I am many women, and at least three live in me.
The first one is my grandmother Jovita Lujano Uriostegui. The warrior. With her long braids, her thick eyebrows and deep voice, her delicious food, the hot ‘chocolate batido’ in her ever-crowded, colorful kitchen and her every-morning religious chants.
Her family had run away from La Revolución, thus she was born in a remote area in la Sierra de Guerrero where they relocated. She met and married my grandfather there, at only 15 years old. It was she who taught him how to read, and when he became a very rich lumberman they were able to move to a bigger town. There, with 8 children already, she went back to school. After he passed away, she started her own small landlord and food business and became the matriarch of my family. Everyone in town knew and loved her. I still meet people that tell me how much they admired her.
My husband tells me she reminds him of Frida Kahlo and, just like her, she was in a lot a physical pain. She became crippled from arthritis at only 40 years old and, since medical services back then were scarce, her illness became worse with time.
Years before I was born she had bought a very expensive encyclopedia for her children but it was me who got to use it the most. Her deep religious faith gave me my spirituality, her example gave me strength and her encyclopedia gave me wings.
The second woman is my mother Maria Renteria, who looks more and more like my grandma as time goes by, with her long dark hair, thick eyebrows, and deep voice. She was their fifth child, my grandfather’s favorite, “La muñeca” because she looked like a doll when she was a baby. She was always very contemplative, reserved and quiet, but very thoughtful and powerful with her words. She dreamt of becoming an artist, so she used to write and illustrate her own stories from a very young age. But her very dominant father didn’t want her or any of his daughters to leave the family home and that meant she had to stay.
When she was 20 years old, she got pregnant with me and became a single mother, which was a surprise for everyone… especially her –because of their very conservative background, her family didn’t talk about those issues. But that only made her stronger and more determined. She is the problem solver in me, the believer in me, the ‘do things your way’, the ‘question everything’, the ‘come and get it’ in me… the ‘everything is going to be fine’ in me. Her love gave me confidence, and her dreams became mine.
And then there’s me, Iliana Rentería.
I was born prematurely, so that meant chances of survival weren’t really in my favor, but my mom devoted all her time to taking care of me. She was always speaking to me. She took me everywhere with her. Even my grandma used to make fun of her, for talking to a baby as if I could understand a word she was saying. She read to me and told me I needed to learn how to read myself if I ever wanted to understand all the stories I was interested in. So I did. She took me to bookstores, and I especially remember a beautiful classic fairytale compilation that was so precious to me, I still know all the stories by heart. One time, she got me a book about stars, and from then on I was always looking for the constellations whenever I looked up at the sky. I grew up loving school and learning, and I especially loved my local library, which was so hidden in my small hometown that you could easily miss it. It was cold and dark, but I felt safe there. I used to go without telling anyone and spent hours diving into Gabriel Garcia Marques’ stories, visiting his Macondo and meeting all those magical characters he painted so beautifully through his words.
I was an only child and didn’t have that many friends, but I had books. It was an era without the internet, so I learned about different places, cultures, characters, and times through them. I dreamt of all of those things. I wanted to be like Jo March, from the book, Little Women. Independent, witty, and determined. And just like her, I wanted to leave, I wanted to see more, to become more…
My small hometown was calm and safe back then, but I could only picture myself getting married and having children at a young age if I stayed. That was not I what I wanted.
I studied hard to go to the university, and books took me there. They made it possible for me, and in my spare time, literature was my friend.
By the time I met my husband I had already been to Sicily, Paris, China, North and South America and more, without ever leaving my country.
I had never thought of the power of all the books we’ve read in our lifetime to put the pieces of one’s life together until I met him. A Mexican book lover, a poet, an only child like myself, who happened to live in a different country, and who had lost his grandmother a week before I lost mine. I’d like to believe it was them who brought us together.
Books gave me wings, and he gave me a reason to fly.
Iliana Rentería was born in Mexico, where she used to work for the Health Systems Research Center at the National Public Health Institute, and recently moved to the United States. She has found life in the Valley to be a fascinating and enriching experience for her and her family. Rentería has years of medical training experience and a Bachelor of Psychology. She lives in New Castle, with her husband Samuel Bernal, and her two children, Annette and Leonardo. She currently works as a Program Coordinator for Raising A Reader – Aspen to Parachute, a local non-profit organization focused on early literacy and school readiness. She is a champion for education and delivers trainings across the valley to model and inspire families to read with their children and become active in their learning process.