This story appeared in the March 2015 issueof our magazine. Subscribe to read the full issue online.
I come from a long line of strong women. Women who left home and made a new life in a foreign land. These women’s blood flows in mine. I know their stories because they were revealed to me at the kitchen table, when the adults forgot I was listening with big ears and eyes.
I know of one ancestor who spent her pregnancy in a hammock inside a boxcar as she followed her husband on the railroad. I know she wanted to stop traveling and to settle down in Iowa so their kids could go to school and get a good education. So they did. Education was and is prized by immigrants as the ticket up and onward. This is one side of my family.
On the other side, I know my paternal grandma got a divorce in Mexico from her first husband because he was abusive. This was at a time when getting a divorce was hard and almost unheard of. She had to sacrifice one child to her husband’s family. They took everything away from her but the child in her belly. She got away, and while she never got over leaving her daughter behind, she saved herself and her unborn son.
My paternal grandmother had to give her daughter away to save herself, and though she knew the family loved her little girl and would take care of her, she never got over her loss.
Later, she could have moved back to Mexico and taken her three U.S.-born sons to her parents’ house when her husband died, but she didn’t. She stayed in Iowa and raised her three boys. Half of her was always in Mexico with the daughter she had to give up, and with the son who chose to stay with her parents when she came to the United States with her new husband. How do you split a heart? It is from her I get my stoicism and the ability to endure heartache and hard times no matter what.
I know my maternal grandmother worked in factories in Des Moines during World War II when all the men had left. I know she bought her own car as a young woman and raced back and forth from Newton to Des Moines with her cousins and friends. I know she bore eight children and buried one. I know she made food last and stretched out her money to the end, and that she dared to love again after my grandfather was murdered by a drunken man in a fit of rage. She never got justice. How much can one heart take? And how do you keep your laugh intact after such a tragedy?
From my maternal grandmother, I get my laugh, and my love for dancing and being on stage. With both of my grandmothers’ blood in my veins, I am complete. I know sacrifices were made for my benefit before I ever breathed. Today I have remembrances of them: their treasured jewelry, purses, bean pots, and glass vases.
Here is something else I learned from my grandmothers: Poverty can hold a people back, but a group of people who bind their resources together can fight back against discrimination, job loss, the loss of a home, and other tough times.
When my father, his brothers, and his mom got kicked out of their home on very short notice, my maternal grandmother found a house for sale next door. Armed with her English, American upbringing, and citizenship, she took my dad’s mom up to town and helped her buy the house. My paternal grandmother had cash she had saved from her husband’s railroad pension, and she bought the house fair and square. She was a single mother in the 1950s, her husband long dead from old age and hard work. Finally, she owned her own property and had a stable house for her three boys. This woman made it work living alone in the United States. She forged new relationships with other women and they worked together and helped each other through births, miscarriages, abusive men, and thieving relatives.
I think of these women helping each other out through heartbreak, children, and bad times—sharing what they knew and opportunities as they arose. By helping each other out, they also helped their men folk, the boys, the girls, and the old ones, too. They are the unsung heroes, the ones who endured, before women had the rights we do today.
Another thing I learned from my grandmothers: We fight back. Someone says, you can’t, and you find another way. We save ourselves and our families again and again. But we can’t save anyone else if we don’t save ourselves first.
In my twenties, I chose to save myself and left my first husband when he became abusive, knowing it was OK to break my vows because the women in my family had established a precedent. I would survive, thrive, and live to write it down for posterity.
I have come full circle—daughter, granddaughter, feminist, wife, and always a writer. I think female history matters. Women hold up half the sky, make the meals we live by, and bear the children who ultimately go off on their own and succeed in an often unjust and cruel world, armed only with the love of their mothers and their grandmothers.
That love is revolutionary. To put others before yourself and to save yourself at the same time is quite the balancing act.
Angie Trudell Vasquez is a Milwaukee-based poet and activist.