The new role of the ‘abuela’

Norzagaray and Olivares share a selfie in front of their home,. Norzagaray loves spending time with her nana. (Curtesy of Norzagaray)


In the Latino household, the abuela is the head of the house Her word is final and her wisdom is in demand.

Today’s Latinas recognize the value of the grandmother, but are not seeing themselves in that role. They are focusing on going to college, pursing a career and making there lives all about themselves.

In the Hispanic culture abuelas, or nanas, are the head of household, having children long and offering up the wisdom her children and grandchildren need. She is the moral compass.

“She is someone who is revered for her wisdom and experience, she is the authority of the family,” said Melissa Barnett, a professor of family studies and human development at the University of Arizona.

According to Barnett, grandmothers especially in Latino and African American households are the lynchpin pulling family together, and being head of the traditional values.

“Women tend to be looked at as the kin keepers, so they are the ones who are most likely to keep family connections together and I think abuelitas do that,” she said.

Liliana Norzagaray lives with her grandmother, who  wants a different life for her, one that is independent.

Norzagaray is a senior at The University of Arizona and  ready to graduate in May. Living with her grandparents and seeing their dynamic assures her that graduating college and waiting to start a family is the right decision.

“I think now we have higher standards, but their priorities were different, it was about finding someone who would support you and then start a family,” she said.

Norzagaray knew she wanted to go to college and start a career; it was never about settling down and starting a family.

“Back then the biggest accomplishment was graduating high school, that’s just the way things were,” she said. “There are things I want to do, things I want to accomplish before I have kids and get married.” 

Olivia Olivares, Norzagaray abuelita, started her early 20s  differently than her granddaughter.

“My greatest accomplishment was being married and starting a family I already had two kids by the time I was 22,” said Olivares.

Olivia Olivares poses for a portrait when she was 21. (Courtesy of Olivares)

Olivares would clean, cook and take care of her kids while her husband would work in construction Monday through Friday. It was up to her make sure their house felt like a home.

To her it was all about making everyone happy, and telling them to have bigger priorities when they grew up. She wanted her kids and her grandkids to do better than she did.

“I wanted them to go to school and be present in their lives, I wanted more for them,” she said.

Olivares and Norzagaray are very different at the age of 22, while Olivares focused on a family and being the head of the house hold, Norzagaray focuses on getting good grades in college and practices folklórico, which embraces her Mexican culture.

Liliana dances for her Folkorico. She loves being apart of this Mexican tradition.(Courtesy of Olivares)

“Liliana is more focused and centered in education, because she has better examples than what I had, as far as people around her believe more in going to school, getting a higher education than what I had,” said Olivares.

While Olivares did not have the same experiences as Norzagaray, Olivares plays a central role in supporting Norzagaray to go to college and further her career. According to Barnett abuelas play a central role in supporting family, and being able to count on one another.

“The role is someone who is well respected, someone who is considered important, someone who gives advice,” said Barnett.

Norzagaray knows she will be an abuela one day, but not until she is satisfied with traveling and furthering her career.

“ I think I am going to be a different type of nana,” Norzagaray said. “But I know I’ll be a great one because of mine.”

Allison Suarez is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona, Contact her at 


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