In different parts of the world, expectations have been set for the ideal marriage. Within patriarchal societies, these expectations often result in women and young girls being oppressed. My paper uses extensive research, as well as my family history, to address the culture around underage marriages in Latin America. Inspired by my grandmother’s own story, my paper is a mixture of conducted interviews with different women, as well as my personal experiences. With these unique perspectives, I am able to explore the different issues revolving child marriages throughout Latin America.
When my grandmother Beatriz was 13 years old, her family had decided to marry her off to my grandfather, who at the time was a 30-year-old man. Instead of going to school like many people in the United States had the privilege of doing, she stayed at home, making sure the house was clean and the food was cooked. Every dawn was reserved to hand making the tortillas so that they would be warm and ready to sell to the neighbors, then, walking back to their rickety brick house to make the morning coffee. It was a routine for Beatriz, etched out for her, like the paved stone walk-way leading to the house where she would live the entirety of her life. Eventually, it would not be just her marriage keeping her tied to that house. By the end of her first year of marriage, she was already preparing to have her first child. I do not know what is more tragic, having your childhood end too early, or never really having one to begin with. I remember when I had turned 13, my only concern was stressing over my science classes in middle school and about how I would tell this boy that I liked him. I didn’t have to wake up at dawn to sell in the streets, for my family had enough so I did not have to work at all. Once, when I was little, I looked and compared my grandmother’s hands to my own; my hands were smooth and unmarked, pristine and clean, like an unwritten page; my grandmother’s, however, were wrinkled with years of wisdom, with scabbed fingertips from a lifetime of working in the banana fields. Looking back at my family history made me think about the girls in Latin American who have to go through similar situations today. Child marriages in Latin America continues to be a prevalent issue within this culture; consequently, the increase of child marriages results in poverty, loss of education, physical abuse, and even death.
Sitting on her favorite rocking chair, my Abuela looked off into the distant horizon, the palm trees swayed serenely as she waited to begin her story. I remember I was sitting expectantly on the marbled floor, my legs crossed, and my head pointed straight at her. Breaking the silence, I asked, “Abuela, what was it like, to get married?” My Abuela answered, her focus never left the retreating sunset, “Para ser honesta, realmente no lo entendía. Incluso después de que mi madre me lo explicó —y yo ya sabía lo que significaba el matrimonio—la inocencia en mí pensaba que era solo un juego. Como uno de esos juegos de disfraces que jugaba con mis hermanas. Todavía creía que volvería a casa en la mañana después de que me llevó a su casa. Lo que no sabía era que con él iba ser mi casa ahora” [to be honest, I did not really get it. Even after my mother had explained it to me and I knew what marriage meant, the innocence in me thought it was just a game. Like one of those dress up games I played with my sisters. I still believed I would go back home in the morning after he took me. What I did not know was that I was going to start a home with him now]. My grandmother Beatriz had been given as a bride by her parents to my grandfather. It is common, especially in rural parts of Mexico and Latin America, for parents to give their daughters away as brides in exchange for a bride-price, which is a sum of money and gifts given to a bride's family by that of the groom. Although it was the 1950’s when they were married, child marriages still remain a very prominent issue in Latin American countries. According to the article “Supporting Efforts to End Child Marriage in Latin America and the Caribbean,” by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAID), “Child marriage is widespread across much of Latin America and the Caribbean, accounting for around 23% of marriages in the region, despite laws against it.” In my grandmother’s case, she was married illegally, in the dirt roads of the town with the local priest. The entire town had come to an agreement: Beatriz was now 18 if anyone asked. As for the bride-price that her family received: a cow and about 300 pesos. I asked my grandmother why such a little price —300 pesos is equivalent to 15 U.S. dollars today— and she told me that that bride-price payed had kept her family well fed for months, which is more than most could ask for in her town. Subjecting a child through abuse of any kind is always abhorrent and unjustifiable, but there remains a commonality between child marriages and poverty. To end one problem, one must think systematically and look at the bigger puzzle pieces.
I eventually asked my mother, when we came back from a visit to my grandparents’ hometown in Mexico. As I asked her, one could just feel the uncomfortableness permeating our kitchen room. She looked down at her mug of freshly brewed coffee before she spoke, “I want you to understand that those were hard times when she was a child. It was wrong what her parents did to her —she was a child, she didn’t know any better— but at the same time they were poor, and being poor fed on to their ignorance..."
