“Cousins by affection”

Umbrellas hanging over a street in Tlaquepaque, Mexico. Author’s photo

First, I have to give my mother full credit for coining the term “cousins by affection.” The definition is: non-relatives in your life who are a part of your family.

For my family, we have four different families we consider cousins by affection. They are more than just friends—they are family, even though they are not blood-related. I even call some members of those families “aunt,” “uncle,” “my second mother,” etc. These four families all come from different cultures and places around the world. They are Jewish-American, Russian-American, Cuban-American, and French-Mexican. Although my heritage is different from these (I am Italian-American and English), I have naturally adapted many aspects of these four cultures into my own life. These aspects include language, food, art, and perspectives on life.


  • Yiddish: I didn’t realize there were so many Yiddish words in my vocabulary until I thought about it! Schmutz, mensch, schlep, and shtick are some of my favorites.
  • Smoked salmon, matzo ball soup, half sour pickles, and other classic Jewish deli foods (I do draw the line at a cow tongue sandwich, although I did try it).
  • Self-deprecating humor: Jerry Seinfeld, Sid Caesar, and Billy Crystal are some of my favorite comedians. I even wrote a college paper on the history Jewish-American comedy. I think I understand it well because English culture is also self-deprecating.


  • Holiday traditions: Garlic dipped in honey and Russian Orthodox church services for Christmas. And egg decorating for Easter (it’s on a whole other level than the kit you get at the grocery store).
  • Love for the piano: I play piano. My childhood piano teacher is Russian, my piano tuner is Russian, and my piano movers are Russian. Even half of my sheet music is in Cyrillic and is composed by Russians.


  • Cuban coffee—need I say more?
Fresh cut pineapple and a bottle of tajín. Author’s photo


  • Food: I love the simplicity of French and Mexican dishes. And I value the importance of fresh and high-quality ingredients. And I may or may not put Cholula or sprinkle tajín on everything…
  • Spanish language: Although I have never passed the beginner stage, I can decipher Spanish and make my way around the city of Guadalajara just fine. I also call my friends “chicas” and my mother “madre.”
  • Mexican music: I love Mexican music. Their technique of singing is so unique and they sing with such emotion. I’ve even learned to not be embarrassed when my mother asks a mariachi band to serenade me at a restaurant. It’s happened more than once.
  • Importance of family, especially your elders: My grandparents and great-grandparents are so important to me and I see that it is the same way in Mexican culture. Thinking about how much elders are loved and respected in that culture makes me teary, not going to lie.
  • Attitude of loving life and being kind: When I am visiting Mexico, I am always in awe of how warm and kind the people are, regardless of what they are dealing with in their lives. I really appreciate that and in times of hardship or difficulty, it is important to remember that mindset.
  • Clothing: I wear my traditional huipil dress I bought at a market in Guadalajara all the time and I always get compliments. The talent and artistry that goes into their traditional clothing is so gorgeous and meaningful.

I understand that I am not fully a part of these cultures, and cultural appropriation is a very serious issue, especially today. But since I love these cultures and my “cousins by affection” have introduced me and included me in them, I can say that they are a part of my identity.

I would love to learn about the cultures of your “cousins by affection.” Have you traveled to their hometowns, gone to authentic restaurants, learned their language, laughed at their jokes, attended dances, or gone to church services with them? Please comment below!

About Geneva Cann

A member of the Research Services team, Geneva studied at Smith College and St. Mary’s College of Maryland, graduating with a BA in History and Museum Studies. Before joining the NEHGS staff, she interned at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. She also interpreted at Historic St. Mary’s City, a living history museum in Maryland, as an indentured servant from 1667. Geneva enjoys traveling, reading about the history of the American West, playing piano, and continuing her role as her family's archivist.

14 thoughts on ““Cousins by affection”

  1. Many people from parts of the US South apply the word “cousin” very generally to mean any relative of about the same age–blood or in-law. The terms “uncle” and “aunt” are often applied to any relative who is older. It’s more of a term of respect rather than a statement of relationship.

    1. That’s really interesting! I was born in the South so I wonder if that sparked my mom’s “cousins by affection” term.

  2. Love the post. I grew up with a family from Calcutta and could speak Bengali as a kid. We call each other by family names (didi for sister, babu for brother) and my didi’s children call me mama (mother’s brother), and I participated in several family Hindu ceremonies. Our families have known each for over 40 years and now live throughout the northeast, continuing to stay in touch as family.

    1. Thanks so much, Chris! Wow, what an incredible connection. The Mexican family that we are so dear with have known my family for four generations. It’s so wonderful to have that.

  3. I love the term “cousins by affection” and will use it. My best friend for all my adulthood had her children about the same time I had mine. I learned from my daughter when she was a teen that she would introduce them as her cousins. And since my friend is my “other sister,” she was right.

    1. Thank you! Please do! It’s so wonderful to have such a strong connection to friends. I will probably do the same if my friends and I have kids.

  4. As a teenaged exchange student, i was “adopted” into a Mexican family. My “sister” and I enjoy a close relationship even nearly 60 years later. We are currently meeting regularly with my Spanish club by Zoom.

    1. Thanks for sharing! That must have been an amazing experience being an exchange student in Mexico. I’m jealous! My family has a similar experience with our Mexican “cousins by affection.” One of them was an exchange student staying with my great-grandparents. So our families have known each other and visited each other for four generations. So glad that you meet by zoom on a regular basis. That’s wonderful!

  5. My grandmother referred to any woman that was older than she was as “Grandma”. This could apply to an aunt, a cousin, or even a sister-in-law. A niece, she would call “Cousin”. She called her own sisters “Aunt”. For men, she didn’t have any particular appellations. She simply referred to them by their Christian name. Speaking with her about genealogy was always an adventure.

    1. Goodness, I can imagine that would be quite an adventure talking to her about genealogy! That’s very interesting. Do you know why she used those terms so often?

  6. My grandmother died a few months short of her 100th birthday; she was 45 when I was born. I have no idea why she used the relationship terms she did, but throughout her life, they didn’t waiver. Her two sisters didn’t use similar terms. When I developed an interest in genealogy, I had a difficult and often confusing time trying to figure out relationships. My grandmother’s father was from Switzerland and her mother from Poland. I ‘ve often wondered if some of her “relationship” references to people, especially to women, were learned from her Polish mother.

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