In one of her journal entries, Carmen wondered why our Tita had always been obsessed with getting her a car. She describes that Grandma would always say to her, “Te voy a dar dinerito para que te compres un carro,” and then she’d wink and smile with that mischievous smile she’d often give.
Tita Carmen, or Abue, never drove. When she was young she attempted to learn how to drive with a Jeep, but crashed under the anxiety that her second husband’s stern and rigid coaching caused her. He had no patience for the process or for life. She never picked up the keys to a car again. She spent the rest of her life waiting for transportation – whether it was the trolley, the bus, or a ride.
She was such a free spirit, an explorer and adventurer at heart. Her spirit was too wild to be contained, and that was evident in her decisions to leave both of her husbands, even when she didn’t have a penny to her name.
Tita Carmen never saw her lack of driving as an obstacle, however. She knew every bus line, every trolley stop, and every transfer point. We didn’t always have money to spend, but growing up, my grandmother and I would get on public transportation and discover places we had never seen before. Sometimes going somewhere would take hours, but we’d both peer out the window the whole time – I imagine that seeing new things was as exciting for her as it was for me. It was also a way to daydream and escape some of the more difficult and painful experiences in our lives.
When we lived in San Ysidro, we would take the trolley to Seaport Village every Sunday. We would pack a lunch and spend the whole day there. Seaport Village always hosted a band at the Kiosk located at the Eastern side of the village. There were always the regulars, mostly older folks swing’n and groov’n to the quintessential and nostalgic Americana music. My grandmother having had a long and drawn out challenge with chronic hip pain and deterioration of movement watched with joy as the couples showcased their jitter-bugs, square dances, and two-steps across the floor. She’d sometimes reminisce about her dancing adventures with Rumba, Cha-Cha-Cha, and Danzon. She’d describe her sequenced Casablanca evening gowns, her wedged platform shoes with rhinestone ankle straps, her black fur stole held together with a crystal brooch, and her pin-up hair. This era of her life would be a far cry from the 14 years of back-breaking work she endured in the agricultural fields of California.
She had her first hip replacement in 1984. Summer was in full swing, and there was going to be a free Latin music festival at the Embarcadero, not too far from Seaport Village. We had little money, but we were always looking for new opportunities for excitement and a slice of happiness in our lives. No matter how adverse the circumstances were around us, I always saw in my Tita an incredible desire to take in life at its best. She loved celebrations and the opportunity for a new experience. She wore a leg brace that span her whole leg, but that did not stop her. The day of the festival she took the 13-mile trek on the trolley to the Embarcadero, and had, what at that moment felt like, the best time of her life.
She loved Vegas, and though she didn’t drive, she always found a tour bus to travel with. She had spent her entire life caring for others, including helping to raise my four brothers and I. Once I graduated from high school, she found the space and freedom to be able to explore life a little more on her own. Before I’d know it, she was packing her clothes announcing she’d be leaving to Las Vegas the next morning, and would leave us instructions on what time to pick her up from the bus depot. Somehow she managed to never be confined. The last few years of her life she couldn’t do spare-of-the-moment trips to Vegas anymore, but she still managed to take the trolley and shuttle buses to Viejas, Barona, or Rincon Casino. After she passed, I found 7 different player’s cards for the nearby casinos in several of her purses.
Though public transportation never inhibited my grandmother and I from traveling adventures, once I was able to drive, there was no stopping us. My daughter Carmen, Tita, and I were always on the go – from road trips to camping, to local adventures. I remember Driving to Vegas several times a years. My daughter says most of her childhood theme park memories all trace back to Las Vegas, though I did take her to Disneyland once or twice, I’m sure of it. My grandmother’s sister and mother, my great-grandmother Tita-Chocolate, would often visit from Puebla, Mexico, and the road trips to Las Vegas became more adventurous. Ay Dios Mio, did my Tita Carmen and Tia Mary love to gamble. They always had their little superstitious rituals. Tita Carmen always carried a small golden Buddha with a plump belly in her purse. She would explain that if you rubbed its belly, it would bring you good fortune in your finances. And of course she hated for anyone to talk to her when she was at the verge of a winning streak on a slot machine; she and Tia Mary believed their good fortune would be chased away. They also believed that when one’s hand itched, it was a good omen for coming into money.
On one specific occasion I remember driving to Las Vegas with Tita Chocolate, Tita Carmen, and Carmen. Ha! That was a torturous adventure. A-hundred-and-ten-degree weather, two stubborn viejitas who thought they could walk the strip, and a four-year-old who wanted to get on every ride she saw.
I specifically remember driving home from Vegas. My stereo wasn’t working, and they slept most of the way back. Aside from my grandmother’s snoring, you could hear a pin drop. Sunburned, dehydrated, and a little hung-over from cafecito, sugar, and slot machines, they all slept dreaming of the neon signs and flashing lights we had left behind.
At some point life slowed our adventures down. I started to share my time with David, my teaching career, and personal interests. For a while Carmen became my grandmother’s partner in crime on the bus and trolley. The bus drivers loved Tita Carmen. She always carried chocolates in her purse, even though she was diabetic. She said they were for her friends, the bus drivers. She’d always have a little treat for them, and was always so grateful, especially because they would take the time to help her up the stairs with her walker. Sometimes when she’d be in the car with me, she’d wave at them while they were en route, and with genuine smiles, they waved back at her.
At some point though, my grandmother got older, so traveling on public transportation was more difficult for her. She became more dependent on others for rides. I imagine this sense of dependency is what fueled her obsession to get Carmen a car.