My 101 First Cousins-in-law

Marrying into a large family brings unannounced house guests and some new vocabulary.

Since my Guatemalan wife had 10 siblings, I have enough in-laws to populate a middle-sized Dallas suburb. I am forever meeting “new” members of the González-Boch clan for the first time. And I was not that good at recalling names even before ADD and premature senility made this task even more difficult.

My Dad, who had some troublesome in-laws, often declared that we cannot choose our relatives. This is certainly true with blood relatives, since we have no control over whom our ancestors were and whom else they procreated. Most of my ancestors were Saxons, who were hunting heads at the time the Mayas were erecting high civilization in Mesoamerica. But thanks to the mixed pedigree of both my grandmothers, I am 9.375 percent Apache. Say what you will about them, they didn’t hunt heads.

With in-laws, however, a theoretical choice exists, and in Central America these carry greater implications than they might in the home country. Family ties here tend to be non-nuclear in nature, unpredictable in intensity and stellar in number. So if you marry a local, you get a heftier package, for better or worse, than you would get by being endogamous. This term does not mean “marrying oneself into the doghouse” (which happens enough to merit its own term) but, rather, marrying within one’s own herd, however defined.

You can wind up in the doghouse if you have too many troublesome (or troubled) in-laws, whether you are endogamous or, like me, exogamous. Given all this, it may be a good idea to check out your prospective mate’s family.

In my case, though, I would have needed a battery of screeners (perhaps personnel managers resting from their Stateside jobs) to do this. My wife once did the addition and found that she has 57 first cousins on her mother’s side alone (yes, really). She was unsure about her paternal first cousins, but they number well over 40. In other words, she has 100 or more first cousins. The only way she can recognize some of them, even if they grew up in the same village, is to compare recent genealogies.

On the other hand, I have only nine first cousins. I know all their names and where they live, and I know a lot about each one. In my case familiarity seems inverse to proximity. In my wife’s case, even close proximity does not guarantee familiarity. She would need a database just to log them, and just knowing them all would be a full-time career. Perhaps because families are larger, and blood ties stronger, a nomenclature exists that is alien to outsiders.

My wife once did the addition and found that she has 57 first cousins on her mother’s side alone. She was unsure about her paternal first cousins, but they number well over 40.

I thought, for instance, that I was acquiring a plethora of nieces (sobrinas) and nephews (sobrinos) by marrying into the González-Boch clan. What I actually got was a wealth of sobrinos políticos. I discovered this one day when I introduced one of my visiting “nieces” to another Panajachel gringo, who since that time has had a jones for the girl that has gone unreciprocated. Later, she tactfully explained that she was only my “political niece.” My first reaction was to wonder if she attended rallies, ran voter registration drives or painted acronyms on rocks. But the prosaic truth was soon obvious: only by blood are you a real or “nonpolitical” uncle.

There is also a special name for that person who in the United States becomes your partner when two couples play Monopoly. I refer here to what we must call the “husband of my sister-in-law” or the “wife of my brother-in-law.” Hispanophones say concuño and concuña, respectively. I really like these words; with as many relatives as I have in this category, it’s nice to have a single word for what are inelegant circumlocutions in English. If I took a friend to a González-Boch family reunion, I would grow hoarse from all the introductions without these words.

I also like the way that great-grandparents are bisabuelos and great-grandchildren, bisnietos. These, too, are single words replacing phrases. The English phrases are not that long, but they are ambiguous. What if your great-grandparents were not, well, so great after all? On the other hand, if you say you have great-grandparents, does this mean that your grandparents’ parents live under the same roof with you, or that your grandparents were great (i.e., they cheered you at Little League and bought you Lego sets for Christmas instead of clothes)? In all, there are many reasons why we should be bully for bisabuelo and bisnieto.

The same problem exists in English-speaking countries with great-uncles and great-aunts. Are they truly great folks, or do they just happen to be your parents’ uncles and aunts? Down here, these are called tíos abuelos and tías abuelas. Not elegant terms, maybe, but never ambiguous. If you think about it, they can only mean one thing.

So, in the end, am I better off having a gazillion in-laws or worse off? After 16 years, I’m still not sure. Most of them are pretty good houseguests and do not, like fish, stink by day three. Yet very many of them come to Pana (especially during Semana Santa) where they get free lodging from me. Conversely, whenever I go to Guatemala City, where many of them live, I can pop in unannounced, as can the blood relations. On the downside, I never know who, among the in-laws, will pop up unannounced at our place. One was a young salesman who had never met my wife but who found in her someone who could be even lower than he on the Amway pyramid.

The muchacho in question was one of my 101 or so “first-cousins in-law.” With so many of these, I hope someone will coin a one-word term for them. Reader, can you think of one?

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