This is a tale of two Oaxacas--one deep in southern Mexico, the other in Los Angeles.
The relationship between the two is so close that the Spanish-language newspaper El Oaxaqueno, which is published from offices on Wilshire Boulevard, is distributed in Mexico too. You can buy it for three pesos at the newsstand in the town square in Oaxaca city.
The bond works both ways. An April issue devoted a page to photographs of the zocalo, the cathedral and other sites in Oaxaca city. The headline was “Nostalgia por mi Pueblo.”
There are no exact figures on the number of Oaxacans in Los Angeles County, but estimates range as high as 250,000--enough to support a network of Oaxacan restaurants, markets and shops. Oaxacan church and social organizations regularly stage fairs and bailes (dances). There is even a folkloric dance troupe, Huaxyacac, that offers free training for members in an effort to preserve this aspect of Oaxacan culture.
Oaxacans living here celebrate the same festivals that are important back home and eat the same food. Even tiny fried grasshoppers, a favorite snack, are easy to come by. Although other Mexican regional foods are often “gringoized” in America to court wider patronage, Oaxacan restaurants remain faithful to the original. They serve the same moles, clayudas, memelas, grilled meats and avocado-leaf-flavored barbacoa you’d find in Oaxaca.
Sometimes the food is even better here. Agua de chilacayota, a sweet drink that contains strands of a green and white squash as big as a watermelon is more full-flavored at El Danzante on Pico Boulevard than at stands known for it in Oaxaca city. Farther west on Pico, Prisciliano Mateo turns out a leche quemada (burnt milk) ice cream that rivals any version of this unique smoky flavored sweet in Oaxaca.
Perhaps traditions remain strong because most Oaxacan immigration is recent. A few pioneers came in the 1970s, but most arrived in the 1980s, driven by hard times in Mexico and awareness that in Los Angeles they could find work as gardeners, maids and restaurant workers.
These immigrants were mostly Zapotecs from the Sierra Norte and from the Valles Centrales, the relatively flat area of mountainous Oaxaca state around the capital, Oaxaca city. There are more than 60,000 immigrants from these two regions alone in Los Angeles, says Gaspar Rivera Salgado, an assistant professor of sociology and American studies at USC and an advisor to two local Oaxacan groups. The largest concentrations, according to Rivera, are in the central city neighborhoods of Pico-Union, Koreatown and South-Central, and on the Westside from Mar Vista to Santa Monica.
Rivera is from Tecomaxtlahuaca in the Mixteca Baja region of Oaxaca. Mixtec immigrants are primarily farm workers and concentrate in agricultural areas, he says. Additional indigenous communities represented here are Triquis, who began to immigrate in the mid ‘90s, and Mixes.
“What distinguishes the Zapotecs from other indigenous groups is they are the entrepreneurs. They love business,” Rivera says.
Fernando Lopez, founder of the Guelaguetza restaurants and of the newspaper El Oaxaqueno, is a Zapotec from Matatlan. His wife, Maria, is also Zapotec, but from Mitla, and they speak different Zapotec languages. Fernando came here in 1993, Maria in 1994.
“We saw a lot of Oaxacan people in this area, and we tried to bring the food to them. We thought the people would be happy to eat their food again,” says Maria Lopez. Fernando Lopez and a sister, Soledad, opened the first Guelaguetza on West 8th Street near downtown Los Angeles in 1994. Oaxacans flocked there for a taste of home, as Maria predicted, and also to socialize with other immigrants.
In 1996, Soledad opened another Guelaguetza on Palms Boulevard near Sepulveda, where she cooks in her own style. This restaurant gained national attention when Martha Stewart filmed the making of black mole tamales, enchiladas and chicken with black mole sauce there in February for her television show.
On the Westside, Oaxacan restaurants had already become mainstream places to eat out, like corner Chinese and Thai, inspiring hot debates about their merits and luring Westsiders to delve more thoroughly into the cuisine.
The downtown Guelaguetza restaurant was so popular with Oaxacans that Fernando Lopez realized he needed more space. Two years ago, he opened a larger Guelaguetza on Olympic Boulevard in a building that formerly housed a Korean restaurant.
On the outside, at least, the building remains traditionally Korean, with a tiled roof and dramatically upsweeping eaves. But this cavernous Guelaguetza in the heart of Koreatown is a magnet for Oaxacans, who gather there to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, or just to relax in familiar surroundings. Well before noon on Sundays, the restaurant is jammed with families. Vendors stroll from table to table, offering bouquets for the women. A smartly dressed trio sings almost nonstop.
“This is a landmark place for Oaxacans to congregate, a place to go and sort of feel at home,” Rivera says. “One of the wonders of this restaurant is that it has almost created a sense of Oaxaca here in the heart of Los Angeles.”
