Back in March, one of my favorite aunts shared a Facebook post with our family group chat on Whatsapp: “The pH of the virus of corona ranges from 5.5 to 8.5. All we have to do to #defeat the spread of the virus is to ingest more alkaline foods that have a higher pH than the virus,” like, “lemon: 9.9 pH,” “pineapple: 12.7pH,” and “garlic:13.2.” It ends urging readers: “Do not keep this information to yourself. Pass it on to your friends and family.”
Less than five minutes later, my cousin replied, “that’s unfortunately false information.” My aunt answered with a sheepish: “ok” and a silence fell over the group chat. My cousin immediately DM’d me to ask if his response to our aunt was “too harsh.” But then our great aunt broke the silence on main and ended the conversation with a friendly reminder that citrus fruits are acidic, so, by definition, their pH is lower than seven: “WILL NOT HELP.”
Surprisingly, this was one of the more coherent exchanges to take place in my family group chat. This chat has 25 members spanning three generations – that’s five times as many people as the Cortez family in Spy Kids. Only, in this non-spy Cortés clan, we’re all betrayed by our phones’ inability to switch between English and Spanish. Conversations usually run dry after everyone sends too many texts in a row and the scramble of typos and out-of-context comments is unsalvageable. Everyone spills the beans all at once, turning our virtual placita into an arroz con mangó mess.
Luckily, my cousin doesn’t have to worry about being too harsh on our aunt because it seems like Whatsapp is cracking down on tías everywhere: The Facebook-owned app recently decided to put a cap on message forwarding amid a wildfire spread of COVID-19 misinformation. In times of crisis, we are made hyper-aware of the never-ending family reunion glowing green and blue inside our pockets. Family group chats are a complete lotería deck that includes the Whatsapp Doctor, The English-Only Cousin, The Spanish-Only Abuela, The Church Selfie Tía, The Homophobic Suegro, The Millennial Crusader, and so many more. But through good times and bad, the group chat is often all a Latinx family has to stay connected.
Natalie is a 24-year old living in Queens, New York and while some of her family lives stateside, she also has a lot of relatives in Peru and a few in Spain, so they stay in touch via Whatsapp. The cousins were exiled from the main chat, where all major family decisions are made, because they “talk so much crap.” The 15 of them now have their own group chat. “Chaos and random conversations,” is how Natalie describes it. “I definitely cannot keep up with anything that’s going on.”
Trust every family to have its own special brand of chaos. Sofía is a 24-year old living in Miami, Florida and her family group chat runs amok with free-range memes. “And not the American memes you’re used to seeing on Twitter,” she says, “but very Latino memes.” These memes are made in Latin America, with local slang over some blurry footage or blown-up pictures, “and the punchline is usually sexual or about bodily-functions. They love sending fart jokes.”
But despite the torrent of messy texts, Sofía and Natalie both admit that they rely on their group chats to keep them updated on birthdays and major family events. Family group chats are both a hyperlocal news feed and family social network, except there’s no cunning algorithm to make sense of any of it. It makes sense for family group chats to be abuzz on birthdays and holidays. But they also come alive when things are bad.
“It does keep us informed that way,” Natalie realizes. The Latinx community has a lot of natural disasters and regime changes to keep up with and Peru, in particular, is prone to tremors. “So it’s really easy for us to panic and we’ll message each other in the group chat. They’ll say, ‘we’re fine’ and go check on grandma,” she adds. “So it’s our primary place of information.”
Back in Miami, Sofía remembers how her mom started their family’s group chat during hurricane Irma: “The city was giving away free water so she just sent out a flyer to everyone so they’d go get it and that’s how it started.” Once the storm had passed it became a social hub for the family, a place where the tías planned and executed family cookouts, the rest of the family started complaining: “Y’all have a family group chat y no invitan?”
A natural disaster or pandemic can summon the full force of a Latinx family with the push of a button. Natalie’s family sprinted into action as soon as they learned one of her cousins had COVID-19, taking turns to bring him comfort foods like a quinoa apple drink favored by Peruvians. Similarly, Sofía’s mom taps into the family network to help relatives back in Honduras. “She’ll say, ‘Fulana-de-Tal needs this. Can anybody spare some money?'”
In Sofía’s group chat, this all happens amid the slew of memes and TikToks that float around, though lately, they’re COVID-19 memes, (“which we really shouldn’t be laughing at but...”). Then we have those errant nuggets of fake news. “My mom is the main culprit and I told her the other day, ‘Mom you can’t be sending this, this is fake. Where did you get this? What Whatsapp person sent you this?'” Whirlwind family dynamics are a package deal, you get the good and the bad.
Through natural disasters and across borders, family group chats are often all Latinx families have to weather it all together. But they are also disorganized and emotionally demanding. It's not just you and your primos. It's your tíos and your abuelos blowing up your phone with gaudy gifs, chain messages, prayer quotes, and a scramble of Spanglish that only half the group understands. Pineapples and garlic don’t stand a chance against COVID-19 yet, despite my aunt’s terrible medical advice, I’m lucky that she’s just a text away – even if I mute the chat from time to time.