This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
Today, there are roughly 55 million Latinxs living in the U.S. — each one of us with unique cultural experiences. In our new series #SomosLatinx, R29’s Latinx staffers explore the parallels and contrasts that make our community so rich. Stay tuned as we celebrate our diversity during Latinx Heritage Month from September 15-October 15.
If you know any Latinxs, it won’t take long for you to find out how amazing their abuelas are. All-knowing, with buckets of love to give away, and some magical skills in the kitchen, these women are pretty much mythical creatures. For many Latinxs, in the United States and around the world, they are also the thread that connect different generations.
According to the Pew Research Center, 27% of Latinxs in the U.S. live in multigenerational homes. Most of us can tell you our abuelas played a central role in raising us — from taking care of us as children to teaching us about our culture and always making sure there was food (so much food!) filling the plates in front of us. They’re having a pop culture moment, too. From Lydia in One Day at a Time to Alba in Jane the Virgin and Coco ‘s Abuelita Elena, Mamá Coco, and Mamá Imelda, abuelas are dominating our screens. These characters are teaching non-Latinxs what we’ve always known: Even in the face of hardship, abuelas are the glue that hold many of our families together.
For Latinx Heritage Month, we asked Refinery29 staffers and readers to tell us about their abuelas. What we found were stories of unconditional love: From taking us in when our parents couldn’t and being the firsts to accept our sexual orientations, to making us sopa de gallina even when their arthritis got in the way and slathering our chests with Vicks Vaporub when we were sick.
Ahead, this collection of anecdotes highlights why abuelas really are the heart and soul of our families.
“My parents found out I was gay at 14, after I had come out to a close group of friends at my Catholic School. Even though my mother is incredibly supportive now, it took her a bit to accept that her son was never going to make her an abuela. I’m told that one day, my mom was on the phone venting to my grandmother about her kid being gay. Abuela listened, of course, and at the end just said: ‘Priscilla – he’s your son. Whatever you are feeling right now is irrelevant, and it’s your job to love him for who he is, always.’ Anyway, that’s the story about how my grandmother helped my mom come to terms with my sexuality, and grow to have the beautiful relationship we have today.” — Frederick, Puerto Rican
“My parents divorced when I was five years old. My mom was left to take her two kids back home to Texas, and my abuela from my dad’s side took us in. I’m not sure how many months we stayed with her, but she took care of our every need. She watched over us as my mom looked for work. She found us a house to rent and live in. She continued to watch us, feed us, and even help raise us. They say it takes a village to raise a baby, but my abuela was our village.” — Karolyna, Mexican
“One of the ways my abuela, who we call Mami Tere, has always shown her love is through food. Big pots of black bean soup, sopa de gallina, and other dishes made with love and from scratch. As she has gotten older, cooking has become hard for her. I only get to see her, once a year or less, and every time I come back to visit, her arthritis has gotten worse. Her fingers are more twisted, and it’s hard for her to find the strength to chop and make meals like she used to. My grandmother’s recipes are passed down to my mother, and I was raised on them; they were a way for me to hold onto a little piece of her, of my heritage, and of my history even though I grew up thousands of miles away. Recently, while I was in town, she didn’t have the energy to cook for me. I could see the disappointment on her face. Still, she painstakingly wrote down a couple of recipes on a piece of paper — it must have taken her a long time because her arthritis makes it difficult even to hold a pen. Before I left for the airport to go home, she pressed a folded piece of paper with the recipe for my favorite soup and a bag of platanitos into my hand. ‘Think of me when you make these,’ she said. And I always do.” — Ludmila, Guatemalan
“When I was born, my grandfather on my mother’s side tragically passed away of a heart attack within mere hours. The family was in shock and traumatized. My mom, dad, and I moved from New York City to Carmel, NY for my mom to take over my grandfather’s medical practice. We lived with my grandma for the first five years of my life. She helped raise me and my brother while my parents put in the hours they needed to sacrifice in order to get ahead in their professions. She’s the reason I spoke Spanish before English. She held us together in a time of grief and hardship and instilled in us love and empathy. She is gone now, but I think of her every day.” — Anita, Peruvian
“My abuela was the bravest woman I ever met. She got a divorce from her abusive husband in the 60s, in Colombia, where divorce was frowned upon. She had never worked before and she didn’t go to university, so she started sewing school uniforms so she could provide for her four children. Against all odds, she succeeded. She kept the family together. She has been gone for five years, and I still miss her sweet smile and her kind eyes everyday.” — Sara, Colombian
“My grandmother Generosa was the medicine woman of the family. She provided us the type of care that only a grandmother could whip up without having to go to a doctor’s office and wait for a shot to make us better. If mom told her we were sick, she’d go to the local butcher’s shop — at the time you could have live chicken’s killed at the butchers — to get their oldest chicken, available, la gallina más vieja, and make chicken soup. She’d then gather yerba buena, manzanilla, cinnamon, and other herbs for tea. When she would arrive, she would take us to bathe in Agua Florida and Alcohlado Superior 70. She would pat us dry, rub Vicks [Vaporub] on our chest, and have us rest while she cooked up chicken soup and tea. Once those were done, she’d feed us and the last thing she would do is pray over as she tucked us in. The next day, we would wake up feeling as if we had never been sick. She had healing hands and was just as generous as her name. She would give someone the shirt off her back and the last plate of food if they walked in needing something.” — Lucilla, Puerto Rican
“For my abuela’s birthday 80th birthday, we organized a special mariachi band to surprise her. The small gathering in one of my tías ’ basement surprisingly brought a bunch of people together: I got to see tíos, tías, primos y primas from all sides of my family that I had not seen in over a decade. Families have a way of drifting apart, especially when there are so many of us — despite living in the same city. But getting together to see my abuela celebrate and listen to songs that brought her back to her own young adulthood made us all remember how special she is to us. A decade after my mom moved from the Dominican Republic, my abuela moved into our home to help raise me. Though I’m forming my own career and relationships, I’ll always be one of my abuela’s niñitas. We will always be her niños.” — Zameena, Dominican and Costa Rican
“No one wants to hold onto the idea of a whole family more than my abuela. My parents have been apart since I was 5. In college, when I’d visit my abuelos down in Virginia for a week or so, maybe once or twice a year, my abuela and I were the ones to stay up late playing dominós or working on puzzles. We’d drink coffee or eat cake or share an entire sleeve of Ritz Crackers, slathering each one with thick peanut butter. In those moments, she’d confide in me secrets about our family, about tías and tíos whom I hadn’t met, whom I might never meet. Gossip, so much wonderful gossip. But then she’d always find ways to tell me that her son, my father, loved me, and that he had loved my mother very much when they were together. It was honestly heartbreaking and exhausting to hear the same story over and over again, about how my not-good father cared a lot more than his actions ever revealed. And yet, she persisted.
