A Woman’s Story Is Her Legacy

How my grandmother’s life inspires me every day

My grandmother Betty, “Abuelita,” as I called her, was the embodiment of strength, resilience, and selflessness. She taught me what a tenacious woman is by setting an incredible example.

She played a significant role throughout my life, especially during my early years. She took care of me when I was sick. She taught me how to cook. She spoiled me but also disciplined me.

No one’s cooking will ever be a match for the feasts she prepared. Her hugs had the power to make my worries go away, even if for a few seconds. I wish I could hug her again. She loved me the way only grandmothers with big hearts can love.

Who Betty Was

I don’t know a lot about her childhood. She was born on October 1, 1932, in Llallagua, Bolivia. She was the third child of four with two sisters and a brother.

Her father died when she was young, and his family refused to help my great grandmother, Raquel, in any way. She raised her four kids on her own.

My “Abuelita” used to tell me that her mother was strict and that she pushed her to be self-sufficient.

When she was 14, she was playing basketball when she caught a glimpse of my grandfather, who was walking by. They exchanged a look. A couple of years later, they officially met through mutual friends.

After their first meeting, my grandfather Eduardo, a charming, handsome, and kind man, courted her for a few months. Even though he was nine years her senior, he quickly conquered her heart. In a way, he also had to court my great-grandma, as she was often present during their dates and not a big fan of his.

It didn’t take long before he proposed. My Abuelita was supposed to go to university to become a teacher (one of the few professions available to women at the time). Instead, he convinced her to marry soon and move to Sucre to live with his family.

They got married when she was seventeen.

Building a Life with My Grandfather

She had her first child, a boy named Carlos, at eighteen. In the following years, my grandmother Betty gave birth to four girls: Ana, Carmen (my mother), Cristina, and Daysi. She had two miscarriages and a stillborn.

I’ve always wondered how she felt after such significant losses. When I asked her, she said that these things happened. They were a part of life. She didn’t dare to dwell in front of me. But it must have hurt a lot.

My “abuelitos” lived in a room at my grandad’s parents' home for several years. Their first years as a married couple weren’t easy. My grandma’s sisters-in-law didn’t exactly welcome her into the family. The only person she got along with was my great-grandfather, Eduardo.

After several years of hard work, my grandparents moved out into their own home. Things were looking up.

My grandfather, a Civil Engineer, taught her to draw plans and direct construction sites.

Besides working side by side with my grandad, she took care of finances, ran her household, and took care of her children.

The Greatest of Losses

My Abuelita endured the horrors of several dictatorships and military governments that plagued Bolivia in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

President Alfredo Ovando Candia executed a coup d’état in September of 1969. His government was a violent one. On October 6, a Bolivian military junta overthrew him.

The military was polarized. There were confrontations between General Rogelio Miranda, right-wing, and Juan José Torres, left-wing.

In 1970, my uncle Carlos lived and studied Civil Engineering in Oruro. He was politically active and a student leader. He was also part of a new left-wing political party called Nueva Izquierda Revolucionaria, NIR (New Revolutionary Left).

On October 8th of that year, my uncle, alongside many students, protested against General Miranda’s right-wing military supporters. A grenade severely wounded him. Somebody later took him to the hospital, where he bled to death.

On the day of the protest, my Abuelita listened to the radio when reports said that students from Sucre were severely wounded. She knew something was wrong. Her worst fears were later confirmed. He had been killed. My grandfather traveled to Oruro to get my uncle’s body, which he brought back to Sucre wrapped in a bedsheet as he couldn’t fit in a coffin. (He was unusually tall).

My uncle’s death was just the beginning of several years of anguish, uncertainty, and pain for my family and the whole country.

Life After My Uncle’s Death

Juan José Torres was sworn in as president and began implementing his strategies. He demanded the departure of “Guantanamito,” a U.S. military satellite tracking station in el Alto, expelled U.S. labor organizations, and “ousted the Peace Corps on charges that they had been carrying out racially motivated contraception and sterilization campaigns in the Bolivian countryside.” (Bolivia and the United States: A Limited Partnership By Kenneth Duane Lehman)

Torres didn’t rule the country for long. On August 21, 1971, he too was overthrown by a bloody coup d’état led by Colonel Hugo Banzer, supported by the Brazilian Military Regime and the U.S.

Even though there was impressive resistance, the right-wing military applied extreme violent measures to achieve power.

Banzer’s dictatorship had a considerable impact on millions of Bolivians' lives, including my family. In the 50s, my grandfather had worked at a town hall for a left-wing political party. He was known as a leftist supporter, and under Banzer’s rule, left-wing supporters were all persecuted.

As a devoted Catholic, my grandmother wanted to hold a mass to commemorate one year since my uncle’s passing. Banzer’s government blacklisted my grandfather. After his brother, Ruben, was arrested in September, my family feared something could happen to my grandad. My grandmother forbade him to go to church. On the day of the mass, the military showed up at the church looking for him.

