Ubering in Love with “Mama Bear”

Claire and Karina
April 29, 2022

We usually don’t expect much when ordering an Uber ride beyond being transported from Destination A to Destination B. Sure, maybe mentally we’ll add up a few quality points if the driver is playing early-2000s throwback music. However, there is one Uber ride you can get in Tucson that is more than just a standard-fare transport (even with 2000s music) and that is the Mama Bear experience.

“Mama Bear” — also known as Nicole Ochotorena — is a “famous” Uber driver in Tucson. We got to know her very well during a recent night drive. We had heard stories from our friends around the University of Arizona about this unique driver and it almost sounded like a myth at first. We’d seen pictures of her car and even a few videos of our friends belting out music and seat-dancing to her color-changing LED lights. So, we became determined to personally meet this local celebrity.

We arranged to ride with her on a Wednesday night because she noted that Fridays and Saturdays were her busiest nights. We set up the interview with the expectation of a quick ten-minute Q&A session for this article. When she pulled up to the curb we knew instantly that Mama Bear had arrived! The Wildcat car wrap and the flashing LED lights visible from the outside gave her away instantly. We actually knew the people she was dropping off and they hopped out of the car with big smiles on their faces. The mother of one of them actually lingering in the car a bit longer, thanking Mama Bear for the amazing ride.

Mama Bear met us with open arms the second we opened her car doors. The first thing we noticed was that the whole car was decked out with Wildcats swag e. The iconic University of Arizona “A” was on her seat covers and she even had glitter tattoo stickers on her cheeks. We went into this ride with no clear destination in mind, and just let her take the wheel. She was playing upbeat pop music on the radio and instantly made us feel more comfortable than we were before. As we took off from our pickup spot on Highland Avenue, we started to ask Mama Bear about who she is and why she is so popular around Tucson.

Love is in the Air

As we continued through the interview we realized there was a reoccurring theme of love in everything Mama Bear does for her passengers. She seems to love everyone and wants to spread that love.

It is amazing to see how her love manifests itself as physical objects in her car. A blue and red wooden LOVE sign hangs from the ceiling. She has Valentine’s-day themed pink trim, as seen in the middle photo below, that has “Love” written on it that her husband gifted her. As we looked over at her driving at some point we realized she was wearing big golden hoop earrings with the word “love” written through the hoop. In the nicest way possible it looks like love threw up in there. Another thing we noticed was that she says “I love you” to everyone.

It is April in Tucson and the weather is starting to heat up even at night! We quickly realized the AC was not on and the windows were down. Now we didn’t connect these dots until we talked about our experience after, but the reason she does this is so she can holler “I LOVE YOU!” to people as she drives by. As we are driving along, people wave and honk at Mama Bear. She then, without fail, yells loud enough to ensure that the recipient can hear her expression of love. This happened thirteen times on our drive. Yes, as they say, “love is in the air” when you’re riding with Mama Bear.

She has quite the story, which began in 1986. At the age of 9, she got into a truly tragic car accident. She painted us the horrific image that was her car wreck. Nicole was sitting in the passenger seat with her mom at the wheel when it happened. Following the collision, the pair was tossed around and ended with her mom squishing her under the driver’s seat. Nicole took the brunt of the crash and ended up in a coma. She asserts with full confidence that she “died and came back to life.”

Motivated by her past, Nicole made it a goal to make sure nothing like what happened to her would ever happen to anyone who stepped foot in her car. She treats her passengers like her children, no matter who they are or how old they are, they know that they will be protected in Nicole’s famous Dodge Journey.

City-Wide Appreciation for Mama Bear

We noticed that the love Mama Bear puts out comes right back to her. The whole ceiling of her car is sprinkled with an appreciation for what she does. She has every kind of physical representation of thank you up there from serious to outright hilarious jokes.

We asked her the story behind some of the cards. One of them was a pale blue color with rainbow flowers saying “Thanks, it was so thoughtful of you” on the front. This card was from a girl who had fallen off of a bird scooter and broke her jaw. The girl called Nicole, saying “I need a Mom”, so Nicole made a beeline straight to her. Mama Bear took her to Banner Medical Hospital, where she acted like a relative so the girl would not have to be alone. Mama Bear leaves no one behind. The girl’s parents lived in Phoenix, and even though they never met Mama Bear, they sent her that  thank-you card and a huge box of cookies for taking care of their daughter like she was her own.

Another of these cards was white-colored with a cartoon bear holding a bouquet of flowers reading “Thank you from the bottom of my grateful little heart”. This was from a Tucson citizen who had gotten in a car accident that Nicole witnessed. Nicole was on her way to pick up an Uber passenger but the accident stopped her in her tracks. She sent another Uber to pick up the waiting customer and stayed with the woman who was in the accident. All the lady remembered was Mama Bear saying “One minute” until she got to her.

Blue thank-you card, Thank-you card with bear holding flowers, "Love" decal and Arizona stickers

The funniest thing we found on the ceiling was an array of driver’s licenses. Mama Bear explained to us that these were the fake IDs of students who turned 21 and no longer needed to lie about their age. Them donating their fake ID’s shows just how much of a safe space Mama Bear’s car is. She says that she has no judgment for the people who enter her car; she just wants to make sure they feel safe and loved.  Another way her love is given back to her is when she is in times of need. She has twice needed to get a new car because of automotive problems. Both times a Go Fund Me was created by Tucson locals to help her get back on the streets as fast as possible.

By the end of our ride, we did not even realize 50 minutes had gone by. We thanked her for her kindness and she told us that we could call her anytime for a ride — or just to talk. Overall, Mama Bear changed our whole perspective on people we know as “drivers” for companies like Uber or Lyft. Nicole is truly a mother to all of her passengers and has left her mark of love on Tucson.


Karina Isayev and Claire Baker are first-year students in Kevin Cassell’s Foundations Writing English 102 course.