On more than one night, she had set out five or six shoeboxes overflowing with photographs on her bed. We’d go through them together. She kept pictures of me from my childhood, from those years of us as a whole family; me, with my mom and father. They were from my parents’ wedding and candid shots taken in our backyard in Virginia, around the house — photos that captured what my abuela wanted me to believe was a period of joy my life. ‘I’m going to put these together in an album for you,’ she said, ‘so that one day, when you’re older and I’m gone, you can look back and see that you once had a very happy family that loved you.’ She gave me the album two years ago. And while I don’t believe I will ever look back on those years through the rose-colored lenses she’d gifted me, I continue to keep the album tucked away on the top shelf of my closet. Every new apartment, there it goes. As just one example of her love for me and what her love for this family could yield.” — Christopher, Puerto Rican
“My abuela is a headstrong, force to be reckoned with who always made the best out of every heart-wrenching and difficult moment to bring happy memories and smiles to her family – and she still is. In her earliest days as an abuela, her life was rattled when my mom made the decision to leave Spain for greater opportunities in the U.S. with my sister, my abuela ‘s first granddaughter. I myself was her first and only grandchild born overseas, and my abuela made sure that my sister and I, thousands of miles away, always felt totally integrated with our greater family through pages-long monthly letters that detailed everyday interactions, parties, events; sending us pictures of cousins whom I had yet to meet going off to their first days of school or playing in playgrounds; coming to visit us and converting our small NYC apartment into a virtual training ground to teach us and show us all the things we were missing from their hometown, from local dishes to card games.
As we grew older, my sister and I were able to begin visiting my abuela and abuelo, my cousins and my tías, but my abuela always, always, always, made sure we felt at home. The first time my sister visited, she recruited a group of her friend’s granddaughters who were about the same age as my sister to be her group of friends in Spain (and decades later, still are her close friends). My abuela made sure that I always felt comfortable and loved at home, especially being the only American, and half Cuban, with less firm roots in town. The best thing she could have done to integrate me, is to force my prima and I when we were girls to hang out together at every waking moment when I visited – and trust me, at six and five years old we were both inseparable and insufferable at the same time. Today, 20 years after my first time meeting my prima, she is still my best friend, and it is all thanks to my abuela ‘s commitment to making sure that her granddaughters felt included, and to making sure that my mom, her daughter, felt like her choice to immigrate had paid of.” — Rebecca, Spanish and Cuban
“When I’m about to experience something exciting in my life, whether it’s a job interview or applying for a new apartment, my grandmother has always been one of my first phone calls. There is this level of comfort that I feel after letting her know what I’m planning or going through, and her letting me know that she’s going to say a prayer for me. ” Rezaré por ti, mi niña.” She has an unconditional positivity and love that lives in her, and has gotten me through the worst of times and the best of times, whether it’s a rift with my parents or booking a much-needed vacation. She’s there through it all. No matter how much older she gets or how much she has on her plate, she always thinking of us, even if we remind her to prioritize herself. How my mom says, “There’s no sitting this woman down,” to get her to enjoy some R&R. She’s always thinking of who she can feed or visit at all hours of the day. It’s because of her unselfishness and contagious energy that my family sticks as one and makes sure to come together in her presence whenever we can. And when I’m sitting there in her living room, surrounded by my mother, brother, grandfather, uncle, cousins, — and her — with all of us conversing and laughing, it’s right there and then that I realize the true power of abuela’s love.” — Thatiana, Dominican
“My abuela Mamá Blanca lost her eldest son and her mother in the span of two weeks. After a long battle with cancer, my Tío Toñy died at the age of 50. During the funeral, people would break down in tears in front of my grandmother. She was the one who was supposed to be grieving and instead sh
e would comfort them. When she lost my great-grandmother Mamá Rosa 16 days later, she was once again the rock of our family. I can’t fathom how much she was hurting at the time, but instead she held on to what she’s taught us since we were children: “Andreita,” she would say, ” no se mueve una hoja si no es la voluntad del Padre.” Everything happens for a reason. God, or whatever you believe in, has a plan. Mamá Blanca is like a roble, an oak, whose strength and beauty has held our family together for generations.” — Andrea, Puerto Rican
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