Immigrant Women are Providing a Taste of Oaxaca in California’s Central Valley

Diverse immigrant communities are forging new paths and bringing traditional culture to rural America.



In the town of Madera, California, in the heart of the state’s agricultural Central Valley, teenager Yazid Alamari shows off the merchandise in his family’s business, Gateway Market. “We have some gloves over here, a huge variety. A lot of bandanas.”

He points out hats, water coolers, buckets, and bags made specifically to carry just-picked mandarins, cherries, and blueberries.

“Right there, we have shears to cut vines, for pruning,” he says. “The Felco #2 is one of our best sellers. Those are used for onions.”

They’re all supplies needed by local farmworkers, this market’s core customers.

The Gateway Market in Madera, CA. (Photo credit: Lisa Morehouse)

The Gateway Market in Madera, CA. (Photo credit: Lisa Morehouse)

The Wednesday afternoon I spend at the market, I see close to 100 men coming through after working in the fields. Farm labor contractors hand out workers’ checks, and Alamari—who speaks Arabic and English with his cousins and brother—switches to Spanish to cash the checks.

Alamari says customers come for more than checks and supplies.

“A lot of people who come in here are from Oaxaca, and they get their food right there,” he says, pointing to the tiny eatery tucked into a corner of the market. The restaurant, Colectivo Sabor a Mi Tierra, is co-owned by Sylvia Rojas and Rosa Hernandez, two women who have forged an alternative path to farm work while offering the many indigenous Mexicans in this part of the Valley a taste of home.

Take truck driver Carlos Santiago Gomez, who is taking his time with a traditional tamal filled with mole, wrapped in a banana leaf. He and a friend drove all the way from the town of Selma, 45 minutes away.

“It’s different in Selma,” he says. “There isn’t a lot of food like this,” referring to the traditional Oaxacan dishes with indigenous roots: tamales, picaditas, pozole, mole.

Rojas and Hernandez started working hours ago, Rojas forming some of the 70 tortillas she’ll make by hand today, Hernandez grabbing thick discs of masa right off the stove to make picaditas—small corn cakes shaped to hold different fillings—shaking her hands to relieve the heat. She pinches the hot dough to shape furrows or spirals, a form she says that, “goes on forever and doesn’t have an end,” and then spoons sauce and cheese on top. She says even if it’s covered, she wants her food to be beautiful.

Hernandez grew up eating eat picaditas in the morning with coffee and the sweet corn drink atole in her indigenous Mixtec community in the mountains of Oaxaca in Southern Mexico.

Sylvia Rojas (left) and Rosa Hernandez, co-owners of Colectivo Sabor a Mi Tierra. (Photo credit: Lisa Morehouse)

Sylvia Rojas (left) and Rosa Hernandez, co-owners of Colectivo Sabor a Mi Tierra. (Photo credit: Lisa Morehouse)

A Different View on Rural America

While much of the media portrays the rural United States as white, that doesn’t match the rural California I’ve started to know in a decade of reporting. Huge swaths of rural central and Southern California counties have majority Latino populations. That mirrors some parts of the rural U.S., where nine out of 10 rural areas are more diverse now than two decades ago, fueled in large part by immigrants. In her research, Pennsylvania State University professor Jennifer Van Hook found that every region of the U.S. has seen those changes. A report by the Pew Research Center also shows that immigration has either slowed or overcome population decline in Middle America, including many rural areas.

California’s Central Valley has a history of inter-ethnic connections I see on display at Gateway Market. In Del Rey, outside of Fresno, I’ve visited the memorial to Japanese Americans imprisoned during World War Two erected by their neighbor, an Armenian farmer. In Delano, I’ve stood on the steps of Filipino Hall, the meeting place of the Filipino and Mexican farmworkers who staged the Delano Grape Strike. I’ve met many people whose racially diverse families represent the history of immigration to the Valley: Japanese, Indian, Jewish, Mexican, and Portuguese. I ate one of the best tacos of my life in a carniceria in the back of a Punjabi grocery store. So a Oaxacan restaurant in a market owned by a Yemeni family doesn’t really surprise me, but I’m delighted to have found it.

“Close to 50 million Mexicans are classified as indigenous, in the official count,” says Gaspar Rivera Salgado of the UCLA Labor Center. “Thirteen percent of Mexicans say they speak a mother language at home,” a language other than Spanish. Many of those people come from Southern Mexican states like Guerrero, Puebla, and Oaxaca. The traditional dishes from these regions can serve as important points of connection and a way to preserve indigenous culture.

