The matriarchal force began with my great grandmother, María Luisa Vargas, in Peru. She was 5 months pregnant with her 3rd daughter when her husband, Ricardo, suddenly passed away from pneumonia. This left her alone to manage a sugarcane business while raising her 4- and 2-year-old daughters. Prior to Ricardo’s death, she lost her two eldest daughters from the flu pandemic that ravaged the world from 1918-1920. Despite her great loss, she persisted. Her love, savvy and grit passed on to my grandmother (my grammy), Consuelo. She was a magnetic woman and my American grandpa, Jo, fell in love on the spot when he met her at a holiday party after relocating to Arequipa. He famously made an indefensible number of laps to the dessert table just to keep sneaking glances at my grammy while she sat on the steps surrounded by her admirers. Their romance could be its own feature-length film, so I’ll save the details for next time. When at age 25 my grammy finally agreed to marry my grandpa and move to the United States, she had saved up enough money from her work at the British Consulate to build a house for her mother and siblings so that they would never be homeless. The use of her talents to provide home and belonging would become a guiding principle for the matriarchy my grammy built, and one that helped shepherd our family through the struggle of immigration.
The United States in 1955 was a cruel place for a Latina and arguably still is. My grammy experienced bigotry and hatred from her own inlaws who criticized Peruvian Catholics as drunkards and “brown people who would never amount to anything”. She lived with other men telling her husband to “control your woman” and their expectation that my grandpa tell her what to do. 1950s America’s knee-jerk reaction to women like my grandmother was to degrade and vilify, despite the fact that she was and had always been the type of “model citizen” that white America still views as exemplary of a “good immigrant”. By the time she came to the U.S., my grammy was fully bilingual (with an English certificate from Cambridge University) and the Head of the Accounting Department at the British Consulate in Peru. Because her mother single-handedly raised her and her siblings, she had never had a male figurehead in her life.
The shock that women in America were expected to be subservient to their husband’s wishes was a cruel surprise. And yet, she would become the guiding force behind our family legacy. She created my grandfather’s geotechnical engineering corporation that created the wealth that would provide stability and security to her children. When my great grandmother became worried about my grammy’s safety following the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights activists, my grammy brought her mother and siblings into the life and security she was building in the US. I only recently learned that her true first name is Águila – Eagle. A perfect name for a protective and boundless woman.
I am the eldest grandchild who she called her “sweetie angel”. My childhood memories are interwoven with days spent painting alongside her, playing dress up with her infinite collection of hats and scarves and the sweet scent of cilantro wafting from the kitchen. Her home was the epicenter of our family; a physical testament to her will to thrive in this country. To know my grammy was to know infinite and powerful love. She experienced ugliness even from within her own family and she still chose respect and compassion over retribution. As I grew older I learned of her dreams. She wanted to open a tea shop and a Parillada, a gathering place where she could showcase her cultural heritage through food and music. Yet she dedicated so much time to running my grandfather’s business and raising her family she was never able to invest in her own dreams. My grandmother never built her Parillada, but her gift of love and stability to her family enabled us to become independent women, seeking our own dreams and encouraging those around us to do the same.