Growing up with a Colombian abuelita was wildly different from any family I knew. I was raised on stories from a land that felt mythical and far away. These stories were filled with unimaginable struggle, heartbreak, and an unwavering determination for triumph. Being a first-generation Colombian (dad)-Mexican (mom) American, I grew up hearing endless stories and understood their messages of never giving up despite how hard things get, doing my best in everything I do, and never taking anything in my life for granted.
From birth until age 8, I had been blessed with being raised by an extra parent—a grandmother who taught me what I needed to know—while my parents worked their hardest to provide a life that would give my brother and me endless opportunities. I’m thankful to have this incredible woman in my life, reminding me of the life lessons she taught me when I was younger. These lessons shaped me into the ambitious, determined person—perhaps even the storyteller— I am today. I share them because they’re still relevant, and are guiding principles everyone needs in their life.
Lesson #1: Life is what you make it
Or as my abuelita says, “No llore.” The translation to this means “Don’t cry.” Our emotional IQ has evolved since I learned this, but in her defense, it didn’t mean don’t cry ever. It meant, if you’re unhappy about a situation, do something about it; don’t sit around and mope, because your life is what you make of it. My abuelita, a single mother of six, raised her children, and helped out with her siblings’ children as well, all during a time where machismo was alive and well, in a country where corruption was widespread. It was tough, to say the least. Every time I cried over something that didn’t go my way, whether it be something not going right in my career, in college, or a breakup, her reasoning for telling me not to cry went a lot like this, “If I sat around and cried about all the suffering I’ve had to endure, it’d have gotten me nowhere.” I learned not to dwell on the bad, and instead change my circumstances to get the results I wanted.
My abuelita had to overcome poverty, and still fulfilled her dream of setting her children up for success. At one point, there was barely enough money for food. Often, brothers and sisters shared clothes, and each child was allotted one pair of shoes until the soles had holes. On top of that, options for schooling were military or public—both, my grandmother believed, would send her children down a road she didn’t want them to go. For her it was vital that her children get a private education, because public schools at that time weren’t good. How, when money was scarce? She’d volunteer in La Politica, local politics, to get scholarships for each of her kids, and she networked with the schools’ principals, volunteering for the schools when she could.
After her day job at Sears, she’d come home and cook in order to sell food on the bus during her morning commute. When asked about her entrepreneurial spirit, she explained that she did all that she could to make ends meet. My abuelita explained that she needed to provide all the tools for her children to succeed, so that she could provide a life where easy money wasn’t appealing to them. (Ahem, Colombia in the ‘70s and ‘80s.) Once she even humbly bragged, “See my kids are all honest, successful, and without any vices.”
Every time I cried over something that didn’t go my way, whether it be something not going right in my career, in college, or a breakup, her reasoning for telling me not to cry went a lot like this, ‘If I sat around and cried about all the suffering I had to endure, it’d get me nowhere.’ I learned not to dwell on the bad, and instead change my circumstances to get the results I wanted.
These stories taught me something crucial: she could not allow herself to grieve over the times life knocked her down; she kept going because she had to. In her mind she had no other choice—failure was never an option for her. Thankfully, this behavior rubbed off on me. I never allowed a closed door, a “no,” or a hardship to discourage me from getting what I wanted. I set the bar high, and would not stop until I achieved everything that I wanted.
In all honesty, I owed it to my family for all of the struggles they went through to get me here. So, I got into my dream school (Fight On!) on my second try. I spent four years applying for a job at the biggest and best storytelling company. Even after every redirection, I spent every spare moment plumping up my resume with internships at well-known media networks and content creation companies until I got the job I wanted. (If you work in media, you know how competitive and rigorous it was to get those internships. And I did the work for free, might I add.) When I finally got my “dream job,” I juggled a full-time job and a full-time Masters in Professional Writing program from the University of Southern California, meaning I had 16-hour days of work and school every day for a couple years. Working hard and shaping my future the way I wanted,was the way I repaid my parents and abuelita. She taught me the most important lesson: I had the power to create my own reality–my own future—despite anything in my way. She always made it happen, and I continue to live my life that way too.
Lesson #2: “It’s better to be alone than in bad company.”
The saying goes, “Es mejor estar solo que mal acompañado.” Or it’s better to be alone than in bad company. My abuelita told me that the most important person in your life will be who you choose to be your life partner. This person can make your life hard and miserable, and that person is not someone who is worth keeping around. “You can do it all yourself, and better,” she’d say, because she loved to remind me that one was capable of the seemingly impossible. I was in my early 20s when I dealt with my first real heartbreak. And she said, “Well, I see you’re still living, so you survived it, with the whole world in the palm of your hand. So what exactly is the problem?” (The “don’t cry” speech from lesson #1 also came into play here.) My abuelita acted like my heartbreak was just a tiny bump in the road of life. (I learned later—it was.) She’d elaborate to never chase someone; if their love isn’t given freely, they don’t belong in your life. As hard as breakups are, I took her advice, and never allowed myself to sit around and do nothing. I’d repeat the phrase to myself to remind myself: I deserved better.
She taught me the most important lesson: I had the power to create my own reality—my own future—despite anything in my way. She always made it happen, and I continue to live my life that way too.
