Until the 1920s, the island economy was based on large-scale international trade and shipping, operated by a small group of Euro-Antillean elite families. Within this group there was a highly patriarchal family system. Women were completely subordinate to their husbands and fathers; their primary biological and social role was that of wife and mother of legitimate heirs. In the Afro-Antillean population, however, many households had a female head, who was often the chief provider for herself and her children. Men, in various roles (father, husband, son, brother, lover) might make material contributions to one or more households. The sexual alliances between men and women were often not enduring, and marriage was the exception rather than the rule. The prestige and authority of women in the kinship network is still celebrated in a great variety of songs, proverbs, sayings, and expressions in Papiamento. Women held the family together both during slavery and afterwards. The emotional bond between mother and child was intense and permanent. In order to promote legal marriage, the Catholic church introduced and maintained a number of punitive measures against the offspring of those "living in sin."
Marriage and the nuclear family have since become the most common relationships in the lower Afro-Antillean strata. Economic and social progress enables men to fulfill their roles as husbands and fathers, thus undermining such traditional institutions as matrifocal household groups, visiting relationships ( bibá ), and extramarital liaisons. Marriage in Antillean society, however, still differs from that institution as known in the Western world. Family ties, including mutual responsibility, are much stronger in the Caribbean, whereas monogamy is not as institutionalized as in Europe and Latin America.
Socialization. During adolescence, Afro-Antillean males are generally very mobile. Peer groups provide a meaningful social context by which males achieve an identity as a person. Peer groups are not centered on the household; for many males the house is little more than a dormitory. For females, more then for males, kinship networks and the household are the principal social environments.