For most of human history, homo sapiens lived in small bands, towns, and villages. Always there were several generations under one roof, be that roof a hard rock cave ceiling, palm thatch, tanned buffalo hides, or fired tiles. Even with the advent of agriculture a littleover 10,000 years ago and the rise of industry in the 19thcentury, families continued to be multi-generational; children knew their grandparents even with much shorter life spans than we know today.
Many people in the world continue to live in these more intimate, face-to-face communities and I had the good fortune as an anthropologist to spend two years in one. In the early 1970s, I carried out doctoral research in a small Zapotec Indian peasant community in southern Mexico, on the Pacific coast closer to Guatemala than Mexico City. In the town, which I am calling Zapotepec (not its real name), sons worked alongside fathers in the fields growing sesame, corn, and peanuts. Daughters worked with their mothers as bakers, butchers, shopkeepers, seamstresses, and as owners of other small businesses. Oftengrandparents were part of the mix.
The pattern of settlement was for newly married couples to start out living in the home of one of their parents, working and saving until they could build a home of their own. Sometimes this independence was never established, but it was always the goal. Couples would raise their children, living near grandparents, always having them available as a resource for child care, socialization, and teaching needed skills and arts.
There were no retirement plans. No insured health care. No formal social security. No one ever stopped working and moved to a trailer park further south in Mexico. People – men and women – worked daily for as long as their strength would permit. To live was to work.
And play, for these Zapotecs loved their fiestas large and small. This was not an existence devoid of pleasure or aesthetic sensibilities. More than half of the adult men were or had been professional musicians, playing in marimbas that toured the region and making a good cash income doing so. The women loved to dance dressed in their finest gaily patterned dresses.
Retirement came with illness, debility, accident, and the general decrepitude of old age. Until then, often three generations would be working together. Farmers plowed with oxen. There was no machinery to help. Little electricity. A few entrepreneurial families would invest in a gas powered generator to run movie projectors used to display mostly cowboy movies on a white stuccoed patio wall. No running water except for the spring-fed stream that irrigated much of the farmland, served as the source for drinking water, and bath and laundry.
The Zapotec worked until they physically could no longer manage the demands of the labor. Few of the very old were just sitting around. They helped their children and grandchildren as they could. They managed livestock – chickens, goats, pigs, cows. Older men maintained the traditional irrigation system, a centuries-old and very complex network of dikes, gates, and ditches. Older women lead their families in decorating the altars of the church and the graves of the dead.
These family patterns are much closer to how we have lived as a species for thousands of years than was the disjointed, geographically isolated, and generationally segregated family life in which I grew up. I am not endorsing one type of family life over another. My wife and I treasure the memories we have of growing up surrounded by family, but we have chosen, with no regrets, to live thousands of miles from them. At the same time, we look forward to our daughter’s wedding later this year and the promise of grandchildren. She lives in Seattle and in all likelihood will have to suffer and benefit from the presence of her parents and her fiance’s mother; we all live in the same part of the country. Our daughter and future son-in-law have little to learn from us about work, religion, and politics, the small stuff. But when it comes to babies, we may not be under the same roof, but we will be nearby to coach the new parents and care for the little one(s).
David Rymph, PH.D.