OP-ED: Following in the Footsteps of my Great-Grandma Carmen

Image: Grandma Carmen & Grandpa Manuel at her sister Antonia’s wedding in 1946. | Source: Melissa Montalvo​​

Lately, I have been thinking about my Grandma Carmen. She’s actually my great-grandmother, my paternal grandmother’s mother. 

I had the rare fortune of growing up with her in my life. From playing with her cat at her El Monte, CA, home to eating and now recreating her famous pineapple cheesecake (scroll down for the recipe), I had vivid memories of her to this day.

Image: Christmas 2012 with my Grandma Carmen in her final years, myself (far left), Grandma Carmen (center), and my siblings. | Source: Melissa Montalvo​​

Recently, I’ve felt a special connection with her, and have taken it upon myself to learn about her life and history. 

In the process, I’ve come to learn that we’ve had parallel life experiences. 

Grandma Carmen was born in Rodeo, California, on July 14, 1920, to Mexican immigrant parents, Refugio and Gregorio Castillo. 

Growing up, she moved around a lot for her dad’s work as a miner and baker. They spent time in Flagstaff and Globe, Arizona, and then Juarez, Mexico, before settling in Gallup, New Mexico. She grew up on both sides of the US-Mexico border. 

Image: Carmen in Lake Tahoe in 1962. | Source: Melissa Montalvo​​

As she grew into a teenager, she blossomed into a beautiful young woman and eventually, the attention and suitors she attracted started to worry her parents.

One day, she even received a marriage proposal, which really concerned her parents. So they decided to send her far away to live with her aunts in Salinas, California. Apparently they thought she’d be safer out there. 

"Se la robaron."

Well, they were wrong. On the journey from New Mexico to northern California, Carmen met Manuel Obledo, my great-grandfather.

They were smitten and exchanged phone numbers to keep in touch. They made secret plans to be together. And one day, she snuck out of the window of her aunt’s house to elope with Manuel. 

She was only 16-years-old at the time. And Manuel was significantly older than her, not to mention divorced with kids back in Mexico. But she was in love and wasn’t going to let anything get in the way. Of course, her parents were outraged. 

According to my grandma Trini, Carmen’s daughter, her parents absolutely disapproved of the relationship and responded by disowning her. 

In Mexican culture, it is common to use the expression “se la robaron.” This literally means “they stole her,” but is often used to describe a woman eloping, getting married, or basically any kind of situation where a young woman leaves her family to be in a relationship. 

I don’t like the phrase because it sounds like the woman had no choice, like she was stolen against her will. But I don’t think that was the case here. Knowing my grandma Carmen, she wanted to get away for the sake of love, adventure, and freedom. 

Image: Grandma Carmen and Grandpa Manuel in 1945. | Source: Melissa Montalvo​​

Life in Mexico City

While it must have hurt her to be estranged from her parents, Carmen was about to embark on an adventure. She and my great-grandfather moved to Mexico City and left behind a life of small, rural towns in the Pacific Coast and Southwest to move to a megalopolis. I can only imagine what a thrill the change was for her. 
Image: Carmen left (in) Xochimilco, circa 1940. She would have been 19 or 20 years old. | Source: Melissa Montalvo​​

During the four years she lived in Mexico City, she explored the city, going anywhere and everywhere she could. One photo that I have of her was at the floating gardens of Xochimilco (above), just outside of Mexico City. When I look at this picture, I see happiness and excitement in her eyes. I see her totally comfortable in her new life.  She loved the time she spent living in Mexico City.

This picture of my great-grandma reminds me of, well, me. I am on my own adventure in Mexico. And I have the same sense of exhilarating joy when I think about the decisions that have led me here. 

She followed her heart against all common sense...She gifted me a legacy, an inherent freedom that courses through me vibrantly. Heart-following is a part of my DNA.”

This quote from the autobiography of Flea, the bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, reminded me of grandma Carmen. Learning about grandma Carmen’s life has given me surprising insights on my own. Heart-following was in her DNA, as it is in mine. And both of our hearts led us to Mexico. 

Image: Melissa at Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City. | Source: Melissa Montalvo​​

Why do you want to go to Mexico?

Like my grandma Carmen, I was born in California (Moreno Valley) and raised in the Southwest deserts of Arizona, where we also moved for my dad’s job opportunities. I eventually went back to California for college, where I studied International Relations, languages, and business. I itched to go abroad after graduating. And I found the perfect opportunity to do so: the Fulbright English Teaching program. 

“Porque quieres ir a México?” the Fulbright interviewers asked. I beat myself up preparing to answer the inevitable question. Do I focus on the professional merits of the Fulbright? The language immersion that (I thought) would help me in my public education career? Do I focus on the cultural ambassador angle, and how I wanted to represent the United States in Mexico?  