The food has to be good. “Oaxacans are very tough customers,” Rivera says. “They demand something traditional.” And they want authentic ingredients--the herbs, cheeses, special cuts of meat, chocolate, breads and spices that they knew in Oaxaca. Rather than accepting bland American copies of the string cheese called quesillo, they buy the real thing at Oaxacan markets and delis.
The long menus at the Guelaguetzas serve as guides to the dishes you would find not only here but also in Oaxaca city. These include several types of mole, enchiladas with mole sauce and other tortilla dishes such as entomadas, enfrijoladas and chilaquiles.
The huge, tostada-like clayuda is made with an extra-large and sturdy but thin tortilla baked on a clay griddle. Other corn dough specialties include hand-shaped oval or round memelas and empanadas, which resemble giant quesadillas. Then there are fried or grilled meats such as cecina, a thin cut of pork marinated with red chiles, and salted, thinly sliced beef, called tasajo.
Chiles that are specific to Oaxaca include the dried chile pasilla de Oaxaca, which has a rich, almost bacony smoked flavor; the dark, squat chilhuacle chile, which helps to color mole negro; and fresh chiles de agua. Two anise-flavored leaves widely used in Oaxacan dishes are hierba santa, which comes from a plant as large as a small tree, and hojas de aguacate, the leaves of a Mexican avocado.
All of these are available at restaurants and stores in Los Angeles.
Aqui es Oaxaca, a small store in a corner mall on the Westside, is packed with essential ingredients and baked goods, ranging from asiento, a brown pork fat paste used as a seasoning, to pan de cazuela, a Oaxacan sweet bread that contains a layer of chocolate. This shop also stocks Oaxacan herbs such as hierba de conejo (rabbit herb), used to season black beans; dried chepil, which is added to tamales; and Oaxacan thyme, which is considered more fragrant than the usual thyme.
The store even has cacao flowers, one of the components of tejate, a foamy cocoa-colored drink typically sold in markets in Oaxacan towns. Almost all Oaxacan bakeries sell pan de yema, a light, anise-scented egg bread for dipping in hot chocolate.
Place names that represent loyalty to the homeland crop up frequently in the Los Angeles Oaxacan community. Tlapazola restaurant in West Los Angeles is named for San Marcos Tlapazola, the hometown of the owners, Celerino Cruz, who is the chef, and his brother, Samuel. The inventive cuisine there has made the restaurant so popular it is crowded even on weeknights.
The ruins of the Zapotec capital provided the name for Monte Alban restaurant in Santa Monica. Murals on the walls surround diners with scenes of Mexico, including motifs that represent Monte Alban and other ruins at Mitla. A few blocks east is Juquila restaurant, named for a town with an image of the Virgin that is widely venerated. On Dec. 8, thousands of worshipers flock there for a festival in her honor.
El Texate restaurant in Santa Monica calls to mind the drink, usually spelled tejate, that it serves on the weekends. Hanging on the walls are photographs of Benito Juarez, the Zapotec who became president of Mexico.
The state of Oaxaca is divided into seven regions, thus a restaurant and a nearby bakery in Pico-Union called Las Siete Regiones de Oaxaca. Dolls in regional costumes decorate one wall of the restaurant. Panaderia Antequera, a tiny bakery in Santa Monica, carries the Spanish colonial name for Oaxaca city.
In the next block is Artesanias Oaxaquenas, which stocks many items related to the Day of the Dead, the November holiday when Oaxacans set up special altars with foods for their departed relatives and throng into cemeteries for elaborate celebrations.
The Guelaguetzas are named for Oaxaca’s most important cultural festival, an extravaganza of regional dancing, music and food that takes place on two Mondays in the month of July. This year, immigrants from 50 Oaxacan communities will stage a similar festival in the Sports Arena May 26.
In addition to food, Oaxacan shops offer a wide variety of crafts. Most notable is the famous black pottery from San Bartolo Coyotepec. But there is also green-glazed pottery from Santa Maria Atzompa and alebrijes, hand-carved wooden figures made in towns such as San Martin Tilcajete.
At Aqui es Oaxaca you can also find copal incense. Artesanias Oaxaquenas even carries a Zapotec dictionary (“Diccionario Zapoteco de San Lucas Quiavini,” published by the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA).
The Oaxacan population in Los Angeles is steadily growing, which probably means that there will be more restaurants and shops and more local production of ingredients that now are hard to find. Even today, Soledad Lopez of the Westside Guelaguetza occasionally can obtain tender squash vine shoots for a soup called sopa de guias and fresh chepil, but only for a brief season.
Some Oaxacan dishes and ingredients are still hard to come by, for example, pan dulce baked in wood-fired ovens, tortillas made from black corn, empanadas toasted on a clay griddle over a wood fire, and drinks made from fruits that either don’t grow here or aren’t available commercially.
Still, Lopez says, in Los Angeles she can cook “exactly the same” as in Oaxaca, except for toning down the spices slightly. But while her menu is long, it by no means explores all the dishes that could be made here. “There are so many--so many more,” she says.