SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Pope Francis has spoken about several hot button issues during his three-nation tour of Latin America, from social justice to the environment, but there’s one theme that’s been a constant in nearly all his speeches: The family as an institution that, he says, needs to be protected.

But contrary to attempts by some Americans, on the left and right, to pigeonhole discussion of the family just to controversial topics — such as same-sex marriage, divorce, or contraception — Francis has much more in mind, and the key to understanding lies in looking more closely at his Latin American heritage.

On Monday, while celebrating a Mass in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Francis called for “fervent prayers” for October’s Synod on the Family, saying that the three-week long meeting of Catholic bishops would be devoted to finding concrete solutions to the difficult and significant challenges facing families.

“I ask you to pray fervently for this intention, so that Christ can take what might seem to us impure, scandalous, or threatening, and turn it into a miracle” he said.

These words caused quite a stir, with both liberal and conservative Catholics, particularly in the United States, attempting to tie them to gay marriage, despite a Vatican spokesman saying that the pontiff wasn’t referring to “any particular sin,” but to a range of challenges facing every family.

Read through the lens of the family in Latin America, particularly the poorest nations – including Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay, where Francis is visiting — and also others such as Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela, the challenges facing the family are radically different, and Francis, history’s first pope from the global south, named several of them on Wednesday.

“I would like to mention in particular the family, which is everywhere threatened by domestic violence, alcoholism, sexism, drug addiction, unemployment, urban unrest, the abandonment of the elderly, and children left to the streets” Francis said Wednesday when he arrived in Bolivia, lending clarity to what he means when he speaks about challenges facing the family.

These problems, he added, often conflict with what he termed “pseudo-solutions,” which show the clear effects of “an ideological colonization,” a phrase he’s used before to refer to “growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage.”

The cultural wealth and diversity of the peoples in Latin America is something the pontiff referenced several times during this week, pointing to the mix of indigenous, mestizo, rural, and very complex urban cultures all coexisting albeit under unequal conditions.

There’s also a growing peripheral-urban culture, the result of the massive migration of poor people who settle around cities, in the process creating slums. Once settled, these disparate groups must contend with issues of identity and belonging, and often, extreme poverty is the only common denominator.

Conscious of these challenges, Francis called for Ecuadorians, and the continental Church, to remember that family life is a key issue when facing many challenges. Although there are many differences from one country to another within Latin America, many share common challenges, some of which are 300 years old, such as paternal pressure on spouses, machismo, and even abandonment or separation in cases of female sterility. “In a family, parents, grandparents, and children feel at home; no one is excluded,” Francis said Tuesday after receiving the keys of the city in Quito.

During the same ceremony, the pontiff described the family as the primary cell of society, saying that in it “we find the basic values of love, fraternity and mutual respect, which translate into essential values for society as a whole: gratitude, solidarity and subsidiarity.”