I was not able to get much of my grandmother’s marriage story from her. Even though she lived a comfortable life with my grandfather, I had a feeling there were past traumas that still hadn’t healed, and probably would never heal. I eventually asked my mother, when we came back from a visit to my grandparents’ hometown in Mexico. As I asked her, one could just feel the uncomfortableness permeating our kitchen room. She looked down at her mug of freshly brewed coffee before she spoke, “I want you to understand that those were hard times when she was a child. It was wrong what her parents did to her —she was a child, she didn’t know any better— but at the same time they were poor, and being poor fed on to their ignorance. They did not do better for their daughter because they didn’t know how to. My grandparents were also married young, as was expected in that small town. That is why I left. As much as I love my hometown, I also know that there is no future there.” I winced at her harsh words of the town I love so much visiting every winter. However, I also understood that mad things had occurred in this town. It was probably why my mother had turned her back on that town at age sixteen to go to a beautiful school. Being the fourth out of seven children did not exactly lay out an equal playing field for my mother. Her older brothers, being the main breadwinners and having the advantage of being males, were first of everything, including education. By the time it was my mother’s turn to go to school, my grandparents could only afford to send her up to 8th grade. After that, my mother also had to work in the tortillería at dawn. A never breaking cycle so it seemed. My mother would eventually understand that the only way to stop the wheel from turning, was to halt it herself. It is thanks to her that Abuela’s story never became my own. That brings up the question, why do marriages of underaged girls still continue to persist in Mexico? Even though the General Law on the Rights of Children and Adolescents, set in 2014, establishes 18 years as the minimum age of marriage, girls can still marry at 14 and boys can marry at 16 with parental consent. The report “Matrimonios y Uniones Tempranas de Niñas” published in Mexico by the United Nations Mujeres, stated that in the complex roots of child marriage are poverty, inequality, gender discrimination and cultural stereotypes (1). In Mexico, the poverty problem isn’t helped by the fact that the minimum wage is 88.36 pesos per day, that is equivalent to $4.71 per day. The legal minimum wage does not count for the thousands of people who are underpaid and over-worked. Putting that into perspective does not justify what happened to my grandmother. However, it does help understand why it was allowed to happen.
Determined to know about the lost girls of my grandparents’ hometown, I continued to persist my mother for answers. It had come to my mind that there were hundreds of untold stories like my grandmother’s, all buried within the confines of the town people’s hearts. Mother began to tell me about a girl who had passed away when my grandmother was young. Rosalia was her name, my mother had told me. We sat down together at the kitchen table, each drinking our morning cup of coffee. Taking a deep breath mother said, “Rosalia was about your Abuela’s age when she married El Güero. Everyone called him that because he had light skin, like a white man.” I always found it funny how ironic the nicknames that townspeople made up were. El Pelón, the bald man, could be a guy with a lot of hair or in one instance, El Culón was the thinnest man in the village. “El Güero ended up living for a long time,” she continued, “but when he died, he died alone and a drunk. No one wanted to marry him after what happened to Rosalia.” Rosalia was often beaten by her husband. Crossing paths with him usually resulted in fists or his digger filled insults. Meanwhile, “the abuse continued for years, from what I heard. No one stopped him since usually people there don’t get involved in other people’s marriages. The other problem was that some were on his side. Rosalia had gotten pregnant previously but lost the baby; ever since, she was not able to have kids. That made El Güero furious and resentful of the marriage.” Mother sighed in empathy and pity, and then added: “she eventually died from a second miscarriage, but rumor has it that it was El Güero who caused it. She was probably around 18 when that happened, not that much younger than you.” That always struck me about Rosalia’s story, the fact that she died at the same age that I was when I asked my mother about her. In “Child Marriage is Death Sentence for Many Young Girls,” the United Nations Children's Fund states, “Indeed, for some 70,000 young brides who die every year as a result of pregnancy or childbirth complications, early marriage is a death sentence.” Marriage turned out to be definite death sentence for Rosalia and the innumerable other girls who suffered the same fate. How many times did people in that town have to turn the other way when they saw girls like Rosalia or my Abuela? When the townspeople dressed my grandmother in white lace and showered her with red marigolds and pink daisies, were they aware of what they were taking from her? That is a question I doubt I will ever know the answer to. They bid her farewell and delivered the bride to death’s arms. The death of a child was what occurred that fateful day my Abuela got married, but a woman would eventually rise from the ashes.
My grandmother survived what most wouldn’t be able to. At the age of 13, Beatriz De Los Santos was married off in an arranged marriage. In return, her family received a compensation that sustained them for a year, but it would never amount to what was lost. In conclusion, my grandmother’s story represents the millions of other stories never told, all buried underneath unmarked graves. For me, her story is my affirmation to follow my own passions while never forgetting where the women in my family came from and the sacrifices they have made for us. Here I stand in her honor, the same embers as my Abuela sparked within me. My grandmother may not have ever had a voice, but for her and for myself, I will yell and sing mine with fervor. My voice will shake the banana leaves in the orchards of Mexico, as well as the hearts of those who hear it. I do not know what my future entails, but what I am certain is that the cycle of abuse will end with me.
Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS. “Supporting Efforts to End Child Marriage in Latin America and the Caribbean.” 2017.
Organización de la Naciones Unidas-Mujeres. “Matrimonios Y Uniones Tempranas De Niñas.” 2016
United Nations Children's Fund . “Child Marriage is a Death Sentence for Many Young Girls.” 2009.