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April is Autism Awareness Month

My grandmother became a meme and it's kind of my fault

Andrés Alberto / Radio Ambulante

Radio Ambulante is NPR's Spanish-language longform podcast that tells uniquely Latin American stories.

There are a lot of people who want to go viral and are willing to do anything to achieve it. Then, there are those who go viral by accident. Ana María Rodríguez is one of them.

She's an 85-year-old Uruguayan housewife and the face of the "technological grandmother" meme that sweeped Latin America.

You may have seen it. In the meme she has a tablet and controls it with her index finger. She looks like your typical grandmother — with glasses and short, curly blonde hair. The expression on her face is somewhere between concentrated and smiling.

She didn't ask to go viral. She couldn't stop it either. I know this all too well because she is my abuela Bia, and because she kind of went viral because of me.

My "technological grandmother"

It all started 15 years ago, when my siblings, my cousin and I gave my grandmother a tablet for her 70th birthday. Bia never had a computer, and at that time she refused to have a smartphone. So, we didn't hold out hope that she'd use the gift.

"At first I said, 'Well, I don't think it's necessary,' but I got used to it," said Bia. "Now I have to have the tablet or cell phone with me everyday."

The tablet proved to be a complete success. She learned to send emails, subscribe to newsletters, watch movies, read news and play video games. In many ways, she is a "technological grandmother." But she is so much more than a meme.

The day the photo was taken

In June of 2014, Tabaré Vázquez, the former president of Uruguay, gave a speech in which he listed 10 key election promises for what would later be his second term. The third one promoted "the digital inclusion of all citizens, among other tools, by giving a free tablet to each retiree."

At that time I worked at the Uruguayan newspaper El Observador, and was the creator and editor of Cromo, the first and then only media outlet focused on science and technology in the country.

Since Vázquez had put technology at the top of the electoral agenda, we obviously had to do a report on the use of tablets in senior citizens. And I had the perfect interviewee: Bia.

A few days later, I took two journalists to her house. Photojournalist Diego Battiste also went, and the day the story was published, one of his pictures got featured on the front page. But, what started out as a cool photoshoot, turned into something neither of us could have ever imagined.

Bia becomes everyone's grandmother

About eight to 10 months after the story was published, something very strange happened to my grandmother.

"I went to the club, to the pool, and one of the girls told me: 'You're on YouTube and they say you make $1,000 a day.' I wish it were true, but it's not," she said.

Unlike her, I don't really remember how or when I found out that her photo had been stolen and was circulating in ways that had nothing to do with the original report. What I do remember, however, is the anger and guilt I felt.

Almost 10 years have passed since the photo was published and it continues to circulate today. She has appeared on online betting sites, misinformation pages and also in the media. I found the picture in more than 50 news outlets from Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Spain and even Switzerland without the proper credit to Battiste or El Observador, as if it were a stock image. It was even published on the official website of the Mexican government, the Consortium of State Universities of Chile and a nursing home in Costa Rica.

The image has shown up on dozens of websites from several Latin American countries and Spain.

Credit: Diego Corzo/Radio Ambulante

Of course, there are also the memes. It's perhaps the only aspect of this that has always amused me. There is one with her photo and text above it that reads, "On Instagram seeing what you all did last night." Or there is also, "Me at 7 a.m. answering all the messages on WhatsApp from the previous day because at 9 p.m. I'm already falling asleep."

Bia also finds it funny. "I like it because I try to be an amusing grandmother," she said. "I like being a grandmother, and I like being a great-grandmother too."

In fact, Bia has dedicated her whole life to our family. She raised her two kids and babysat her five grandchildren every afternoon after school — and we were intense. She became a widow at the age of 57, and shortly after, moved out and took her parents to live with her. She took care of them until they both died.

"I believe that I was born with a vocation to serve," she said. To serve her family, not the whims of the internet.

A deep scar formed

Bia has seen only a part of all the material I've found on the internet that uses her face. But in one particular post, she doesn't remember which one, she read that they called her "vieja pituca," which is a derogatory term used to describe upper-class people.

"They called me all sorts of things," she said. "And I say, 'What do I have to do with this?' I can't do anything. This thing about social networks is tremendous. I think that's what stops me from opening up more to the social networks, because I don't like them making comments about what I'm not."

I'm sure seeing your own grandmother next to a fake headline or being called names has to be shocking for anyone. But in my case, as a journalist, it is much worse. All of this stings that much more because I was the journalist who gave a platform to that photo in the first place. It just feels wrong.

The scar that this whole incident left on me is so deep that I have never published a single photo with the faces of my 5-and 3-year-old on any social network. I don't allow others to do it either. I have even asked friends to delete photos, and their school knows that we do not authorize the use of their images.

Several people have told me that I am exaggerating. But none of them have had a family member go viral.

Time to let go

All these years later, I've avoided talking about this topic with Bia, until recently. What started as an ask for a work-related favor one decade ago ended up with my grandmother losing control of her own likeness. It's hard to see someone you love be this vulnerable. Even if it is not a physical vulnerability, it hurts just the same. The internet can be a hostile environment sometimes. She just doesn't deserve it.

One day last year, without thinking much about it, I decided to apologize. She did not expect it.

"I felt bad because it was not necessary to apologize," she said. "You didn't do it for that purpose. It was something that was out of everyone's hands."

Maybe it's time to let go of all the bad feelings that this photo caused me. There's no doubt that one of these days I will run into her picture again on some site or social network, but this time I will no longer feel ashamed. I will be able to see her and smile knowing that Bia is so special that it only took a small dose of her to make the internet fall in love with a grandma with her tablet.

Listen to Radio Ambulante on Spotify or Apple Podcasts to follow more Latin American stories like these.

Escucha a Radio Ambulante en Spotify o Apple Podcasts.

This episode was produced by Ana Pais, who is a senior digital editor at "Radio Ambulante." It was edited by Camila Segura, Luis Fernando Vargas and Daniel Alarcón. The fact-checking is by Bruno Scelza, who also supported the production. The sound design is by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano, with music by Rémy.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ana Pais