Familia, by Ricardo Griswold del Castillo, a professor of Mexican-American history at San Diego State University, is a sweeping synthesis of the historical and social science literature that has been written on Mexican-origin (or Chicano) families living in the United States. The author argues that “in the past 150 years there has been a conflict between the beliefs and values held by Mexican Americans regarding the proper and desirable way to live within families and the economic pressures of the American capitalist system.” To test this thesis, Professor Griswold del Castillo studies the experiences of families in four Southwestern urban centers (Los Angeles, Tucson, Santa Fe, San Antonio), and in so doing presents us with a wealth of information on the lives, dreams, passions and pains of ordinary people eking out an existence.

The author identifies several transformations in the Mexican (Chicano) family between 1848 and 1984 which he links casually to economic modernization. This most noticeable change between 1850 and 1880 was a weakening of the patriarchial structure of the family. Declining job opportunities for married males forced them to migrate away from home and when this combined with high levels of mortality, the result was that twenty-five per-cent of all households were headed by females. As women began to work outside the home and increasingly took greater charge over domestic affairs, the patriarchial ideals which formerly constrained their behavior slowly crumbled. The economic forces fueling these changes also slowly eroded the expanse of the extended family. In 1850 approximately fourteen percent of all Mexican-Americans were members of extended families, by 1880 only nine percent were. This pattern suggests an increasing household nucleation which the statistics indeed confirm. Between 1850 and 1880 the percentage of Mexicans living in nuclear families went from 25 to 50.

The degree of marital assimilation, that is, the number of Mexican-Americans (Chicanos) marrying Anglo-Americans, is another issue to which the author has devoted much attention. He found that in the four urban centers studies, the percentage of mixed marriages went from approximately 8.5 percent in 1850 to close to ten percent in 1880. This upward trend in the levels of marriage group exogamy was reversed at the beginning of the twentieth century. With the influx into the Southwest between 1900 and 1930 of large numbers of single male immigrants from Mexico, the sex-ratio imbalance (more Mexican females than Mexican males) which formerly promoted group exogamy, ceased.

Griswold del Castillo maintains that with the dawn of the twentieth century, urban growth and industrialization led to four distinct family types among the Mexican-origin populations of the Southwest: 1) immigrant working-class family; 2) native working-class family; 3) middle class family; 4) upper class family. Wage levels, linguistic skills (whether a person is bilingual or not), and one’s posture toward the dominant culture and its social institutions were the variables used to differentiate family forms. The immigrant and native working-class families “lived in poverty with chronic unemployment, high rates of geographic mobility, infant mortality, malnutrition, and over-crowding. Their lives were full of economic and social insecurity.” Middle- and upper-class families, on the other hand, “were secure, bicultural, more assimilated, economically stable, and moved in different cultural orbits than did the lower classes”.

La Familia is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of Mexican-origin (Chicano) families in the Southwest. It is a useful compendium of what little we yet know and a sweeping sketch of all that yet remains to be done.