Of course, my abuelita wasn’t only referring to romantic love when stating this dicho—meaning “saying” in English. She taught me to never have someone in your life that would hold you back, hurt you, bring drama into your life, or get you into trouble. This included bosses who didn’t allow you to grow in your career, friendships that weren’t serving, and even family members who bring stress into your life. “Do not let anyone drag you down or be in charge of your happiness,” she’d say. I still value this lesson today, making sure that the people I keep around me are the best company.
Lesson #3: Give thanks
Who knew I didn’t have to spend hours reading countless metaphysical books (though I’ve loved every minute of it) to learn that the most important life lesson grants you ultimate happiness and aids in manifestation. Gratitude was taught to me at an early age. These were constant friendly reminders of how lucky I was to be born in a country where I had opportunity. Being born in the United States meant I’d never wake up and dream to get a visa to be granted permission to leave a country for one where I could work hard and make something of myself, like a lot of my family did. The country in which I was born already granted me the freedom to follow goals and accomplish my dreams. My abuelita explained to me that I was blessed beyond belief to have the opportunity to live in a safe area with a roof over my head, an abundance of food, and the fact that I could go to school. These were luxuries most of my family didn’t have, including my abuelita.
Being born in the United States meant I’d never wake up and dream to get a visa to be granted permission to leave a country for one where I could work hard and make something of myself, like a lot of my family did. The country in which I was born already granted me the freedom to follow goals and accomplish my dreams.
When I adopted her ideology on gratitude, I started seeing things through a different lens. Not only was life more beautiful, I had time to appreciate all the little things that made me happy; seemingly small things that turned out to be important, and even vital, to my life. All of this caused me to feel more compassion for others, and to do more for others.
I remember the day it hit me. I was in Portland with some friends, and we spent two days walking around the city. Exhausted, cold, and with aching feet, we scoped the city for massages. I remember laying on the massage table, with a sudden realization, “We are so lucky. We’re exhausted from a day of shopping, and we have the financial ability to get a massage on a whim. My grandma could never do this after being on her feet all day, working multiple jobs to give her children the essentials.” I ranted for a while, realizing that there was so much sacrifice from my parents, and both paternal and maternal grandmothers, to have the freedom that I had.
Gratitude allowed me to see this. I felt blissfully aware of the powers that brought me to that point in my life. It was up to me to find ways to give back, not only to my grandma and parents, but also to provide opportunities to others who may not have the same ones as I do.
Lesson #4: With prayer and patience, everything is possible
My abuelita is the strongest woman I know. On top of this, her faith is unwavering. She has always known that life, though hard, would always work out in her favor. She knew that sometimes things took time, and that made her appreciate it more; she knew that with hard work and faith, eventually things would get better. As though it weren’t enough for her to go through her struggles in Colombia, she had different struggles here in the United States. Never one to complain, she finally received her visa in her early 50s, after waiting most of her life for the opportunity.
I saw my abuelita go to night school four days a week to learn English. I’d help her study for her test to become a U.S. citizen; a test that was in a language she didn’t speak. It broke my heart to watch her continuously fail the test after studying so hard and wanting it so bad. After several tries, she passed the test and became a citizen!
She has always known that life, though hard, would always work out in her favor. She knew that sometimes things took time, and that made her appreciate it more; she knew that with hard work and faith, eventually things would get better.
Later in life, in her early 70s, she broke her hip and kept walking on it for a month. She said the pain was excruciating, but waited for her doctor’s appointment. Upon check up, they had to perform surgery, and once it was over, doctors said she’d never be able to walk or live alone again. For an incredibly independent woman, these words were devastating—but she didn’t let it stop her. Two months later, she made sure that wouldn’t be her reality. My abuelita began walking again, and for the next six years she lived alone and walked as much as she wanted.
Then, nearly two years ago, life had gotten to this strong woman yet again. She had to have another surgery at the age of 85, it got infected, she became septic, had to have a second surgery, and soon after, she had a stroke. It left her paralyzed on her right side and she lost her memory and speech. She’d never be able to speak again, they said. Though she couldn’t really communicate with us, you could see that she understood what was going on. Even in her gaze and her hand squeezes, I felt her determination. A couple of months went by and she was able to move her right arm and leg again. At three months, she was able to speak normally, and has most of her memories back, except for her short-term ones. She’s of sound mind, and is still able to remind me of the lessons she taught me. She is #goals. Her unwavering faith taught me that in time, everything would always work out.
I like to joke about my abuelita that, They sure don’t make them like they used to. She is truly one of a kind. I aspire to be as strong as her, and I feel lucky that I’ve inherited her determination and unwillingness to give up. My abuelita’s lack of complaint for the things she’s had to endure is applaudable. The way she always toughed it out is admirable. There were so many things that I love and admire about my abuelita, and I’m so thankful for her and her endless lessons.
This past International Women’s Day, we did face masks and I celebrated her. Her response to our little celebration was, “Every day is women’s day, because women are strong beyond belief. They do the impossible every single day.” I am most thankful for her favorite lesson, which was the most important lesson of all: as a woman, I have the power within me to make anything happen. The most magical part of it all? She made me believe it.