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caption: Left: Serapia Hernández Vargas poses wearing an apron and holding a gun. Right: Luis Hernandez Vargas (center) smiles with his great-grandma, Serapia Hernández Vargas (bottom right), and eight other members of their family in Mexico.
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Left: Serapia Hernández Vargas poses wearing an apron and holding a gun. Right: Luis Hernandez Vargas (center) smiles with his great-grandma, Serapia Hernández Vargas (bottom right), and eight other members of their family in Mexico.
Credit: Courtesy of Luis Hernandez Vargas

‘Life goes on.’ How my abuelita challenged gender roles in Mexico

Not everyone’s great-grandma sold moonshine and slept with a gun under her pillow. But my great-grandma did. Here's what she taught my mom and me about gender, growing up and moving on.

I remember my great-grandma, Serapia Hernández Vargas, as a little old lady who wore ribbons in her hair and a pink plastic poncho when it rained. My mom, Bertha Vargas, remembers her as the woman who did everything.

"Este era una mujer que vendía licor sin un permiso. Y curaba personas de huesos y todo eso dando masajes, o tipo de tratamiento para los huesos. Y que aparte luego empezó a vender plantas," my mom says. “This was a woman who sold moonshine. And also gave massages, and made treatments for bone aches and pains, and also later sold medicinal plants."

And, my mom says, she protected everyone.

"También era una mujer que su casa estaba llena de armas por protección. Dormía con una pistola debajo de su almohada," she says. "She was also a woman who had a home full of guns for protection. She slept with a gun under her pillow.”


She showed me that a woman doesn't need a partner, or a man, or a family to get ahead. bertha vargas

My great-grandma did all of this while breaking free of traditional gender roles.

"Ella me enseñó que una mujer no necesita una pareja, o un hombre, o una familia para salir adelante. Una mujer muy trabajadora, muy respetuosa, y ayudaba todo tipo de persona que llegaba a su casa," my mom says. “She showed me that a woman doesn't need a partner, or a man, or a family to get ahead. She was a hard worker, very respectful, and she helped anyone who came to her house.”

My great-grandma was a strong woman, but always humble. She was a warrior who never got tired. The same can be said of my mom.

A ver a mi abuela, que una mujer muy independiente y muy trabajadora, y que me inspiraba a ser alguien mejor. Yo trabajaba y estudiaba, y decidí moverme, sin conocer a nadie, a una ciudad grande para seguir estudiando cuando tenía diecisiete años," my mom says. "To see my grandma, this very independent, very hard-working woman, inspired me to be someone better. I studied and I worked, and I decided to move to a big city, where I didn’t know anyone, to continue studying when I was 17.”

I leave Seattle for college in New York soon. And while I am super nervous about the journey that lies ahead, I know that I'll always carry my great-grandma’s strength with me.

My mom says my great-grandma was the personification of the phrase, “Life goes on.”

So, here I go.

All audio for this story was collected following CDC safety guidelines during Covid-19.

This story was created in KUOW's RadioActive Online Radio Journalism Workshop for 15- to 18-year-olds, with production support from Lila Shroff. Edited by Kelsey Kupferer. Adriana Saladrigas provided the English voice-over.

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