She was born on June 22, 1926. Her father- Asuncion Espinoza came from a wealthy Mexican cattle ranching family. Her mother was named Librada. Her comfortable childhood was swept away from under her feet when her father decided to leave the family for another woman. He left them completely impoverished and desolate at a very troubled time in the world- the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution and the crisis of a depressed economy in both the U.S. and Mexico.
Consuelo or “Abuelita Chelo” as we have all come to call her was the little girl who was abandoned along with her siblings and her mother Librada. Abuelita Chelo is my grandmother and our family matriarch. She turned 90 years old this past week and on Sunday, we will celebrate her and her life. Abuelita never forgot how her life changed drastically from one day to the next when her father left the family and the extreme poverty that followed, living as a homeless family on the streets of Mexico, her and her siblings hustling to make money on the streets as shoe shiners and gum sellers- this childhood trauma followed her all the rest of her life and brought her tremendous sadness.
My grandmother is not the baking cookies type. Never was. Instead I remember her strength and fortitude. She taught me to work hard. Both her and Grandpa did. At age 11, my parents sent me on weekends to spend the night at their house so that I could help them sell at the swap meet. We’d wake up at 5:30 in the morning. The truck was on- rumbling low- coffee scents strong in the air and I’d be squeezed in between them in the front seat of the truck. It was still dark outside. We’d arrive at the swap meet, all of us like small ants in line formation in our trucks- all of us immigrants from other places (Mexico, China, Vietnam)- trying to scrape enough dollars and cents to feed our families.
My grandmother taught me how to talk to people- all kinds of people and she taught me how to sell just about anything to anybody. “You’ve got to call them in- like this Elizabeth, ask them what they need, how you might be able to help them, look for every angle- don’t give up. When you have some down time- organize things this way. Keep your eyes open for thieves- they act quick- look at hands and don’t get distracted.” She was also an unbelievably proud grandmother- to every friend that came by to say hello she would tell them- this is my granddaughter Elizabeth- daughter of Belia. She’d spoil me with doughnuts for breakfast, fresh cherries and plums and peaches during the summers and hamburgers for lunch. They were long days and she wanted to make sure I was well fed. I remember thinking that if you added up all the money she spent on me on food throughout the day- it would have been cheaper for her to hire someone else to help!
As a small child, I would sit at this little wooden island in her kitchen and eat pomegranates. She’d cover my clothes with a huge apron and then I went to town- red juice spilling all over my hands and mouth- never enough- there were never enough pomegranate seeds. Reader’s Digest magazines and newspapers were always scattered around her house. There was always pan dulce in the pastry dish and coffee on the kitchen counter top. Somebody was always stopping by to visit. There was always another relative I had never met before who was the cousin of so and so and then they’d go on and on about how they remembered me when I was just a small baby.
I miss those days. They were the longest days in the world and the best. I just didn’t know it then.
On Sunday- together with my parents, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews- all 150 of us- we will celebrate Abuelita Chelo and her 90 years, remember Abuelito Pedro. We will squeeze every single amount of life out of every minute of that day- we will eat, dance, sing, cry, remember and create new memories.
What a legacy she has created- one that is 90 years strong. Thank you Abuelita Chelo.