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October 2008

Uruguayan Culture and Family Life
About Family Matters and the role of Family in Uruguayan culture.

traditional Gaucho drinking Mate on his horse.

Uruguay is a family-oriented country where family bonds extend much wider and deeper than what is common in North America. Even though most families have few children (2.04 on average), the extended family includes distant cousins and is augmented by neighbors and childhood friends that are often treated essentially as members of the immediate family.

Children frequently live in the parental home well into their thirties, in some cases even after marriage, the usual reason for staying at home being economic necessity, and because of the family-oriented culture prevalent in Uruguay. It is common to see grown children, parents and sometimes grandparents living in the same residence (average of 3.94 persons per household vs 2.59 for the US). Actually more than 50% of the homes have four or more people and 17% six or more. Children will typically live with their parents until they get married or until they are well established in their careers. Since unemployment is high and salaries low among the young, moving out is often delayed into the late twenties, or later. That’s why it is so common to see three, four and even five bedroom apartments in Montevideo, something that is rare in North America.

Family gatherings typically center on outdoor barbecues (asados), in which large quantities of meat are consumed. Another typical custom, symbolic of family and friendship ties, is the sharing of yerba mate, a form of rustic green tea. A hollowed-out gourd (the mate) or sometimes a china cup is packed almost full with the dry tea leaves. A metal straw is then inserted into the tea, and boiling water is poured on top. The mate is then passed around in a circle, each person adding a little more hot water.

As a result of the close family ties, there is a stronger involvement of the family in the decisions young adults make. So it is common for parents to meddle in the private lives of adult children. Boyfriends and girlfriends have to be adept at charming the whole family in order to have a chance. This constant interaction with a large extended family ends up generating strong rules of behavior so everybody can live in relative harmony. Like everywhere else, from early on there is a constant training on how to properly greet people, how to interact and to entertain, what is polite and what is not, what is acceptable and what is rude. The difference is that in Uruguay this process continues until you are in your late twenties and never really ends. So the rules are much more uniformly followed by everyone.

Maybe because of this, making new acquaintances is easy in Uruguay. Not much effort is needed. The habitual politeness and the customary friendliness towards strangers make it simple to meet people. However transforming an acquaintance into a permanent friend is more difficult. The truth is almost everybody will already have more friends and relatives than they have time for, and family comes first!


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