I was sometimes told I look like my grandmother on my dad’s side, and although it wasn’t meant as a compliment, I always welcomed it as such. I wanted to be like my grandma. She was a tough, no-nonsense woman who was light-hearted and spunky to the very end of her life. She had a serious expression on her face most of the time but would playfully and unexpectedly stick out her tongue at neighbor-friends when they passed by her house. She had well-developed patterns of good-natured banter with most people in her neighborhood. She was well-known and well-liked, and people also knew not to mess with her. So, if I could be thought to be anything like her, I was good with that.
She lived in Mexico and my family in the United States. In Mexico, even as a younger kid, we were allowed to move around town on the bus if my older cousin was with us. We always landed and stayed with my mom’s side of the family and usually only went to visit my dad’s side for an afternoon or two during the course of our time in Guadalajara, where my parents were from. I couldn’t wait to surprise visit my dad’s side of the family – my grandma, aunt, and grandpa who all lived together. We never announced our visit in advance; so it was fun for me to get to walk into the patio of their apartment complex and find my grandma, as usual, standing in the doorway of her front door, smoking. She was a businesswoman, always running a small business, selling basic grocery items from home, so her door was always open. And she was almost always right there, standing just outside her door, a serious expression on her face, and a smoke in hand.
I’d casually walk across the patio as if I was one of her customers on my way to buy a coke. It always took her a second or two to realize it was me, her granddaughter, visiting from afar. I loved that moment when her face broke into joyful surprise and the play-scolding that would follow because I didn’t tell her I was coming, or that we were in Mexico (there were a lot of reasons for that, which I didn’t know about, but they weren’t relevant in that moment). I was there and we were good. We had the usual conversation about how we were, when had we arrived, how long we were staying. The visit revolved around me, because whoever else accompanied me there was there because of me – I was the catalyst for making the visit to my dad’s side of the family a priority.
My grandma was a tough and complicated woman with a history I did not know much about most of my life. She was one of twenty-five children – no joke. And because of that, she was given away to be raised by an aunt. She did not grow up with her parents or her siblings, and her aunt was not the kindest to her. When she married, she and my grandpa (my dad’s birth father who died when my dad was 8 or 9 years old) had the kind of relationship you read about in novels based in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Mexico. He was a hard-working man who was gone 3-4 months at a time to work “up north” and he made a lot of money, but he was also a mujeriego (womanizer) and an alcoholic who when he came home with his big 3-month paycheck, he would disappear for weeks at a time and spent the money partying and drinking at cantinas, and vacationing with other women, leaving his wife and children at home without many resources.
My grandma hustled to make it by. She knew all the trades my grandpa did – she was his helper whenever he worked in town – plumbing, electrical work, mechanics. She also had nursing skills, was a teacher, and was business-minded, selling goods from home almost all her life. But she and her kids were poor and often faced extreme hunger. My dad and aunts remember my grandma sometimes sending them to scavenge, which they did from other people’s gardens – working hard not to get caught. Whatever they brought home was what that day’s meal would be. She was a tough woman in difficult circumstances who worked hard to provide for her children. I knew that my dad loved and respected her deeply, and he gave her all the credit for his work ethic, strength, and survival. But she was hard on them.
Some of the stories my dad has shared of her “disciplining” him are straight-forward abuse stories that today would have made the evening news. Still, my dad always explained that he was indeed a “son of a gun” that if his mom hadn’t been as tough on him as she was, he probably would have turned out poorly in life, instead of the responsible, hard-working, and dedicated family person he became. It was a different time and my dad always gave my grandma credit for keeping her kids alive through extreme hunger and poverty in a culture that did not serve women well. My grandma raised my dad and his four siblings pretty much on her own. Among them are two PhDs – my uncle a chemist and my aunt an educator – and my dad who was a self-taught electrical engineer. The youngest two, the “surprise” baby she had with her first husband and the son she had with her second husband, did struggle more in their life, but my dad would say that it was because they were raised late in my grandma’s life, and she was more laxed by then. I don’t know. The point was my dad respected her accomplishments to the very end.
Still, when my dad married my mom, he knew to keep some good distance between his new wife and his mother. I didn’t learn about this until well into my adult life, but my grandma and her eldest daughter, my aunt, were not good to my mom. As just one example of the many crazy stories I would eventually learn, they tried to give my mom birth control under the guise that they were “vitamins” she should take each morning; they did not want her to get pregnant so that, in their logic, when my dad decided to leave her, he could do so more easily! My grandma did not think my mom was good enough for her son—another old and thread-worn story.
My parents were teenagers when they got together, 16 and 18 years old, and they were smitten from the start. My grandma and my aunt’s actions against them did not negatively impact my dad’s feelings for them, he just made sure to protect my mom from them and intentionally kept a wide geographic distance between them so that he and my mom could build their lives in peace. Which they did.
My parents never kept me or my siblings away from my dad’s family. I got to experience my grandma and my aunt, and the grandpa I grew up with (my dad’s stepdad that he always acknowledged as also his father), as fiercely loving and supportive of me my whole life. I didn’t learn of my grandma and my aunt’s misbehavior toward my mom until late in my adulthood, and even then, when my dad eventually shared these stories with me, he also always acknowledged that his mom was extraordinary and survived as a mother and wife despite the great odds against her. She was a product of her time and circumstances. My dad knew that his father had been a “real piece of work” and truly believed that if my grandma hadn’t been tough with her kids, especially her sons, they would have turned out likewise. I think he saw the potential of that in his very young self.
My dad learned a lot from both of his parents. My grandpa had been a very skilled mechanic and all around handy-man and, whenever he was actually home, he taught my dad those skills starting at a very young age (my dad had his first battery acid burn while working with his dad when he was 5 years old). My dad only ever communicated his deep love and respect for them both, while always clearly crediting his mom for making him into the man he became – one who, in his words, “had a good life, with no regrets.”
It was my dad’s respect for his mother that helped shape him into the feminist man I always knew him to be. My dad would often exclaim that of course he was feminist, how could he not be when it was women that saved his life and made it possible.
And in turn, my dad made my feminist life possible. He was a source of steadiness for me and always made it easy for me to believe in myself. Every phone call I had with him, which was at least two/three times a week, would end with him saying,
"You know I'm behind you, right? 100%. No matter what. Even when I'm dead, you'll still have your dad right next to you, 100%. You know that, right?" Yes, papa, I know. I know I do. "No matter what." I know, papa, I know. I do. No matter what.
My papa died two months ago on July 10, 2021. A strong and unexpected heart attack killed him very quickly. The doctor said he probably felt a very strong, sharp pain for a little bit – maybe a minute or two – and then he was gone.
He was his mother’s son,
Luis Manuel Alvizo Mora,
son of Consuelo Mora Placencia Arechiga,
and I his daughter.
I like that I look like her.
Xochitl Alvizo, loves all things feminist, womanist, and mujerista. She often finds herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, and works hard to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably connected and what we do, down to the smallest thing, matters; it makes a difference for good or for ill. She teaches in the area of Women and Religion, and the Philosophy of Sex, Gender, and Sexuality, at California State University, Northridge. Her volume, co-edited with Gina Messina-Dysert, Women Religion Revolution, is available through FSR Books.