"Abuie is the boss,” Monica Rangel’s 7-year-old son, Sebastian, regularly informs her, using the family nickname for Monica’s mom, his abuela. “Whatever Abuie says goes.” And Rangel, a Mexican-American financial planner in Brea, California, agrees, “That is pretty much the way it is!”
This exchange probably sounds familiar—if not from your own life, then from both the big and small screen. The supremacy of the abuela has been getting a lot of airtime lately thanks to the wildly popular film Coco and shows such as Netflix’s One Day at a Time, starring Rita Moreno as a Cuban grandma. And of the 500-plus survey respondents, nearly all said that their kids are better off thanks to Abuela’s affection.
The statistics confirm that IRL, as well as on-screen, Abuela truly deserves the Oscar for best-supporting character in a Latino family. Not only do we honor and respect her as the matriarch of the family, but we also value the infinite wisdom she happily shares.
And while all grandmas are different (some work full-time, while others are on abuela duty around the clock) most share an amazing superpower: the ability to love our kids as if they were their own.
Abuie lives 15 minutes from us—which she thinks is too far,” laughs Rangel. And proximity has its advantages. With two kids and her own business, Rangel often finds herself in situations where, she says, “there are three places I need to be and only one of me.” That’s when Abuie steps in, picking up 3-year-old Colette from dance class while Papi is at Sebastian’s soccer game and Rangel is at a work event.
Forty-two percent of our respondents live in the same city as Abuela, and 21 percent have her living right at home, in a multigenerational household. “I see that a lot here in Phoenix,” says
Patricia Arredondo, Ed.D., a psychologist and founding president of the National Latina/o Psychological Association. “If the parents can take their mother in, that’s what they’re doing to have her close by.” It’s a situation that benefits busy parents, who can use the on-site child care, as well as the kids, who have another loving adult to turn to.
Even if Abuela lives far away, she still pitches in. When Angelica Rodriguez needed to spend the summer taking a class to get her physical-therapist license near her home in Cooper City, Florida, she sent her daughter, Mia, then 3, to live with her parents in Colombia for nearly three months. “For the first week, she cried a bit at night,” says Rodriguez. “But then she was happier there than here, and now she is really close to her grandparents.” That bond is so strong that Mia, now 5, continues to spend part of every summer vacation at “Camp Abuela.”
When it comes to keeping bellies full and hearts happy, grandmas have all the skills. Cooking is a common way of bonding with Abuela, and 66 percent of our respondents turn to her for advice in the kitchen. Carolyn Rodriguez, M.D., Ph.D., a Puerto Rican mom, psychiatrist, and researcher in Palo Alto, California, says that her 11-year-old son and 8-year old boy and girl twins make food a focus of their twiceyearly visits with “Abu.” “At Christmas, the kids delight in all of Abu’s homemade tostones, pasteles, and arroz con gandules as she tells us childhood stories about picking gandules in the backyard and going to the market to get a chicken,” says Dr. Rodriguez. That passion for cooking and intertwining food with family history is something the women in her culture have passed on through the generations. “For me, this experience links my family’s past to the present.”
While Abuela’s dishes keep everyone going back for seconds, Rodriguez values the sustenance she gives in other ways too. Her mom is able to transmit their culture to her daughter, Mia, by speaking to her only in Spanish.
Similarly, Desirée Charles, a Puerto Rican–Dominican mom in Westchester, New York, appreciates the effort her parents put into bringing the culture to life for her daughters, Charlotte, 9, and Beatrice, 6. “In their home, there’s always food, music, and a liveliness that my daughters have come to associate with our culture,” she says. “They want the girls to feel proud about where they come from.”
