I still marvel with great regularity at what goes on in the homes of my Colombian colleagues and friends. Stories that I hear with flapping ears and situations that I really wouldn’t be able to place in The Netherlands. I’ll also tell you what Colombians find weird about my culture. In every culture, of course, that culture is normal, and on the other side of the ocean, that comes across as a bit strange. So like the Colombian family situation is a little weird for us foreigners. Now, of course, you’d really like to know exactly what goes on behind the front door of a Colombian family. So: here’s Colombias family life in pictures! Disclaimer: there are always exceptions to the rule, which means that not 100% of Colombian families function this way. However, this text does give a good idea of the structure and culture within most families.
Colombian family life revolves around the mother, so she is hugely important. Colombian fathers either are not there or play a minor role. She gives her whole life for the family, out of love, but in return she expects the children to devote their lives and resources to mother to keep her happy. Consequently, Colombians feel they owe a lot to their mother and want to do everything for her. By the way, the life of a Colombian mother is pretty tough. Not only does she have to keep a household running while often working a full-time job, there is always the pressure to look perfect. Especially in view of the Colombian attitude toward marital (un)fidelity. I also often ask myself how my friend, a single mother of two and a full-time job, manages to have a different hairstyle every week, always show up at work with perfectly painted nails AND cook lunch and dinner for herself and her kids every day.
Do not come between child and mother
Colombian children are quite dependent on their mothers. For example, many colleagues my age still get the lunch made by mom to take to work. Coming between a child and the mother is impossible. A mother is kind of sacred and you can’t just contradict her. Colombian children know very well that not complying with the mother’s wishes is almost a crime. You really notice that everywhere. While we Dutch just tell our parents that we want some privacy, they don’t have to bring all that unhealthy food, or that we don’t like the fact that mom rearranged the closet, a Colombian child won’t do that. You can probably imagine that this can be a source of irritation in a relationship between a Colombian and a foreigner. Especially when it comes to a son. I speak from experience ;).
The Colombian father has a totally different role in the family. If at all, because countless families consist of only the mother, children and possibly aunts and grandparents. But when the father is there, he considers himself a kind of king of the house. However, this important role is limited to certain times and moments. Of course, these constraints were determined by motherhood. But nothing is what it seems… After all, fathers are usually also the breadwinner of the house and are often machos. This puts them in charge when it comes to big decisions such as housing, what car to buy, where the vacation will go and what to watch on TV. Moreover, the role of the father varies by economic class. In low-income families, there is often not even a father and this role is filled by the mother or eldest child.
Once a family’s income was determined by the number of children: the more the better because any child as young as five could be put to work. Although I still occasionally encounter working children, thankfully this situation has changed. As a result, the number of children per family has decreased. Today, children work after school for themselves rather than for the family. Colombian children have great respect for their parents. Many parents want to give their children everything they never had themselves.
A boy is a different story than a girl. In many cases, a boy takes over the father role and arranges all kinds of things for his mother, what the mother in the Netherlands would really do herself. I have had to get very used to this myself, by the way, that parents here seem to be able (or willing) to do almost nothing themselves. Sons call their mother mamita or mamuchis, even when, as a 40-year-old, he is on the phone with her on a crowded bus. A Dutch man would not be very quick to call his mother mommy in a full office….
Another thing that often surprises me: Colombian children continue to live with their parents until late in life. Even if the child is already past 30, it is perfectly normal as a mother to still cook dinner and do laundry. Only when the child has enough money to go out on his or her own, does the child leave home. Or if a partner is involved. Colombian mothers are often not very happy when their offspring flies out. And especially not when it involves a boy being “taken” by another woman.
Then mother and son call several times a day. Because even though he no longer lives at home, she still wants to know if he arrived at work and if he is getting some good food. Even with daughters, by the way: at work, my colleagues call their mothers several times. If the mother lives nearby, son dearest in particular can also count on many visits. Who often has no problem with that at all. Different from the daughter-in-law, especially if she is a non-Colombian. Going on vacation with your mother and the rest of the family is also very normal. Mothers do not seem to have the realization that they are interfering too much in their child’s life, something that certainly the partner is really not always happy about.
Colombian men are known to be incapable of preparing even the simplest omelet or washing his socks. They can’t do anything in the household because mother has always done everything. I know many men my age whose wives do everything because they can’t do it themselves. Fortunately, Jimmy left home at 16 to study in another city, so he is very independent.
And we are not there yet, because although the mother is almost sacred, from the middle to upper class it is often the help that acts as a strong base on which the whole family depends. This one woman is unmissable in many families and very important to keep life running smoothly. The help does almost everything: make breakfast, lunch and dinner, walk the dog, keep the house clean, wash clothes, do the dishes, wait for children from school, dress children, and so on. A full-time job, in other words. Colombians claim that help belongs to the family, but at the same time it is often undervalued, underpaid and exploited. In particular, the woman in the home benefits, as the helper is an easy and inexpensive replacement for the mother. The help is often a woman from a low-economic class looking for a good future. Many work long hours for low payments. Fortunately, I also know people who do get it right with help.
Last but not least: the pets! And especially the dog, which is truly central to a Colombian family. Especially in the upper class, many have a dog that is totally pampered. The dog has a wardrobe all his own with cute shirts and bows. It even goes so far that vans pick up the dogs in the morning for a day of schooling, food, beauty treatments and stress therapy. On the street next to ours, there is a van full of rich people’s dogs like that every morning. And walk past a dog spa every day. So funny!
Colombian families and entire families are often tremendously close with each other and do everything together. You really can’t go on vacation with just two people; the whole family goes with you. And sleep together in the same bed when it’s convenient? No problem! On occasion, I too have slept in the same bed with Jimmy and his mother for a few nights because there was simply no other option. Living with uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers, it’s all possible. There is little privacy and everyone lives tremendously close together. Fortunately, it is normal in Colombian homes to have at least two bathrooms with showers. I have since experienced the great benefits of that myself!
Having a Colombian family as a second family is usually very pleasant, sometimes terribly frustrating, and above all very interesting….