Teotitecos emigrate and settle where their friends and relatives have gone before them. For most, the intention is to go for a few years, find good work, make some money, send it home, and then return. I’ve often asked myself, When is the point of no return? Meanwhile, Teotitecos have been in California for decades and generations, since at least the 1950’s when the bracero program welcomed legitimate labor from Mexico.
Today, there is a strong Zapotec community from Teotitlan del Valle living in Santa Ana, California, where young men are selected to become dancers for the Dance of the Feather, where guelaguetza and quinciniera and traditional festivals are observed and respected. Zapotec is spoken here and it is home away from home. Young people tell me that their parents came to Santa Ana twenty years ago when they were just young pups. They don’t remember much of anything but want to preserve their cultural heritage and village identity.
In Oxnard and Moorpark, California, in Ventura County just over the L.A. County line, the story is similar. Walk into the McDonald’s in Oxnard and, I am told, you will hear Zapotec spoken by the staff.
When I meet people in Teotitlan they tell me, oh, I used to live in Santa Ana, or yes, I worked in Oxnard for five years growing flowers in the greenhouses. It is a common story of cross border migration and how to create home away from home.
California is a melange of transplanted Mexican towns and villages, replicated in big city neighborhoods, agricultural communities, and mid-size towns. After a while, the men who are lonely for their families return to Oaxaca, wanting to watch their children grow up and participate in Teotitlan village life. The promise of the California dream did not match their expectations. For others, the choice to return to the small Oaxaca village where livelihood is limited to rug weaving and ancillary village services, the future holds little promise. So, they decide to stay in Santa Ana or Oxnard and start over again, putting down roots, forsaking the past, starting a new family and another life.
I have talked with those who returned. They did not like the prejudice and the lifestyle of living in cramped apartments, sharing beds to keep the cost of living low while they worked for minimum wage or less, taking their chances as day laborers. While, those who stayed in Santa Ana and Oxnard decided that the economic opportunity and chance for an education for themselves and their children outweighed the loss of connection to family and homeland.
Those who arrive undocumented are forced to sever connection to home until they are ready to return permanently. The cost is too high to travel back and forth guided by mercenary coyotes, risking the hazards of stealth travel through the desert.
All immigrants to the United States share a common history of pulling up roots and leaving their homeland behind. What differentiates people is their desire to hold on to their cultural and social history or to eschew it in favor of assimilation. It is heartening for me to hear that there is Teotitlan del Valle in California.