Being Messy Is My Abuela’s Best-Kept Beauty Secret

Being Messy Is My Abuela’s Best-Kept Beauty Secret

My abuela, Joan Cuadra, letting me paint her walls with mud.

My abuela loves mess. When I came to visit her as a little girl, anything could happen. We loaded up a cake with all the sprinkles and frosting we could find. We ate our food with sticks instead of forks just to see what it would be like. She let me sleep in the dog bed with Lucky and Chiquita, because I loved them so much. I’ve always loved animals, and one time we came upon a stream filled with frogs. She gave me a bucket, and we took as many as would fit back to her backyard to live in her pond. I think her koi fish wound up eating them all.

As I got older, grandma Joan’s tolerance for mess gave me an outlet to express whatever creative process was going on at the time. When I wanted to paint her house in mud, she let me. When I wanted to make up recipes instead of following them, she grabbed her video camera and filmed the process. When I discovered my passion for beauty products, she was my model. She’s one of the only people in my life that’s read everything I’ve written. I used to email her snippets of stories I made up when I was 11 years old. I probably should’ve been embarrassed, but she was so encouraging, it never occurred to me that my writings were anything other than Pulitzer Prize-winning material.

She’s so unlike me in so many ways. My brother and I are city kids. She made us go camping and touch bugs. We wanted to wash our hands before dinner? Trés chic, now sit down and eat with a stick. We baked a cake full of coins we took from her purse. If you bit down on a coin, it was good luck. One of my favorite photos is me with my abuela, her two sisters, and their mom, my great-grandma Mireya. We have clothes pins in our hair. I have no idea why, but we clearly all were into the idea.

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There’s the cliché that Latina abuelas are beauty obsessives, directing their daughters and granddaughters on how to apply eyeliner or keep our skin supple and hydrated. In my home, I did most of the teaching. My mom supplied me with a box of mostly-unused makeup she didn’t wear, and Joan let me sit her down and go crazy. They still won’t let me live down how that one time I applied lip gloss to my grandma, only to realize later that it was nail polish. She let me brush and braid her hair, even though the slightest tug causes her anguish. But she knew that I was curious about beauty, and she didn’t want to discourage me.

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With her signature red lipstick.

Here’s Joan on special occasions: her long hair is in a braid and she’s wearing red lipstick that matches her red top. Her lipstick is a barometer for the fanciness of an event, how much she’s looking forward to it, or if there are people needing to be impressed. And if, by the end of the night, some of that lipstick hadn’t been kissed onto my cheek, I probably wasn’t being a very good granddaughter. I can look back at any photo of her and tell you if it was a holiday or regular day, depending on her lipstick.

Red lipstick graduation ceremonies aside, Joan is a beauty minimalist. She’s an activist, first and foremost. She cares so deeply about the world, worker’s rights, and animals. When she retired from being a social worker, she found out that geese at a local pond were getting tangled in fishing wires that had been haphazardly discarded. So, she now goes to the pond and rescues them, lecturing people about harming the poor creatures, and painstakingly removing wires that have dug into the geeses’ skin. Recently, she texted: “I forgot to report that I am fostering 12 mallard orphans.”

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Sometimes she texts in the family group chat, asking what we think she should name her latest goose or duck rescue. I suggested Arroz and Frijol for two orphaned ducklings. One time, she tried to rescue a dead fish from a lake near my house (she thought it was alive and needed help, alas) and ended up falling in. She and I walked home, her soaking wet, me unable to stop laughing.

In a sideways, roundabout way, Joan is the reason I am who I am today. Even if she didn’t care about makeup, she let me turn her into an eyeshadow raccoon. Even though she couldn’t have found me brushing her hair pleasant, she never once stopped me. She tried every strange recipe I concocted. She asks me for moisturizer recommendations even though I don’t think she wears what I suggest. She’s still the only person in my life who reads everything I write (hi, Grandma!).

Now that I’m older, she still encourages me to get a little messy. She keeps trying to get me to elope with my boyfriend (“Don’t let him slip away! Do you want my rings?”) or start a fresh life back home in California. But at the same time, she’s also helping me keep my life just clean enough to get things done. Her last gift to me was a three-pack of dishwashing gloves, because I told her my hands get dry when I wash the dishes. Beauty, mess, and problem-solving in one? Sounds just like my abuela.

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This story was created as part of From Our Abuelas in partnership with Lexus. From Our Abuelas is a series running across Hearst Magazines to honor and preserve generations of wisdom within Latinx and Hispanic communities. Go to for the complete portfolio.

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