Hernandez learned to cook Mixtec staples from her mother, grandmother, and her community. On the days when there were large parties, she says, “we all took the day off to go help, from making tortillas to toasting chiles, cooking the beans. And the men would take care of going out into the country and bringing back the firewood” to fuel the ovens.

Migration from indigenous Mexican communities to the U.S. started earlier, but rose significantly in the 1980s, says Salgado. “That coincided with a Mexican economic crisis that affected the countryside the most.” Part of the problem? Corn exported from the U.S. “NAFTA opened up that market, so all these peasants, it didn’t become cost effective to produce corn anymore,” he says.

“I think the corn price was a significant factor,” that led to a rise in indigenous migration, says researcher and agricultural economist Rick Mines, “but I’m a big believer in the pull factor. If employment is available and people can cross the border, they’ll come.” From 2007 to 2009, Mines directed the Indigenous Farmworker Study. He estimates that up to 15 percent of California’s farmworkers are indigenous.

As a young woman, Rosa Hernandez planned to become a teacher, but by the early ‘90s, the economic hardships that drove many people out of Southern Mexico hit her family, too. As the oldest, she felt responsible to come to the U.S. to work in the fields. She says, at that time, men usually came north and women stayed behind, but she already had female family members in Madera, to ease her transition.

“I always think of migration as being driven by pioneering networks,” says Mines, with family members and former neighbors going north to join those who settled in places alone. Rivera Salgado believes Madera draws farmworkers because of the diversity of crops nearby, and because its central location just north of Fresno allows people to travel to different work sites around the state. Mines also points to the area’s somewhat longer harvest seasons, and relatively low housing costs, compared with other farming regions in the state.

When Hernandez arrived almost 30 years ago, Madera felt a little familiar. “I would see people from Oaxaca here. Madera makes me think that I am with the people of my roots, of my indigenous tongue.”

At the time, though, she struggled to find some key ingredients essential to Oaxacan cooking, like chiles from the coast, and herbs like epazote or hierba santa. She says one woman lived outside of town and grew an hierba santa plant, but so many newly arrived Oaxacans came clamoring to buy the leaves, to have the bitter and sweet taste of home in their pozole, the woman had to turn people away.

Today, there’s such a large Oaxacan population in Madera that those ingredients are pretty easy to find at the local swap meet.

Rosa Hernandez at the swap meet in Madera, where local residents can buy many products used in Oaxacan cooking. (Photo credit: Lisa Morehouse)

Rosa Hernandez at the swap meet in Madera, where local residents can buy many products used in Oaxacan cooking. (Photo credit: Lisa Morehouse)

The day I visit her restaurant’s industrial kitchen, Hernandez prepares ingredients for the spicy mole specific to her hometown, Santiago Juxtlahuaca, roasting garlic and at least three types of chiles in a dry pan on the stove top for a long time. “You can never make mole in a rush,” she says. Oregano, cinnamon, sesame seeds, and cloves helped form a paste, to which she adds blended tomatillos and broth.

In other regions, mole may contain almonds, chocolate, or bananas, she told me. “But the Mixtec, we aren’t used to sweet mole, we are used to spicy mole.”

Building Solidarity Among Rural Immigrant Women

How did Hernandez go from farmworker to restaurant co-owner? She’d always been an advocate for immigrants’ rights and for sustaining Oaxacan culture in the community, and in 2000, she caught the eye of a group called the Pan Valley Institute (PVI).

“When we opened Pan Valley Institute in 1998, we convened a group of Latino leaders to ask how we could better serve immigrant communities,” says director Myrna Martinez Nateras. “They recommend that we support women, and that we build inter-ethnic relationships.”

Women immigrants living in rural areas face particular challenges. Gail Wadsworth, Executive Director of the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS), says in its studies of farmworkers, many rural residents expressed a sense of isolation, going without services like public transportation. For women working in agriculture, says Wadsworth, “Their day doesn’t end when they get home from work, or start when they go to work. I’ve talked to women who get up at 3 a.m. to make their kids’ lunches, get them to daycare, go work in the fields and then come home and have the role of wife and mother.” Women, who usually shoulder the responsibility of meals, also feel the impact of food insecurity, a growing issue in all rural areas because of isolation and work that often pays low-wages, Wadsworth adds.

In rural areas with expensive or sparse housing, like Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, workers often have to live with people they don’t know, frequently single men live away from their families, creating an unsafe environment for women and families with children. The work itself can also be unsafe. Women in farm labor—about 560,000 throughout the U.S.—face the threat of sexual assault and harassment, and have historically been retaliated against when they’ve made complaints.

