Abuela was raised in a small pueblo just after the Mexican Revolution of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. Grandpa Angel, 16 years older than Abuela, fought in the revolution. The illegitimate son of a wealthy landowner, he killed a man for the first time at the age of 15 in a dispute over the ownership of some pigs. The revolution was good for him as murdering men frequently thrive in violent times. By the close of the war he co-owned a banana plantation and was quite wealthy. His fortunes changed when a drunken bar incident escalated to violence that culminated in a large gun battle in the center of town. Grandpa Angel and his men killed people including some important government officials and had to go on the run. A former general in the revolutionary war helped my grandfather to hide and convert his resources into land and cattle in the pueblo where Abuela lived.
Although raised in humble circumstances, Abuela loved to read and declaim. She first memorized patriotic poems as a three-year-old, declaiming at community events or simple family gatherings. An aunt who married into the family taught school and provided a free education to Abuela, who was reading by age four. Although much of her time was devoted to the typical farm and household chores expected of young girls, in her free time Abuela read every book she could acquire. It was well known in the community that no gift would please her so much as a book (although she also loved to play with dolls). When Abuela was 15 years old, Angel came to the house to visit with her parents. It didn’t matter that Grandpa Angel already had a family in the pueblo with another woman out of wedlock. He settled on a price of cattle and land with Abuela’s parents that greatly improved the resources of the family. Abuela put her books and dolls away and was married.
She describes her wedding night and the two and a half years that followed as a nightmare of continual rape, violence, and pregnancy. She lived in fear that the next beating would kill her. Grandpa Angel slept with his gun on the nightstand. Especially on nights when he was drunk, she fantasized about taking his gun and killing him before he awoke. As time went on she became more concrete in her plans for murder and waited for the right night to steal his gun.
Before Abuela could realize her plan, a land dispute led to a gun battle at the home. Abuela protected her babies with her body on the floor as bullets flew over head. Grandpa Angel was shot in the back of the head and killed instantly. Terrified by the violence and concerned that she might be a target, Abuela fled to the jungle to hide with my three month old mother and two year old aunt. Her father brought food and other needed supplies to her primitive camp until it was safe for her to return to the pueblo.
Widowed at 17 years old with two young daughters, Abuela turned to her mother for child care and started a business selling clothes. She also found love with Grandpa Gabriel. They married and had three daughters and a son, growing the family to six children.
Tragedy re-entered Abuela’s life when middle daughter Marilu, died of a sudden illness at age nine. Abuela’s grief at the loss of her daughter was profound. She spent many nights sleeping on her daughter’s grave site, fearful her daughter remained in limbo because her family couldn’t afford a special mass. A friend remembered that Abuela investigated the Mormon church some years prior. She contacted members of the fledgling church to reach out to Abuela.
Deeply comforted by the LDS doctrine of the afterlife, Abuela and the rest of the family were baptized (although Grandpa Gabriel probably neglected to mention his infidelity and second secret family in the baptismal interview). Abuela found purpose and empowerment in the LDS faith. The branch needed her and her daughters. Her family raised substantial funds for the construction of the first LDS chapel in their city. She was soon the president of the Relief Society: providing instruction to other women, but also collaborating with male leaders to coordinate missionary work and budgets. Her older daughters taught Sunday School and led the youth Mutual Improvement Association putting on dance festivals and cultural events that drew a large community audience.
Abuela joined the Church in the sweet spot of gospel growth when a branch has so many needs that no one really cares if it is a woman that does the work, as long as it gets done. She was integral to the growth of the LDS community in her city. My mother was a Sunday School President and Ward Secretary before the local Church was organized enough to staff those callings with men.
However, the transition to LDS living was not entirely easy. The heavy-drinking-fiesta side of the family lived next door and shunned Abuela for years. Grandpa Gabriel ran off to live with his other family, leaving Abuela burdened with numerous debts. Abuela faced these trials with holy confidence in her ability to survive loss. She honed her leadership skills in church callings and was prepared to meet new challenges in her life. Abuela used her growing confidence and skills to open a bookstore and support her family. Her life was free from domestic violence, her children safe and finally, she could read all of the books she wanted.
The gospel of Jesus Christ changed my family culture to one in which violence against women no longer exists and marital fidelity is the norm. Grandpa Angel’s murdering ways died with him. My generation of the family may succeed in eradicating violence towards children.
As I consider my Mexican pioneer heritage and my own experiences in the LDS Church, I am grateful for the “sweet spot” in leadership opportunities for women when a new branch of the church is growing. If the Church in Mexico had been entrenched and well established when my grandmother joined, I doubt my family would have experienced the same depth of transformation. After too many years as a powerless woman, Abuela was truly born again in opportunities to work in the Church and lead. She learned what it meant to be respected and listened to as she allowed the atonement to transform her life from the story of a victim to the narrative of a survivor.
Abuela’s story is in some ways the story of the Church not running exactly the way that it should, but enabling the atonement to work in the lives of women unhindered by bureaucracy and tradition. Abuela became a woman who acts and is not merely acted upon. I wish more women could engage in the empowering opportunities of leadership that my Abuela, mother and aunts were afforded. I see how the lives of hundreds of men and women have been touched by the transformation that occurred in Abuela’s life. Leading and building the Church changed a history of violence and subjugation to a her story of healing and rebirth.