I grew up in San Jose, California. It’s the capital of the Silicon Valley, so it’s very influenced by techies and there are a lot of rich people here. But I was raised on the East Side, which is a lower income area that’s predominantly Mexican and Vietnamese. Historically there were a lot of orchards, and when my grandparents moved into their house, my mom worked there in the summertime, along with many immigrants and first and second-generation kids.
When I was growing up, my aunts, my uncles, and my little cousins all lived in the same house as my grandma, and I lived within about a mile away. Ours was a single-parent household, and my grandma helped raise me. Before work, my mom would take me to her house really early in the morning, and I would sleep a little bit more as my grandmother would prepare everything for school, make my lunch, and then take me to school. Afterward, she would pick me up, make sure my homework got done, and all of that. She was basically my other parent.
I knew from a pretty early age, around five or six years old, that my grandma had problems reading and writing. I was learning how to read and write myself, and she would say, “Mija, can you read or write this for me?”
As I got older I remember asking her why she could speak Spanish and English so well, but couldn’t write in either language. As a child she was a farm worker. Even though she was picking fruit all day, she often went hungry herself. She also had to take care of her younger siblings, which didn’t leave her with time or access to school. When she was about fifteen she got married, and she learned English from listening to the radio, and speaking it with my grandpa and a white friend of hers.
When it came to written words, my grandma developed other ways of communicating. She had a wood grocery board in her house—it’s about five inches wide and a foot long. The idea was that you would hang it in your kitchen by the door, and when you ran out of something you would place a little pin right by whatever you needed.
She could understand, for example, that the word “meats” meant meats, or what the word for tomato looked like. But the board had a lot of things we didn’t really need, and was missing lots of other things we did need, like traditional Mexican ingredients, so she modified it by adding words on the other side.
We would take the board to the grocery store sometimes, or she would make a list from it, and try to match the words to the products she was looking for.
She would buy tons of food at once, enough to feed everyone in the household. It was such an adventure to go with her when I was little, and it was really fun for me to help her because she did so much for everyone else, and I always wanted a way to do something for her.
Also, back then there were no debit or credit cards, and you had to write a check if you didn’t have cash. So she also had a little sheet of paper that she would keep in her wallet with various numbers written out.
This was a complete system that she had come up with to overcome her challenges, a really genius one that she used not just to get through life, but to navigate it well. And even though she couldn’t do certain things like check my homework when I was growing up, she still took care of me and helped me learn in so many ways.
Instead of focusing on why we can’t do something, she showed me instead to focus on what’s possible—what we can do, maybe by using tools that haven’t been tried yet, and by simple ways that turn out to be the trick.
I’m not a trained musician, but my grandma helped me to become fearless because I care about music a lot, I believe in it, and I’m inspired by it. I’m also a community organizer now—another non-traditional job that involves problem solving and learning how to make the road by walking it.
My outward life has changed so dramatically, but my home life is still very much the same. About a year ago my boyfriend and I moved back to the Bay Area, so I could be closer to my grandma.
Even though she never learned to read or write well, she’s so fluent in Spanish and English you wouldn’t know which one is her primary language.
She’s also obsessed with music! She loves our song “A Wall,” and it’s funny because she recently brought to my attention that there’s also a song in Spanish called “La Pared.” It’s a love song, but she pointed out that it’s basically saying the same thing, and, you know, she’s totally right. [Laughs]
Wanted/Needed/Loved: Musicians and the Stuff They Can’t Live Without is an illustrated column where musicians share the stories behind meaningful objects. As told to Allyson McCabe and illustrated by Esme Blegvad.
Victoria Ruiz is the vocalist/lyricist for the acclaimed Providence, Rhode Island-based Downtown Boys, whose protest music is known for amplifying and centering Chicana, queer, and Latinx voices in the far-too-whitewashed world of rock. Along with bandmate Joey La Neve DeFrancesco, Ruiz also co-founded and co-edits Spark Mag, a project from the grassroots political organization Demand Progress. Following the release of Downtown Boys’s third full-length album, Cost of Living, the band is currently on tour.