Under the current administration’s push to deport people in the country without documents, Wadsworth adds, “People are being separated from their families, and if they’re not they’re hearing stories.” They’re afraid to go to work, to take kids to school, for fear being pulled over and targeted. “This was happening under Obama, but it’s worse now, and people are terrified.”

But Wadsworth says in the last year, she’s seen a jump in the creation of Rapid Response Networks, coordinated efforts to monitor and respond to immigrant and customs enforcement activity. “We’re seeing a lot of intersectionality between ethnicities and religions,” she says. “The first person I talked to about this was an Arab Muslim woman outside of Stockton,” where the people most at risk of deportation would be Latinos. “It’s a clear recognition of people of color and people on the margins that this is impacting everyone.”

PVI’s Martinez Nateras echoed this sentiment. At a conference the organization held recently, she said the focus was on how women can support each other under the current administration—by understanding the policies that impact their neighbors, as well as the ones that hit home more directly. “Ultimately all immigrant and refugees of color are being targeted by the racist policies of Trump,” she says. They also discussed, “the urgency of building solidarity tides and using the power of those who can vote.”

When PVI invited Hernandez to join a leadership development program with immigrant women of Hmong, indigenous Mexican, and Central American roots, she soon learned the women had quite a bit in common, despite speaking different languages. “They love the place that they are from—their land, their village—they are here for a reason that is similar to mine.”

“A lot of those gathering were about sharing experiences,” says Martinez Nateras. “It was cathartic. For a lot of those women it was first time to share stories in a safe space.”

I sit at the restaurant, eating a picadita while Hernandez peels garlic and remembers one of those meetings. Everybody brought important objects to share, and hers was a photo of her mother and father, which she’d previously kept hidden, trying to avoid painful reminders of home. The women sat in a circle, and opened up to each other. “For the first time in a long time I was able to share something about myself that I had guarded very close inside my heart,” says Hernandez.

That day, she says, she realized, “What united us was the sadness of having to leave something so important in order to be here. In that moment … we were one woman with the same very broken heart.” That was a turning point for Hernandez. While she’d always brought Oaxacan food to meetings, being part of that group gave her a clear sense of her cultural values, and the confidence to start a restaurant.

Rosa Hernandez, co-owner of Colectivo Sabor a Mi Tierra. (Photo credit: Lisa Morehouse)

Rosa Hernandez, co-owner of Colectivo Sabor a Mi Tierra. (Photo credit: Lisa Morehouse)

Hernandez and her business partner Sylvia Rojas met with potential investors and the owner of the market where their restaurant is now. Martinez Nateras says, “Rosa, because she’s a natural marketer, brought a jar of mole and some tamales” to convince them to support the business.

Three years in, the restaurant is going strong. “They are so passionate about their food,” says Martinez Nateras. “Their cooking isn’t just for people to eat, but a transferring of cultural knowledge” from their Oaxacan upbringing. She points to another reason why starting and succeeding at this business means so much to Hernandez and Rojas: leaving a physically demanding, unstable, and low-paying job. “It let them get out of field work that is so exhausting,” she says, “and the money [farmworkers] make is nothing, sometimes $11,000 a year.”

“After all the years of doing farm work and cleaning houses, one day I said ‘All the people that taste my food tell me that it’s very delicious’ and so that was a motivation, an inspiration for me to realize that what my mama showed me how to make in her kitchen, I can live off of. I can struggle to have something more,” says Hernandez.

Gail Wadsworth of CIRS says across rural California she sees other examples of people—mostly women—succeeding as Hernandez and Rojas have. One group of farmworkers in the Eastern Coachella Valley, “they would make and bring food to the fields, and their co-workers said ‘You should start a business.’” They started a catering company. “What this does is so empowering to other women,” Wadsworth says. “It shows you can seize your power.”

This story was reported in partnership with KQED public radio’s California Report Magazine. Hear the radio story.

Top photo: Rosa Hernandez prepares chicken for mole, while Sylvia Rojas makes tortillas — about 70 a day. (Photo credit: Lisa Morehouse)

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  1. sanjib kumar ray
    Saturday, June 16th, 2018
    It is not only seizing the power / position one deserves. It is also proving, that you can do that which you think you can. It gives us a peculiar as well as complete satisfaction. It tells a person that not only others but you also can do something nice / exceptional.