Family is a fairly flexible term. It can mean the nuclear unit that you are related to, can extend to cousins, aunts, uncles—and outward, for genealogists. To others, family means the people that you choose to spend your life and time with. In theater, work units are often described like a family. In Ancash, the Peace Corps volunteers refer to “our Ancash family,” only partly a joke, because the support system is as powerful as a blood tie. Over the past few years, I´ve had host families in Santiago, Quito, Lima and Musho. Naturally, my Musho family is the closest connection, but in each case I found support, caring and something special in the connection over the months I lived there.
After living here, in Musho, my definition of family has changed. I´ve mentioned before the custom here: that parents, children, grandchildren often continue living in the same house for years after the children grow up and, often, marry. The idea of living alone, or moving far from parents and siblings, is strange and marveled at. This I learned, laughed at, and then accepted (and now sort of like—next year I will definitely be in my parent´s house) long ago. Lately, though, I´ve been more and more intrigued by extended family connections. The term “tia” (aunt) or “tio” (uncle) can be used for any person of the right age. I often use them when somebody´s real name escapes me; it´s quite convenient. However, it can mask true family connections. A couple weeks ago, I learned that about 75% of Apa Grande, the community in which I am working on an improved stoves project, is related. Fairly closely. It´s a small community of about 30-40 households, and it makes sense. Sort of—10 out of the 17 families in my stoves project are aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters or first degree cousins of one another. I wouldn´t be surprised if the other 7 are second or third cousins. The amazing thing here is that, aside from addressing one another as tio and tia, they are as gossipy and backstabbing as the cast of characters from Mean Girls.
This shock started me thinking: if family can act like this, does it even matter? If a tia can spend a good 20 minutes trash-talking her niece, daughter-in-law or cousin, what do family ties even mean? It took a visit from one of my oldest and best friends, Roseanna, to set me straight. We had a great, eventful trip to the jungle and also spent a couple of hangout days in Lima. It was fantastic; despite awkward sleeping arrangements, a canoe voyage similar to Monster´s Plantation and lots of weird food, I felt relaxed and happy the entire time. The day after Roseanna left, my mom spent an hour on Skype talking me through an awful case of Lima-glumness and Roseanna-withdrawal.
Suddenly, I knew what family is. Partially, and importantly, it is, as my sister Sally defines it, the people who love you when you are unlovable (depressed, belligerent, frustrated, withdrawn, etc.) and partially, it is the people who love you enough to allow you to be yourself, to relax. Family is what you make it; an aunt who you trash talk and wouldn´t invite to even one boiled potato is nothing, yet a foreigner who you invite into your home, teach about strange food and customs and consult on important decisions (like whether to sign up for cable—weird, right?) becomes something. Perhaps I am not actually the gringa daughter that we joke about, or the sister of the soul that my friend Lidia called me during a toast the other night, but I´m something. Similarly, I know that I have so much family at home, not only the ones who are actually related to me, but all the wonderful people who have supported me throughout my life and, from afar, for these years. That´s what will bring me back to the States—but the same sort of connections are what tie me to Musho.