Abuelas can also be an important source of psychological support. For children, it can be easier to accept advice from a grandmother than from their parents because it feels less judgmental, Dr. Arredondo says. Plus, there are several studies linking a child’s success to a relationship with one close, nonparental adult. “Abuela may be that strong, supportive person cheering a child on,” Dr. Rodriguez says. That could happen when a child is young—as when Rangel’s mother looked after then 2-year-old Sebastian while Rangel was away on a business trip and her husband was rushed to the hospital with a kidney stone. Abuela not only provided a familiar place for the toddler to stay but also comforted him when he was scared about his dad.
Once the kids are older, Abuela remains one of their biggest fans. “All of my daughters’ friends know my girls’ grandparents super well because my mom and dad are always such a presence at their activities,” Charles says. And their involvement doesn’t end there. “Charlotte and Beatrice will even update their grandparents after doctors’ appointments—it makes me happy that they have a nice relationship.”
Kids benefit from having Abuela around, but Mami does too—45 percent of women turn to their mom for child-rearing advice, 42 percent ask her about health matters, and 41 percent make her their go-to for intel on cultural traditions. For Rangel’s family, Abuela is a source of remedios caseros (naturopathic remedies). “She has a recipe that’s been passed down through generations for any problem I might have,” she says.
Whatever the dilemma (what to cook for dinner, how to soothe a crying baby), Abuela has been there, done that. By the time your mother becomes an abuela, she’s already raised one set of kids (and hey, look how great you turned out!). “As parents, we’re so busy in the moment, it’s nice to have a caring adult observe things and give her advice. It’s like getting a consultant who can examine family dynamics and is comfortable giving feedback,” Dr. Rodriguez says.
Of course, Abuela gets something in return for all she gives. “These moments help her see that she still makes a difference, that she matters and is competent,” Dr. Arredondo says. “That boosts self-esteem.” Not to mention that, for abuelas, being with grandkids is just plain fun. As Rangel says, “My mom’s there for the soccer game or the basketball game or the play or whatever is going on, whereas, when we were kids and she was a single mom, she really didn’t have time to do that.”
Loving Abuela and butting heads with her go hand in hand. Given how much you both care about your kids, you’re bound to have strong feelings about discipline, nutrition, and everything else that goes into raising decent human beings. And where there’s passion, there’s conflict. Forty-eight percent of our respondents report that they argue with Abuela because she spoils the kids. In Rodriguez’s case, her mom overindulged Mia by ignoring Rodriguez’s one-sweet-perday rule when the little girl stayed with her. “Abuela would give her gummy candy before she got on the school bus,” she realized. “I would say to her, ‘Mami, it’s 7:30 in the morning!’ ”
For Rangel—and 38 percent of our respondents—the debate with Abuela centers on discipline. “My mom is old-school—‘do this because I told you so,’ ” she says. “My approach is very different. I’ll give my kids choices, and then we’ll have conversations.” But while Rangel and her mom may parent differently, they still value each other’s point of view. “I take some of her advice, but not all of it works for my kids,” says Rangel. “Mom is respectful of our family unit, and she tries not to be overbearing.”
Being honest with Abuela while also being considerate of her feelings is the best way to handle problems, says Dr. Arredondo. But keeping the bond with Abuela strong doesn’t mean agreeing with everything she says. It’s more about having a respectful conversation with her and setting boundaries, knowing that you’re both acting out of love. “When both Abuela and Mami are living in the same house raising the kids, they can battle over who is really in charge, who has more authority, and who ‘knows best’ from experience,” Dr. Arredondo says. Whatever your situation, talk to Abuela as soon as something becomes an issue, she advises. “Give a reason for the way you feel. For instance, you could say, ‘I don’t want the kids to have too many sweets—it’s bad for their teeth.’ ”
Ultimately, remember that Abuela’s heart is in the right place, and it beats fiercely for her grandchildren’s happiness. “My kids know that Abuie will always be there for them with lots of unconditional love and her support, and she’s there for me so that I can be the best mother for my kids,” Rangel says. “That’s the biggest gift she gives our family.”
This article originally appeared in Parents Latina Magazine as 'We Heart Abuela.'