by Marilyn P. Davis
December 1999 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 16, Number 4

Once a young man told me he was looking for a woman to marry. Of course she had to be someone special, but he knew he would never find anyone equal to his mother. Now, this man's viewpoint probably can be found anywhere, but in Mexico it's how most men feel. They often describe their mother as a saint. This adoring love for one's mother isn't just the prerogative of men. Women often tell me the most important person in their life is their mother.

When I first came to Mexico, this was a bit of a shock. I come from a country and era where we made every effort to break away from our mothers. Beyond that motherhood was, and in many ways still is, the lowest rung on the ladder. When I was a young mother, you couldn't tell people when they asked what you did, that you were a mother. You would get a look, like soooo? But what do you do? And then, coming from a university community to Mexico, for my first fieldwork project, I found myself in a village where being a mother is the primary goal of all females and carries the highest status, next to priesthood.

It was when I noticed that children rarely argued with their mothers, and in turn the mothers almost never disciplined their children, that I knew I had to look into this.

The primary and most important relationship in the village of San Juan (where I did my research) is between mother and child. Interestingly enough, although it is characterized by a closeness that isn't found in any other relationship, by contrast there is a lack of physical interaction. From the time a child is born, it is held very little by its mother, usually only to be nursed or played with. One reason is that is the role of the young girls, the aunts, and grandmothers. They, rather than the mother, have the responsibility of quieting the baby when it's fussy.

It is customary for the baby to sleep with her and they will be wrapped up together in a blanket. But as soon as a child is beyond nursing, it may still sleep with its mother, but wrapped in its own blanket. Though there is the opportunity for physical contact in the task of bathing children, mothers bathe only their infants. From about one year of age to six, the child is bathed by an older sibling. So from birth, the baby’s contact with its mother is always positive, comforting, to be fed, held, played with and cuddled asleep.

The mothers of San Juan are not disciplinarians. They may reprimand a very young child, but as often as not the child is corrected by someone else. Mothers almost never yell at their children, and rarely does she use physical discipline. I have only seen two instances, one when a mother spanked her little girl who ran into the street, and another when a three-year-old was hitting his cousin of the same age, his mother swatted him with a corn cob. I've asked mothers about this and they say that it's improper to spank a child, and if one spanks his child in anger, she must go to confession. Like bathing and entertaining, discipline is carried out by another member of the family and punishment most often falls to the father.

Just as they don't use physical discipline, mothers rarely show physical affection, except in a formal manner. Rather than kissing her children goodbye if she were going somewhere, she is more likely to bless the child, or the child will kiss its mother on the cheek or hand. An older son will show physical affection in brusquely hugging and kissing his mother on the cheek, or standing with his arm around her. She accepts this with an air of formality. She doesn't return the affection, but dearly appreciates it.

Mothers do show their love in other ways. One is the tenderness with which she calls each child, "mi hijo" or "mi hija." Perhaps the most important sign of her love is in the giving of food. Although the mother will cook three meals a day, food is offered whenever it is ready and children are allowed to eat as much as they want until the supply runs out. Little babies are breast-fed whenever they appear to be hungry. Often they will be fed just to quiet them. A baby is never left to cry.

Money is like food. It is freely given, and freely spent. During the day a child will ask his mother for money and if she can, she will give even a little toddler a peso to buy dulces. Whenever a vendor comes with hair ribbons or miniature pottery, the mothers buy some little token for their children. They spend very little on themselves, but see that their children have what they need first. Much of a mother's time will be spent in obtaining the money for clothes, the most important being shoes, as well as in washing and ironing.

Mothers tend not to praise their children, but they do spend a good deal of time talking about them or praising them to others in their presence. At the same time it's almost impossible to get a mother to relate a negative instance about her child. They always speak of them with pride.

One night, the 15-year-old son of a friend had been out drinking and raising a ruckus in the street. His mother’s response was, “Poor thing, and he's feeling so badly this morning." If a son comes in late at night, drinking, a mother will let him in, ask if he wants something to eat--of course, this means starting a fire-- in the meantime chatting, very affectionately and sympathetically. Well, no wonder even grown children adore their mothers. She is the one who throughout their life comforts and feeds them, never disciplines or denies them. From her they receive only uncompromising love, while all the adversity in life is associated with others. The societal structure insures that there will be a minimal amount of conflict between mothers and children, so this relationship is held with very little ambivalence. This engenders an unusually close, lifetime mother/child relationship.

(Ed. Note: Ms. Davis, a regular contributor to these pages, is the author of the best-selling book, Mexican Voices, American Dreams. Published by Henry Holt Co. (NYC), the book has gone through six printings.)