These Austin women are helping to redefine ‘abuelita’

“Poetry tames the dark,” says Lydia Armendáriz, 83. “It makes me unafraid to grow old or to die.”

A couple of generations ago, the word “abuelita” conjured an image of the long-suffering grandmother in the Mexican family, wrapped in a black shawl of mourning, knitting, confined to hearth and home. But today’s abuelitas are taking things into their own hands.

Modern abuelitas have the authority and love of the matriarch but have also embraced this century. They teach their grandchildren to crochet bead necklaces and help them weave words into a haiku on an iPad. It’s not either or, but both, and they integrate into modernity without sacrificing — but rather enhancing — their Latina identity.

Poet Armendáriz, theater producer JoAnn Carreón Reyes, 60, and professor Ángela Valenzuela, 55, are all part of a group in Central Texas that is growing by leaps and bounds — three times as fast as the overall population, according to census estimates. The number of Hispanic women age 55 or older in Travis County rose 27 percent from 2008 to 2013.

“In Western culture, women lose status as they age; in traditional Latino culture, women gain status as they age. We rely on our abuelitas and the knowledge they contribute,” said Sandra M. Gonzáles, a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, who has incorporated some of Valenzuela’s research into her own.

In her own voice

Abuelitas are the foundation of families, the place of Navidad and Thanksgiving gatherings, the keepers of culture and traditions.

Lydia Armendáriz began writing in earnest when she found herself an empty nester 21 years after paying the mortgage on her own.

“I tried to find my core, my inner ‘me’ as an individual, as a person … it was my therapy and my salvation,” she says, reflecting on the changes she lived through, from participating in consciousness-raising gatherings that made her question traditional gender roles and reproductive rights during the early rise of feminism, to distributing leaflets during the Chicano movement.

A poet and writer, Armendáriz went from a strict, traditional upbringing in rural New Mexico to life as a single mother of four in Texas. Today she continues to be a pillar for her extended family.

“I have three sets of four: four children, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren,” she says.

Her love of words comes from both her parents. Her mother had completed high school and had a high regard for books, and while her father was a laborer, he recited the poetry of José Martí by heart. Martí, who died at 42 in 1895, is still revered in the Spanish-speaking world for his verse, his fight for Cuba’s independence, and his stirring writings about freedom.

Armendáriz got her first job as a telephone operator after graduating from high school, about the time she could speak English fluently.

“I’ve always been self-sufficient,” she said. She later worked as an English teacher, then as a truant officer for the Austin school district. She has passed this sense of independence onto her children.

Her home has been a haven to her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in times when they have been between jobs, marriages or leases. “As long as I know they’re doing their utmost to help themselves, I’m here to support them … they have all spent periods of time with me,” she said, noting her emphasis on self-sufficiency first.

“I’m by nature a nurturer. I like to cook, to be a housekeeper and mother. I never felt I had a career. I had a job, but my family has always been my first priority.”

Reclaiming the ancestors’ language

“We really robbed our children of their language … but we couldn’t afford to get them punished, we wanted them to be able to compete in the dominant culture,” Armendáriz said.

Although it may seem paradoxical, Armendáriz raised her children speaking English only. That was during the time when children were still being reprimanded for speaking Spanish at school. State laws in Texas dating as far back as 1918 had required English-only teaching, and it wasn’t until 1973 when bilingual education was signed into law that kids could again freely speak Spanish at school.

Now, society is embracing the benefits of speaking multiple languages, as evidenced by the growth of dual-language programs in Austin schools.

It took two generations for her great-grandchildren to try to learn Spanish all over again. “The grandchildren now want to teach the great-grandchildren to be bilingual, at least some words,” she says.

Strength through spirituality

Juggling so many different demands in today’s world requires a respite, a recharge to keep going. For some it means travel and yoga, along with the rosary, and exposing kids to community.

To JoAnn Carreón Reyes, being a grandparent is like having a fourth job. She is executive director at Teatro Vivo, the director of school programs for Community Yoga Austin, and a part-time math coach for first-graders at Pecan Springs Elementary School.

Carreón Reyes enjoys bringing her grandchildren along to events whenever possible, so they can learn what it’s like to be involved in the community from an early age. “Any activity, whether it’s stuffing envelopes, so they feel they contribute in a small way, I say, ‘Come on, m’ijo, we’ve got to do this.’” The kids also show up for rehearsals, and occasionally they have a walk-on part in a play.

Carreón Reyes has been married to playwright and actor Rupert Reyes, a retired postman, for 40 years. The Reyeses run Teatro Vivo, a theater production company that showcases Rupert’s plays, as well as other Latino playwrights.

To recharge from her multiple demands on her time, Carreón Reyes likes to do yoga, go for long walks and travel. Making room for her spiritual life nurtures her and nurtures her family and community in turn, she says.

This year she and Rupert are returning to Spain for two weeks to walk part of the 62 miles of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a pilgrimage destination for Catholics since the Middle Ages. It begins in France and traverses through rugged terrain in northern Spain.

In March, they traveled for the first time to India with their yoga teacher and a small group of students for two weeks. “I’ve gotten to a point where a trip has to be spiritual, for personal growth, or to volunteer. I can’t just do Vegas,” says Carreón Reyes.

A life of service

It takes teamwork to juggle the demands in Angela Valenzuela’s house, as she and her husband balance their careers and community work with their daughter’s business-school schedule and their grandson’s daycare.

“It requires a united family, a lot of communication,” she said.

A young grandmother, Valenzuela — no relation to this writer — is a well-known figure in the Education Administration Department at the University of Texas, where she teaches, and also in the Latino community because of her deep involvement in educational issues affecting the community.

Her husband, UT professor Emilio Zamora, is very supportive, she says, and their current multigenerational home arrangement would not work without his help. “It’s doable,” she says. “We meet every single demand, every circumstance.”

In addition to Valenzuela’s teaching and administrative duties at UT, she lobbies for education reform when the Texas Legislature is in session, presenting expert testimony and recommendations about valuing and respecting Latino children’s home culture. She is also involved with the local organization Nuestro Grupo, which recently inaugurated Cuauhtli Academy, or Eagle Academy, a cultural heritage program for fourth-graders at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center. The first class graduated on May 2. And she serves on national boards, writes books and scholarly papers, and lectures, most recently in Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

She draws inspiration from her grandfather, a Baptist minister who also ran a tortillería in San Angelo, and her grandmother, who was very involved in the community.

Valenzuela is committed to giving back to the community. “My grandfather would not accept a salary as a minister,” she says. His spiritual and community work was not done for pay, and she follows his example.

Valenzuela wants her children, her grandchild and future grandchildren to experience the joy in community-building, without expecting any other reward. “When you do this work, you’re living the Christian ethic … you invest in people, in the next generation, in possibility.”

Navigating multiple worlds

These three abuelitas teach us that “we do not have to give up our Latina identity in order to succeed,” says Gonzáles, a college professor who has studied the traditional roles of Latina and Native American grandmothers.

Abuelitas are just as crucial today as ever, Gonzáles says: “Abuelitas teach their families and communities how to successfully navigate between multiple worlds without losing their Latino identity. Today, in the U.S., abuelitas are engaged at all levels of society, from the home and family, to community, and even directly impacting public policy.”

There is a silver lining in growing old when you find your purpose in life: “Every individual brings a gift to polish and work on in life. I was so busy for so long that I didn’t honor that gift,” Armendáriz says. “It’s a luxury to be able to live this long, that you’re finally free.”

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