Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Elder in the Cuban American Family: Making Sense of the Real and Ideal

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Elder in the Cuban American Family: Making Sense of the Real and Ideal

Article excerpt


On a visit to a public housing building for elders in the City of Miami, Florida (U.S.A.), I was greeted in the lobby by a slight and energetic Cuban woman of about 70 years of age. The woman invited me into her neat little one bedroom apartment to use the telephone as I was trying to locate several persons I had been sent to interview. In her compact living room pictures of her daughter's wedding and granddaughter's quinceanera (a traditional Latin American debut ritual) among other family photographs adorned her crowded walls. As she demonstrated these images to me she said to me, almost as to reassure herself, that her daughter had "turned out very good" (mi hija me ha salida muy buena].

But what exactly does it mean to be a "good daughter" (buena hija) in a Cuban family in South Florida? A good daughter (or son) by ideal standards would probably have her widowed mother living with her. Prior to migrating, the majority of these older Cuban women who I encountered living alone during my research, lived in their parent's house or in their husband's family's house until their mother and father passed away. This, however, was likely a matter of relative resources or economics, as well as cultural values.

Contrary to the ideal of extended multi-generational household arrangements, many Cuban elders in Miami today express a desire for maintaining their independence and claim to prefer living alone. This independence need not, however, be mutually exclusive with extended household arrangements were it not for changing family dynamics resulting from experiences of migration and acculturation.

With migration the tables are more often than not turned. Many Cuban elders who migrated to the United States as relatively younger adults in the 1960s experienced a change in relative wealth, influence and authority in the United States. As parents raising their children in a new country, many invested their efforts in their children's education and little on themselves.

The children, usually more 'Americanized' and successful economically than their parents, have moved away from the City of Miami to the suburbs of Miami-Dade. The parents, with little or no savings, live alone in public housing or modest efficiencies, or the old family home. Pictures and other momentos of family life adorn their walls in lieu of regular contact with their children.

Despite the reality of changing familial structure and exchanges noted widely by sociologists and feminists, the "family," and particularly children, is assumed as the natural support network of elders by many. This assumption of familial support is found both in the popular literature and to some extent among elders themselves, especially among "ethnic" elders in the United States. Intergenerational values, expectations and behaviors regarding familial relations and responsibilities are changing due in part to varying degrees of acculturation between generations. Over the last thirty years there has been an increasing tendency among Cuban elders in Miami to live alone (see Arias, 1998). Yet, particular notions of the "family" persist and are reinterpreted in this context.

Gubrium and Holstein define family not as a fixed "social object" but as "both a product and by-product of family discourse" (1993:66). Discourse is also a site of resistance for notions of the family (Gubrium and Holstein, 1993:67). Yet, socio-cultural ideals expressed through discourse may differ from individual realities. This paper asks:

1) What is the "real" versus the "ideal" of elder Cuban family life in Miami?

2) And how do the elders themselves make sense of the discrepancies between the two?

3) How do understandings of familial relations differ in the group verses individual setting?

These questions are approached from both an anthropological and demographic perspective. In the following pages information from both extended individual and focus group interviews on intergenerational and familial exchanges among 79 Cuban elders is presented. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.