When people ask me about mi familia, many emotions pop up, but the images that come to mind are always full of colors and jewelry from Colombia. We were very cultural regarding food, music, and attire. I started looking enviously at my mami and abuela's shiny, beautiful gold jewelry at a very young age. Right after taking a shower, their earrings were on, and the rings for the day were chosen.
It wasn't about how valuable the jewelry was, but the sentimental value associated with the pieces; some pieces my abuela had put on layaway for over a year, and others my mami had saved up for months to buy for herself. At first, I was too young to understand that certain earrings and necklaces were exclusively for special occasions and others were for daily wear. Left to my own devices, I would have worn them all at once, risking a loss of circulation.
"When will I be old enough to borrow your rings and necklaces and, ooh, those green stone earrings? I would be the prettiest girl at school wearing your jewelry." I tested these compliments on both matriarchs of the household.
"When we can trust that you won't lose them," they'd responded, without fail.
Before they ever lent me their precious heirlooms, what my Colombian abuela and mami did give me were endless tips on how to dress and accessorize, which I eagerly soaked up.
I idealized my abuela's flair because she had a style of her own. She was about four foot nine inches, although the osteoporosis made her shorter as she aged. Despite her short stature, she had the personality of a seven-foot giant. She looked a lot like Frida Kahlo, especially in her youth. A good portion of her income went straight to L'Oréal — she changed her hair color with her moods. She wore all possible shades of brown and some reddish or orange here and there.
What added to her beauty was her sense of style. She would pair a bright orange patterned shirt with a large, floppy collar with a pair of brown pants. An outing to the bodega was a good enough excuse to wear a rayon red flower top with pinkish pants. She always looked like she was ready for a fiesta. Even her batas de casa were colorful and dashing. And she always wore a little mascara, blush, and lipstick to go out.
My abuela taught my mami and me to accessorize our clothes with patterned scarves, brooches on our shirts and coats, and fashionable belts. She even insisted that our gloves and hats should match our coats. She would tell us that we should wear what made us feel sexy and comfortable (it took some years before I learned to feel sexy in clothes). "It doesn't matter how good you look if you can't breathe and sit in your clothes," was one of my Abuela's mottos.
As an only child, I didn't have a sibling to compare style notes with. Thankfully, I had my abuela's primo, Hoover, who dressed in drag for Christmas and New Year's. He heavily influenced my style. Hoover was an impeccable dresser and gave me pointers on how to modernize my look. He idealized Coco Channel and taught me that before I left the house, I should look in the mirror and remove something. This single nugget of advice saved me from looking overdone more than once. He also emphasized that women should always wear perfume.
Mami was all about matching. She made sure her jewelry matched her outfit and her shoes. Even her purse had to be coordinated. Although she could be too influenced by trends, she always looked cute, which wasn't difficult since Mami had classic good looks and good taste. She owned parachute pants, most of her clothes had shoulder pads throughout the '90s, and she even went through a phase when she wore metallic vinyl fabrics.
What I most admired about my abuela and mami's style is that they didn't conform to female stereotypes of having to wear skirts and dresses. Growing up, I saw how other women dressed in my neighborhood: many wore uncomfortable clothes and shoes. The women in my family had done enough of that while living in Colombia.
I'm glad my abuela and mami influenced me, because they were women I looked up to. My 13-year-old daughter already has her own sense of style, choosing to dress in oversized streetwear influenced by her fellow Gen-Xers. Still, she also pairs her clothes with her bisabuela, abuela, and my accessories. I hope she'll continue the tradition with her children, too.