Sitting around a table, sharing food, my friend Candice Estrada—her family from Ensenada—was talking about some idiosyncrasy of her family life when one line particularly stood out: “We used to have this huge house in Lynwood so a ton of my family lived with us—my Tia and her kids, my grandma and grandpa—I even think a cousin was there while she was studying… It was way too big for us to live there alone.”
I repeated that last line in my head over and over: “It was too big for us to live there alone.”
No one at the table—all, minus myself, first generation American daughters and sons of immigrants ranging from Cambodia to Mexico —batted an eye. They all nodded their heads, my own partner discussing how he lived with his sister to save up for his place while another, having recently moved back in with her mother, found new solace (rather than stereotypical frustration) at being back in the nest.
Photo by Brian Addison. Above: a multigenerational household—a grandmother, three daughters, and one granddaughter—enjoy a Sunday afternoon making linens.
“Why are Americans so against that idea?” I asked.
“Because we’re spoiled,” said one friend. “It reminds me of Bridesmaids when that chick isn’t successful in her baking business and she has to move home with her mom. Heaven forbid you have the luxury to do that!”
The horror indeed.
In the decade of the 1940s, nearly 25% American families lived in one home with multiple generations. By the 1950s, following the post-WWII boom of suburban building, families became largely two-generational, with parents and their under-18 offspring living at home while the grandparents and grown children found their own spaces. By the 1960s, about a fifth of families had several generations living under one roof and by 1980, barely a tenth followed the same pattern.
Despite the success of shows like The Waltons, Americans seemed to have enjoyed it from an entertainment aspect but not a reality. In fact, the only families that then seemed to follow the trend: immigrant families of color.
According to John Graham, professor emeritus at the UC Irvine and co-author of All in the Family: A Practical Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living, the Asian and Latinx population is growing far more rapidly than the white population—and it is precisely those two groups who are the number of multigenerational households.
“This is the way people have always lived outside the U.S.,” Graham said. “And the U.S. was that way until the economic booms of the WWII and post-war periods hit.”
Even beyond cultural norms, for some, the move into the States required necessary constraints to comfort—especially considering the housing crisis is becoming seemingly worse month to month.
“It was needed—there was no other way we could have done it,” said Ramon Mercado of South Gate, who at one time lived with his sister, her family, and another family of his brother-in-law’s in the early 1990s after the birth of their first two children and moving away from Jalisco. “It wasn’t permanent but it made our lives here possible.”
And even with four children, their modest three-bedroom home requires sharing and accommodation—as several times, other members of Ramon and his wife’s family have lived their for some extent, often as a means to save.
Dorothy Meas of Long Beach went through severe personal struggles and, instead of finding a new home—”Which I can actually afford; the money wasn’t the issue,” she said—she moved in with her mother, finding solace and comfort.
“My mom’s house is at the center of everything, y’know?” Meas said. “There are people constantly coming in and out, staying, going—it’s filled with every part of our family in one way or another. It’s how we help each other get through things.”
But those accommodations aren’t always temporary. When married couple Brandon and Yesenia Lopez-Walls found out they were having a child, Yesenia jumped at the chance of moving in with her grandmother, mother, and father in North Long Beach, a step into a home and away from their one-bedroom apartment in Costa Mesa.
“He wasn’t so thrilled,” Yesenia said, laughing. “It’s the gringo in him—spoiled but he eventually got over it.”
There was that word again: spoiled.
“He was… He was really offended, you know? It was like he didn’t see this as opportunity but as a setback. Like families aren’t supposed to be living together—but I grew up with my grandparents and tia in the same household and I loved it. It made me respect family and respect the home because they’re, like, the heart of the family.”
A two-month maximum set by Brandon became immediately violated as the couple has now been living there for two years, another child, and now consider it a permanent part of their living.
“Even my parents are taken aback,” Brandon said. “At first, they were just like me, definitely skeptical. But then they visited and my Mom was like, ‘You are efficient with tiny spaces!’ It wasn’t an insult, really. She was literally amazed. They’re even thinking of selling their house [in Lucerne Valley] and building [a granny flat] in the backyard here so we can all be together.”
Brandon even plans on investing with the family: with multiple incomes, buying other properties can make the overall worth of the family’s assets increase, eventually providing spaces to either rent for additional income or provide to other family members.
And when it comes to money, the realities are frank: the Mercados set strict rules on what is provided and not provided, along with contributions that ranged from paying cell phone bills to cleaning. The Lopez-Walls family have their mortgage and bills written on a whiteboard, complete with who paid the last time and who’s turn it was next.
On top of it, Brandon and Yesenia—both of whom work full-time—have built-in daycare that keeps their children at home with small adventures thanks to Grandma and Grandpa while both often return home to food prepped and cooked. It has allowed the relatively new parents to eschew many tiny chores and go straight into time with their children.
“It’s not living for free,” Brandon said with a chuckle. “Far from it. It’s living with investment—but investment in your family.” He pauses, stares at his children. “Plus they learn from a culture I could never provide. That’s priceless.”
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