My grandparents decided he should go to La Paz. My aunt Ana went with him. They traveled on a truck for two weeks, passing through miner towns where “Campesinos” (farmers) fed them and sheltered them.

Starting August 1971, Banzer closed universities across the country, which forced many Bolivians to flee or go into exile. Both my aunt Ana and my mother couldn’t keep studying. My Abuelita and my mom joined my aunt in La Paz, and from there, they traveled to Santiago de Chile by train. Salvador Allende welcomed Bolivian exiles, and in November 1971, my grandmother helped her daughters settle in before going back to Sucre.

My grandmother kept supervising my grandfather’s projects and working at their hardware store. Because of what had happened to my uncle Carlos, whenever protests broke out, and the military tried to gasify students or farmers, she hid them in the store. While other businesses closed immediately, she left the door open to help those who needed it.

Scarier Times Were Ahead

On September 11, 1973, Augusto Pinochet overthrew Allende in a coup d’etat. Several Bolivians welcomed in Chile were arrested during his dictatorship, some tortured, and some killed. Some are still missing.

My mom and aunt were fortunate they were never arrested, mostly since they were politically active.

My “Abuelita” used to tell me how she asked the nuns to pray for her kids. And she prayed too. Faith was one of the things that helped her get through those days.

While my aunt Ana and my mom were in Chile, my grandmother held the fort. Life kept moving forward. Despite all the violence, fear, and loss, life didn’t stop.

My aunts Cristina and Daysi helped my grandmother throughout those scary times. However, in March 1974, my aunt Cristina moved to Germany to study architecture. My grandparents worked extremely hard to give their children opportunities.

Banzer’s dictatorship lasted until 1978. Under his regime, an estimated 2000 political prisoners were tortured in the Ministry of the Interior's basement. Many disappeared. Many other Bolivians sought shelter and protection in foreign countries.

It wasn’t until the end of Banzer’s government that my grandad could return home. A lot had changed, and nothing had changed at the same time. My grandmother was still standing, keeping it all together.

As a kid, I heard them talk about their experiences, and I was fascinated by them. Their stories taught me a great deal about resilience.

My Grandparents Marriage

My grandparents were married for 62 years.

As their granddaughter, I idolized their relationship for many years. It wasn’t until I got older that I learned about their troubles and challenges. I began to see the cracks. It was not a perfect marriage. I started to see them as human beings, with both gifts and flaws.

I remember my grandmother doing the newspaper crossword puzzle or playing solitaire on her bed while my grandfather took a nap. When I slept over or spent my holidays at her house, I remember her waking up at six in the morning every day. She rarely slept in. She’d go to the kitchen to prepare my grandfather’s breakfast.

She laid out his clothes, gave him his insulin, took him to the doctor, gave him a long bath every Saturday. She cooked impressive dinners for my granddad’s “men-only” gatherings. She served him. Her entire life, she served him.

When my grandfather died in 2011, it was as if someone had cut off her arm. She had been taking care of him, and suddenly, there was this enormous void.

I have wondered what would have happened if she had put herself first, before everyone else.

I know she wanted to travel. She wanted to see the world, but she couldn’t. Her life was about looking after others.

The Last Time I Saw My Grandmother

In March 2016, I went to see my family in Bolivia (I live in Barcelona, Spain). I tried to spend as much time as possible with my grandmother. I asked her to teach me some of her recipes. I asked her to tell me stories.

On my last visit, I noticed how age had finally caught up to her. While getting out of the cab to enter the market, she took out money to pay and asked me to tell her how much she had, as she couldn’t see. Another thing I noticed is how poor her hearing was. As we walked, she said to me, “I don’t like needing your mom to do stuff, but as you can see, I can’t do what I like on my own.”

I always saw my grandmother as this invincible woman who had been able to get through horrible pain and devastating loss. And yet, there she was, admitting to me she was fragile.

While spending time with her, I filmed her and photographed her. I had no idea it was going to be the last time I could.

About a month after I returned to Barcelona, my mom called to let me know my grandmother fell and hit her head. At the hospital, the doctors decided it was necessary to operate on her brain. She was hospitalized for several weeks.

My mother reassured me she was going to be okay. I spoke to my Abuelita on the phone, not knowing it was the last time I was going to hear her voice.

When my mom called to give me the news, I collapsed. Her death shook me to the core. I started going to therapy shortly after.

I did not make it to her funeral. But, I’d like to think she’s not entirely gone. Her spirit, her teachings, her courage live within me and those who deeply loved her.

We’re the sum of our experiences and our memories. My memory of her remains vivid. I can still hear her voice in my head.

I owe her so much.

Wherever she is, I hope she’s proud of the woman I have become.

Writer. Creative artist. Photographer. Feminist.

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