She strokes the photo pendant of her son around her neck as she tells me how she lost both her husband and then her son 3 months later to AIDS in 1996. Although she's also HIV positive her virus has been dormant. I ask her about the stunning professional studio black and white photographs of her on the wall. She tells me that shortly after the double deaths she was featured in an article about heroines in Marie Claire entitled, 'la fuerza de la vida' (the force of life). "I was so thin because I was too sad to eat," she explains when I tell her how guapísima she looks.
Born in a small town in Cáceres to a rigid military father, she got married young to a military sub-official she wasn't in-love with so she could escape her home life. Her husband's personality changed shortly after the marriage and she divorced him some years later while he was in jail. Once he got out of jail, he kidnapped their daughter and disappeared for 15 years. Reeling from the loss of her daughter, she ended up in a relationship with a 'palmero' who took her to Barcelona and pimped her. Carmen later became a heroin addict and prostitute. Her needle use is what infected her with the virus. In 1988 she discovered she was HIV positive. She remarried in 1993 but this was not to end happily. After the deaths of her son and husband from AIDS, she began volunteering at Apoyo Positivo, an organization that supports people with AIDS. She shows me the article and a folder with clippings about Apoyo Positivo. She laughs, pointing out how big her feet look in the photo because the boots she was wearing were lent to her by Marie Claire and they were about 3 sizes too big.
While hers is a tragic story of loss, I know her as a force to be reckoned with and the president of the apartment building I used to live in. She was my next door neighbour for two and a half years and I'm visiting her to see her dog Lucy's new puppy Copola. While I knew the story about her son, I never knew the whole story until this visit. Since I've known her, she's been mugged, fallen down stairs and spent time in the hospital and yet still she exudes more raw energy and life than most people I meet. She is a survivor and an inspiring example of someone who gets knocked down repeatedly but never allows tragedy or hardship to beat her. She gets back up, she plays with her 4 little doggies and she keeps on laughing.
"Mira mira," she calls out to me, as I'm walking out the door into the corrala. Turning around I see her radiant face nodding towards Copola's aggressive play taunting of Chispa and Lucy, and I hear her husky laughter echoing in the courtyard.