Sisters Corina Ulloa and Brenda Ulloa Martinez grew up in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Brenda, 46, and Corina, 44, passed on their own childhood memories to Brenda’s young daughters, Isabela and Camila, in an interview with StoryCorps in 2010.
Their parents came to the United States from Mexico when they were in their 20s. Irma and Arnulfo Ulloa each worked full-time jobs when their children were young. Before opening a bridal shop together, Irma was a seamstress in a factory, and Arnulfo was a delivery truck driver. As a result, their daughters had to commute to elementary school by themselves.
“Mom would drop us off at about 7 in the morning. And we’d take a bus ride on the public transit,” Brenda said.
Brenda recalled their nickname for the Rapid Transit District, as the system that once served the Los Angeles area was known: “The RTD — the rough, tough and dirty.”
“Now I think about my girls and how little that really is, to be 7 and 6, and your mom’s going in one direction, and you’re going in another,” she said.
Both sisters have since moved away from Boyle Heights but still live in Los Angeles County. Brenda’s daughter Camila, who was 10 at the time of their interview, asked her mother whether she would let her and Isabela, then 9, take a bus on their own to school.
“Never,” Brenda said. “I don’t think my mom wanted to do that either. I think she did it cause she had to. And I know I saw her once or twice with tears in her eyes, leaving us. And having to do that because she needed to go out and work.”
Just because she couldn’t see her daughters to school didn’t mean that Irma wasn’t constantly worried about her kids. The sisters also looked after their two, much younger brothers before their parents came home.
“She was very vigilant,” Corina said. “She knew what time we would get home. And she would call us every 20, 30 minutes, and make sure, ‘Y ya comieron? Y ya les dieron de comer a los niños? … No estan peleando? Are you fighting? Did you eat already? What are you doing?’ So we couldn’t get away with anything.”
But there was a little bit of mischief. Brenda remembered the time she and her younger sister lit a firecracker in the kitchen.
“And we tried to clean it up, but we weren’t good enough cleaners,” she said.
She didn’t recall her mother being mad though: “I just remember it being something very serious that we better never do again,” she said, laughing.
Camila asked her mom and aunt whether they were ever scared while being at home alone.
“Many times,” Brenda told her.
That lack of supervision meant that Brenda and her sister were forced to grow up more quickly than her daughters in some respects.
“You guys had to be more independent than really I am now,” Camila said. “Like, I still need help crossing the street.”
“We most definitely were,” her mom said. “I don’t think it was because we were ready to be independent — it was because there was a need in our family for us to be independent.”
But it also made them who they are, Corina said.
“Rough, tough and dirty,” Brenda added.
Brenda reflects on her siblings’ childhood circumstances in a positive light.
“When you can, I think instead of making your life a drama or a novela, make it a sitcom,” she said. “You enjoy life much more when you look back and laugh at all the hurtful things that happened in your life.”
Corina shares in her sister’s optimism as a way of “moving forward.”
“If you end up dwelling on the past, you can never take a step in the forward direction,” she said.
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jey Born. NPR’s Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.