When I talk to other volunteers about their sites we often joke that we are related to almost everyone (through our host families) in our sites. In Paraguay, everyone in one family tends to live in the same town, on the same street. The street will have generations of one family, and the family members will likely live their entire lives there. One common exception comes because of marriage: If two people from different parts of Paraguay marry, most often the woman moves to the man’s neighborhood.
Another thing that makes families so massive to someone from the US is that the average woman has more children than in the US. Many nuclear families, especially families where the mother does not have a professional job, have more than 3 children and 5, 6, or more is not uncommon. It is also interesting to note that children frequently live with their parents until they marry. For example, I have 5 siblings in my current host family: 26, 24, 15, 12, and 8 years old and all of them live in the house with their mother and father.
What does living so close to your family mean?
It means, as a kid, you are guaranteed a huge band of cousins (friends) with whom you can play. It means when you host a party you have tons of hands to help cook. It means, to visit with family, you don’t need to leave your neighborhood.
As someone who grew up far away from branches of my family, I find it neat that Paraguayans have their aunts, uncles, and cousins so close. But, the closeness doesn’t prevent divisions and arguments. For example, in my site, my host family is related to most people on one side of the street through my mother and the other side of the street through my father. But, family members from the two sides of the street visit infrequently, even though they live only a ten-minute walk apart.
How does this relate to daily life as a volunteer?
For me a key aspect to doing my job is knowing who talks to who. Why? In a small town, gossip flies around and is a key pastime for many people. As a foreigner trying to maintain a positive image, it’s helpful to know how individual’s opinions of me might get around and affect my relationships with other members of the community. Knowing who gossips together is also helpful in terms of meeting people and understanding safety warnings. Like anywhere, people only hang out with the people they like, so they can only introduce you to that circle. Often, people don’t trust or don’t like the people who are not in their circle so they’ll advise you to avoid those people. As someone who is still trying to learn about the entire community, it is important to know when warnings to avoid someone are for a good reason or just because the person you’re talking to doesn’t like that person.