My time living in Mexico wasn’t the only time that I found myself arguing with incredulous observers that Mexican society was changing at blinding speed. When we were writing Mexico Since 1980, I got into some epic battles with one of my co-authors over the chapter on social policy in Mexico. He turned in a draft that made it seem as if the only change in Mexican families since 1950 was the decline in fertility. The quote: “Yet despite the magnitude of these changes, Mexico remains a surprisingly stable society in terms of such fundamental institutions as the family and religion.”
I argued that we couldn’t publish that. Marriages were less stable, and with almost half of all births occuring in “free unions,” abandonment was rife. It was so clearly and blatantly untrue that Mexico was a “surprisingly stable society” that we would look out-of-touch, almost crazy. The image of Mexico as stable and conservative would have been true in 1990, maybe even 1995 — it was not true in 2008.
The final version read as follows:
There has also been a substantial rise over time in family instability. One measure of this phenomenon is the growth in female-headed households, which as a proportion of all households increased from 12 percent in 1960 to 13.5 percent in 1976, 15.3 percent in 1990, 20.6 percent in 2000, and 23.1 percent in 2005. The increase in the number of female-headed families mainly reflects higher rates of divorce and abandonment. Indeed, although still low by European and U.S. standards, the proportion of marriages ending in divorce in Mexico rose from 4.4 percent in 1980 to 7.4 percent in 2000, and to 11.3 percent by 2004. In addition, since the 1990s growing numbers of men have abandoned their families (possibly temporarily) to seek work in the United States.
A skeptical reader might argue that the rising rate of family dissolution in Mexico is a side effect of the aging of the population. The logic behind this position is that the longer people live, the more likely their marriages are to end in divorce rather than death, and so the divorce rate is increasing in line with Mexican life spans. The data, however, do not support this hypothesis. Indeed, dissolution rates have risen fastest among new families. In married and cohabitating couples that formed before 1967, there was only a 7.4 percent chance of dissolution before 10 years had passed, whereas a couple that formed in 1987 (the last year for which data are available) had a 14 percent chance of breaking up before ten years had passed.
An even more skeptical reader might argue that an increase in the proportion of “extended families” (households in which uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers and sisters, and elderly grandparents live with a nuclear family composed of parents and their children) among Mexican households indicates that the Mexican family is as strong as ever. Between 1990 and 2000 the proportion of all family households defined as “extended” rose from 20.7 percent to 26.3 percent. It is equally likely, however, that this increase was an artifact of the interaction between economic distress and rising rates of single-parenthood and couple dissolution. Indeed, in the year 2000 some 60 percent of single mothers and 28 percent of female divorcees with children lived in “extended families” (that is, with their parents).
Now comes the irreplaceable Diego Valle with data on the current state of divorce in Mexico. (Hat tip: Gancho.) The short version? Divorce is rapidly increasing, but Mexico’s divorce rate is still at around the same level as the United States in the 1950s. The catch is that with half of all birth occuring out of wedlock, the true rate of family dissolution is higher. The long version? Very worth reading.
But there’s more! Here Diego digs into the divorce figures for the Federal District (aka, Mexico City) which adopted no-fault divorce in October 2008. In a brilliant analysis, he shows that the entire increase in divorce rates is driven by couples who married outside the D.F. In fact, divorces fell for people who married in Mexico City ... the implication being that the inexorable rise in Mexican divorce rates might not be so inexorable. (Read it!)
Of course, that begs the question of why D.F. divorces fell with no-fault. Diego hypothesizes (probably correctly) that the reason was the legalization of early abortion in April 2007. “Perhaps pregnancies that previously resulted in shotgun marriages now end in abortions. And it was precisely these marriages that were more likely to end in divorce. When looking at the age specific marriage totals, the younger the bride the bigger the percentage decrease in marriages compared to previous years. But this theory doesn't explain the fall in divorces among those marriages more than a few years old.”
For those of you who don’t know, Mexico City also legalized same-sex marriage in December 2009. (Coahuila has civil unions ... but more importantly, same-sex marriages performed in the D.F. are recognized by both the federal government and other states.) Abortion, no-fault divorce, same-sex marriage ... you have no idea how happy I am that we didn’t publish that early version of the chapter.