The answer was yes to all of the above. But most of all, I wanted to connect with my roots and family cultural heritage. This was the main reason I wanted to go to Mexico.

Eventually, I was accepted and placed in Guadalajara, Jalisco, a stone’s throw from my great-grandfather Manuel’s hometown of Cocula, Jalisco. During my year long exchange, I learned Spanish, met my great-grandma Carmen’s relatives, and immersed myself in Mexican culture. 

Image: Melissa outside of Guadalajara's Corona Market. | Source: Melissa Montalvo​​

Four years in Guadalajara

The Fulbright program turned out to be a life-changing experience for me. Teaching English and living in Mexico was one of the most exciting times of my life. The food, the people, the novelty of it all. These are the things that have kept me in Mexico to this day, where I am settled into a job, lifestyle, relationship, and home in Guadalajara that I love. 

As I enter my fourth year of living in Mexico, I have been thinking a lot about my grandma Carmen and her similar moves south of the border. I wonder how she must have felt with all of the changes. The good, the bad, the unknown. And like my grandma Carmen must have experienced, I found myself answering countless, disapproving questions from my family.  “What are you going to do in Mexico?” “Why are you in Mexico?” When are you coming back?” 

It’s hard to answer these questions because it’s hard to explain why you feel at home in a “foreign” country. Mexican-American singer, Linda Ronstadt, said it best when she was interviewed on her Mexican heritage: “there’s a kind of homesickness that we all have inherited genetically.” This inherited homesickness is what makes me feel at home in Guadalajara.  This inherited homesickness allows us to feel connected to the culture, heritage, and country of our ancestors.  

Image: Eating Birria, a traditional goat stew from Jalisco. | Source: Melissa Montalvo​​

My Mexican-American Experience

Growing up Mexican-American is complicated. There are great (as well as repulsive) things about both cultures. 

I love Mexico for the sense of community and for the way Mexicans prioritize family and relationships over the more American success-at-all-cost mentality. 

Mexicans know how to enjoy the present. And it goes without saying that the food is one of the biggest reasons that I’m here. Of course, there are plenty of things I miss about the United States and American culture. I miss the cultural diversity, the sense of organization, the relative progressiveness, and above all, my family and friends back home.  

Mexican-Americans experience a unique pressure to completely assimilate into American culture. At the same time, there's a pressure to be the token Mexican that is super connected with their roots. Plus, the geographic proximity of the two countries creates added pressure from both sides of the border. 

Mexican-Americans are expected to maintain a strong connection to Mexico and their Mexican heritage because of the shared border. A combination of genuine curiosity for my family history mixed with this pressure to be Mexican is what led me to Mexico. And I’m so glad it did. 

Learning about my grandma Carmen’s life gave me a new idea of what it means to be Mexican-American. She showed me that it’s okay to want to be in the motherland. The famous American Dream is great for so many people, but not the only way to live. I think my grandma Carmen would share the same philosophy as Gloria Anzaldúa, who writes in Borderlands/La Frontera: 

“Deep in our hearts we believe that being Mexican has nothing to do with which country one lives in. Being Mexican is a state of soul not one of mind, not one of citizenship. Neither eagle nor serpent, but both. And like the ocean, neither animal respects borders.”

Grandma Carmen didn’t limit her life to the borders she was born within, and I hope I never do either. If she were alive today, I know she would be proud that I am connecting with my family heritage. I know she would have already visited me in Guadalajara with her daughter, my grandma Trini, for a multigenerational adventure. 

Grandma Carmen's Pineapple Cheesecake Recipe

Image: Melissa’s great grandmother Carmen’s famous cheesecake. | Photo By: Melissa Montalvo​​


  • 1 package of Knox Gelatine
  • 16 ounces sour cream
  • 8 ounces cream cheese
  • 1 can condensed milk (Eagle brand)
  • 1 small can crushed pineapple
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 graham cracker pie shells


  1. In a large bowl, combine lemon juice with sour cream. Then, incorporate the condensed milk, cream cheese, and vanilla into the lemon-sour cream mixture.

  2. In a separate small bowl, dissolve gelatine in 1/4 cup of water. Stir until thick. Once gelatine has thickened, mix into the cream cheese mixture.

  3. Then, squeeze all the liquid out of the can of crushed pineapple. Only add the chunks of pineapple to the cream cheese mix. Stir until completely incorporated.

  4. Then, pour the mixture into the two pie shells and let sit overnight.

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About the Author

Melissa Montalvo

Freelance writer based in Guadalajara, Jalisco. By day, she works for Agave Lab, a company builder supporting Mexican startups and entrepreneurs. By night, she studies the city’s cantinas and writes about Mexican food and culture.

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