My aji, mi abuela Gabriela, our most valuable treasure
Written by Bibiana Vasquez, Founder and Director of Wings of Consciousness.
I would like to share a story of a remarkable 103 year old woman. My Aji, mi abuela Gabriela, who just won the latest award of her life. She was recognized as a Golden Colombian, an award given by her city to people who have dedicated their lives to their community’s well being.
Born in 1915, she was trained as a nurse assistant. And since always I remember her as a woman dedicated to raising her 5 children, and to helping everyone who would come knocking at her door. She is a true community leader.
In her 70s, along with the head of her parish, an Italian priest and some nuns, she started her most recognized and awarded social project called the “Common Pot”. As single mother families were displaced by the internal war in Colombia, they were moving to the outskirts of cities like Bucaramanga, where grandma still lives. These families came with empty pockets being forced to flee to safety and had to restart their lives. They had no jobs or immediate income opportunities, they didn’t have much to eat. So the Common Pot was a means to feed these families at least twice a day. My aji would negotiate with supermarkets and supplying companies to get the leftovers of fresh and about-to-expire products, and would cook a huge meal for hundreds of people on a daily basis. Meals would be sold at a very low price, affordable to everyone. In addition, she would organize workshops for women, so they could learn to make handicrafts and make some money.
Since I can remember, as my brother and I would spend our vacation time with her, she was holding courses of different things at her home. One of her goals, as she herself became a single mother early on, was to provide economic empowerment to women by providing them skills so they could earn a living independently. I remember her dining table being always full of some art or cake materials from her trainings. She would make the most delicious cakes I have tasted. All with her hands, without any kitchen help. I would be her aid when I was visiting her, helping her crack eggs or adding sugar to the mixture.
After she turned 100, I interviewed some of the women that used to help with her community projects. They mentioned that “doña Gabriela”, as they respectfully call her in her neighborhood, is a true leader. She had the utmost integrity, never wanting to take advantage of anyone, being very strict about making sure that once people committed to helping her, they would perform and be accountable, and most of all, she was always happy, cheerful, and very respectful with everyone. She especially has this sweet strength of character that is remarkable. I don't remember her shouting at anyone, or even getting angry.
She has gotten many prizes, some offered in cash, which was actually never delivered by city politicians, and for which she was once blamed, as people thought she had kept the money. Politicians many times used her to get votes and posed for pictures with her as they pocketed the awarded community funds. But even then, she would not make a big fuss. Her wisdom is beyond the greed and meanness of others. She would just raise her shoulders and say, “who knows what they did with that money”. She really wouldn’t waste her energy on things she could not control.
Nowadays, she is one of the most peaceful and loving human beings I have been lucky to spend significant time with. She emanates joy and serenity. As my aji has dedicated her life to her community, my aunt Clarita, has in turn dedicated her life to taking care of grandma, and the beautiful orphan girl she adopted (and now a mother of two), with much love and care.
Up to the age of 99, as she was able to walk without the caminador (walker), my grandma was still going to the nearby hospital to read (without glasses, she doesn't need them!) to the sick elderly. I asked her why she did that, and she just said: “you know, they don’t have visitors very often so I go and spend time with them. I can still do it!”
In addition to being my example of dedication through love and compassion, I also admire my aji’s great vision that she has held as her most precious treasure. She has managed to maintain both her 20-20 eyesight and her life vision. Her children invited her often to move to a “better neighborhood”, but she always says that this place is where she can be helpful and put herself at service to the community. At 103, she has outlived all of her siblings, close friends, most of her coworkers, and priests and nuns. She is for the most part independent, and people in her neighborhood still come to chat with her as she spends hours at a time looking outside her door and saying goodbye to passersby. Sometimes people offer to bring chickens or fruits or vegetables to her, and then my aunt has to pay for them, as people “deliver” them a few days later.
So, what is the secret to her healthy longevity? A life of service, gratitude and an unwavering vision, an open heart full of love and compassion capable of instantly dismissing any ill feelings. No excuses, ever, for her to achieve big things. Lack of funds was never an excuse. Her frugal life has allowed her to live a meaningful life out of her pension.
Much gratitude to my aji, for being a great example, not only for me and my relatives but also for the people in her community. My father in particular inherited her generosity. If you ever meet her, bring her chocolates, but be aware that she may not be willing to share them with you…or get her a book, she loves to read stories out loud!
Dona Gabriela turns 104 on February 15.