In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Family History

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Special Journal Issues
  • Indigenous Families
  • Elite Families and Family Networks
  • Illegitimacy
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Domesticity and Daily Life
  • Work and Family
  • Family Portraits: Visual Sources and Analysis

Latin American Studies Family History
Ann S. Blum
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0064


The family has been at the center of the history of Latin America since Europeans first confronted the region’s indigenous peoples. Conquest, religious conversion, and the introduction of African slavery placed sexual practices, kinship systems, marriage, gender relations, and child rearing in a politically and ideologically charged context. The Roman Catholic Church held authority over the family cycle while Spanish and Portuguese law imposed new inheritance systems. After the colonies won independence from Spain and Portugal in the early 1800s, the spread of liberalism prompted Latin America’s political classes to view the family as the cradle of citizens and the foundation of social stability and economic productivity. But social hierarchies rooted in colonial status and caste systems perpetuated inequalities whose legacies persist today. These shared histories produced distinctive patterns of family formation and practice throughout the region. Formal families sanctioned by church and state have constituted a small minority, and historians have approached them as institutions for organizing labor, property, commerce, power, and prestige. Studies of socially marginalized populations have revealed that the majority of Latin American families have been informal in the eyes of the law and often composed of single mothers and illegitimate children. These patterns demonstrate that family practice often diverges from legal and social norms, and they also prompt fundamental questions about the meaning of “family” in the past. As a result, Latin American family history has been methodologically diverse. Some scholars have adopted anthropological models for analyzing kinship, while others have construed kinship more broadly to encompass cultural practices such as godparenthood and religious associations. Many family historians use legal records to explore changing definitions of family relations. Demographic methods help reconstruct the impact of disease and migration on household composition and headship, marriage, and reproduction. Viewing family in the aggregate as “population,” however, reflects the legacy of modernization and development theories laden with First World cultural biases. Recently, historians of women’s and gender history have focused on intrafamilial relations to expose hierarchies of gender, class, and power within families and households. This bibliography is organized to highlight the distinctive circumstances that have shaped family formations in Latin America. Sections are devoted to elite families and to families in indigenous and slave societies. Studies are also grouped according to their focus on different phases of the family cycle. Because the majority of children in Latin America were born outside of formal marriage, one section focuses on illegitimacy. Finally, other sections include collections of works that examine important dimensions of family life, such as domesticity, work, and pictorial representations of the family.

General Overviews

The long chronological span of Latin American history and the diversity of regional characteristics have discouraged a synthetic monographic approach to the history of the family. Thus, the works selected for inclusion in this section are largely historiographical. Balmori 1981 offers a useful overview of family history in the early 1980s. Kuznesof and Oppenheimer 1985 argues that families were central to, and generative of, Latin America’s social, political, and economic institutions. Potthast-Jutkeit 1997 places Latin American and Caribbean family history in a comparative context of colonialism. More recently, a new generation of scholars has revisited family history and offers new perspectives. Rodríguez 2004 highlights regional and Atlantic connections as well as the discipline’s visual turn. Milanich 2007 and Premo 2008 both point to insights to be gained from the history of childhood in Latin America, while Robichaux, et al. 2007 proposes interdisciplinary approaches to family history in the region.

  • Balmori, Diana. “A Course in Latin American Family History.” In Special Issue: Teaching Latin American History. Edited by William F. Slater. The History Teacher 14.3 (May 1981): 401–411.

    DOI: 10.2307/493418

    This essay provides a valuable overview of the field of Latin American family history in the early 1980s. The author notes that the historiography of elite families, mainly hacienda studies and studies of commerce, was the most developed area of research at that time, but she also points to emerging studies focusing on women’s roles. The article includes a bibliography that lists important works in the field.

  • Kuznesof, Elizabeth A., and Robert Oppenheimer. “The Family and Society in Nineteenth-Century Latin America: A Historiographical Introduction.” Journal of Family History 10.3 (1985): 215–234.

    DOI: 10.1177/036319908501000301

    The guest editors for a special journal issue focusing on families in 19th-century Latin America note the field’s recent growth. They argue that in Latin America, the family should be seen as central to political, social, and economic institutions and that historical study of the family also illuminates agrarian structures, urban spatial organization, regional and national politics, and the economy and law.

  • Milanich, Nara. “Whither Family History? A Road Map from Latin America.” American Historical Review 112.2 (April 2007): 439–458.

    DOI: 10.1086/ahr.112.2.439

    The author argues that after an energetic start, family history of Latin America is no longer a dynamic subfield. She proposes reviving the field by examining the family within the context of broad cultures of inequality. In particular, she argues that a focus on children exposes social vulnerabilities that are intrinsic not only to Latin America’s social hierarchies, but also to other colonial and postcolonial settings.

  • Potthast-Jutkeit, Barbara. “The History of Family and Colonialism: Examples from Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.” History of the Family 2.2 (1997): 115–122.

    DOI: 10.1016/S1081-602X(97)90001-4

    This essay proposes that colonization is a more productive analytical framework than modernization for family history because the latter presupposes European or North American social models and slights the importance of politics, religion, and culture. Both essay and issue explore links among Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean and reveal the flexibility of family formations in response to colonization.

  • Premo, Bianca. “How Latin America’s History of Childhood Came of Age.” Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 1.1 (Winter 2008): 63–76.

    DOI: 10.1353/hcy.2008.0008

    The author identifies key differences between the history of childhood in Latin America and in Europe and the United States. Whereas European and US historians have attributed the advent of the concept of childhood to the advent of modernity, historians of Latin America have studied children within the context of uneven regional responses to modernity and only recently have defined themselves as historians of childhood per se.

  • Robichaux, David, and Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales, Grupo de Trabajo sobre Familia e Infancia. Familia y diversidad en América Latina estudios de casos. Buenos Aires, Argentina: CLACSO, 2007.

    Despite the contemporary focus of the latter three sections of the book (on couples, children, and ethnic or social groups, respectively), the first section presents essays that address theoretical and methodological considerations for family studies in Latin America. The authors provide interdisciplinary frameworks for historians of the family to apply in conceptualizing subaltern cultures, power, and genealogy.

  • Rodríguez, Pablo, ed. La familia en iberoamericana, 1550–1980. Bogotá: Convenio Andrés Bello, Universidad Externado de Colombia, 2004.

    The contributions to this volume provide synthetic geographic overviews by country or region, including Spain and Portugal, the Caribbean, and Central America. The volume is also richly illustrated with reproductions of well-chosen and evocative paintings, portraits, and family photographs.

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