Carmina Aviña Santos is my grandmother. She is a ghost.
We know so little about her she has become a specter right out of our reach. A phantom, but with roots in the real.
A farm laborer, she died in 1930 at the age of 28 while living and working in a tiny farming community in Colorado. A place called Roberta, named by a farmer after his daughter the story went. My dad was ten when she passed.
Carmen, as she was called, married in California but her husband abandoned her when their three sons were young. She met another man, had a son by him and they moved to Colorado.
When she died, her sons were left with the man she was living with. He was not kind to my dad or his brothers. The brothers were separated at times and my dad was forced to leave school. Dad would also tell us stories about how he and his brother Mike had to steal milk and bread just to eat.
They were hard, lonely and desperate days. Days on the road or by rail. Without a home, often without his brothers. Such was his life without his mother. We all sensed my dad felt a great love for her, as well as great loss.
He didn’t say much about his mother only that my sister looked like her. My sister is pretty, slender and has big eyes. One uncle described Carmina as having long hair that she braided and wrapped around her head. As what happens, we kids were too busy living life instead of asking about where we had come from. We were dumb for not wanting more information about Carmina. But she was not in our lives. My mom’s parents very much were and we always visited their house.
Carmen Aviña was long gone to our dad and his brothers and to us.
Despite his rough childhood, my dad grew to be a good, kind, and generous man. A hard worker and much loved and respected by his family, and well, by anyone who knew him really. I greatly admired my father, who loved stories though he could not read. Who supported all of us with his infinite love. He passed twenty years ago and it tore a hole in our lives that’s never quite healed.
Years ago our brother Salvador, who deeply loves family and family stories, began the search for Carmina Aviña Santos. A master plumber for years and Vietnam War veteran, he looked at old records and found Carmina’s gravesite in Rocky Ford, Colorado. Until then, no one knew where she had been buried, not even our dad. Sal located the funeral records that showed Carmina had died of cancer, according to Sal’s wife, who’s a nurse.
I visited the spot, which is lonely as cemeteries usually are. This gravesite was even more so. There was no marker for this woman who had given us the father we loved so much. We plan to remedy that with a stone.
Through Ancestry.com and elsewhere, Sal kept searching records for more about Carmina. He wanted to know where she was born and the name of her parents. My father and his younger brothers were just kids when she died and they didn’t have much information about her.
I joined in the search. We found a 1930 census showing Carmen and her four sons living in Colorado. The census reported she was born in Texas, though our dad and our Uncle Mike said she had been born in Arizona and was a Native American. Through a DNA test, my brother Sal found he was 51 percent Indian, harking to a tribe in Arizona. A first cousin had similar results.
While our family has boxes of photos, we have none of Carmen. My brother did hear of one and is tracking it down. But my dad said his mother had burned all photos of herself.
Neither my brother nor I could locate a record of her birth. I emailed the Texas vital statistics department and historical society but they had no information about a Carmina or Carmen Aviña.
Nothing came up in Arizona records, either—so far. As a result we still don’t know where she was born or the names of our great-grandparents, where they came from or what they looked like. While my sister looks like Carmina, my brothers and I are fuller of face, some of us with high cheekbones like my dad.
I will continue my search for more information about Carmina Aviña, as will my brother. Chasing her is like pursuing a ghost through the cyberspace. We may never find anything more.
On paper that is.
But in the end perhaps we know all about her we need to know.
Namely that she gave us our wonderful dad and his brothers who he loved.
Carmina is in my sister and my three brothers and me. And in our own children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
She was the beginning of a family I cherish. And that makes her very real, no longer a ghost.
Carmina Aviña is not lost after all.