Tag Archives: immigrants

Oaxaca in Santa Cruz, California, and Everywhere, U.S.A.–Cross-Cultural Influences

Gema Cruz Ambrosia has been cooking at Gabriella Cafe in Santa Cruz, California for the past eighteen years.   Gema, (pronounced HAY-mah with a throaty H) whose name means gemstone, came to Santa Cruz twenty-eight years ago from a small village just beyond Oaxaca city called San Pablo Huixtepec.

Her entire family is here in Santa Cruz, including a twenty-seven year old daughter.  Gema looks to be not much older.   Her eyes dance and her wide smile broadens as she talks about integrating Oaxaca native foods into the California farm-to-table organic fusion menu of the cafe.  Gema is hard-working and resourceful.  Owner-manager Paul Cocking introduces Gema to me as the cafe’s sous chef.  She started out washing dishes and takes pride in her place of importance in the kitchen today.  There are stories like this everywhere.

Gabriella Cafe This was my second visit there this week, first with Leslie Larson for lunch and then with Bella Jacque for dinner, both past participants in Oaxaca Cultural Navigator workshops.  I’m in love with the food.

The menu reflects Gema’s influences: Rich, complex sauces, perfectly seared fish, house-marinated anchovies that tops crispy fresh greens.  The Sunday brunch features Gema’s roots: Huevos rancheros, chicken or pork with mole pipian, quesadillas with flor de calabaza, black beans with hierba santa, tamales flavored with chipil, large homemade tortillas fresh from the comal.  Gema talks about Oaxaca food as if it were her twin sister.  All the fresh ingredients, she tells me, are easily available locally.   She only has difficulty getting the large clay comales from Oaxaca on which to make the tlayuda-size tortillas.  They often arrive broken.  (When they do come intact, they need to be seasoned with lime powder  or calc before using.)

Gabriella Cafe-3

Gema says there is a big Oaxaca population in Seaside, California, which is on the Monterey Bay, about an hour from Santa Cruz.  Census figures of 2010 count 43.3% of the population as Latino or Hispanic.

In the village of Teotitlan del Valle where I live, most immigrants from the village gravitate to Moorpark, Simi Valley and Oxnard, although there is a large Zapotec community from Oaxaca living in Santa Ana, California (which they call Santana).

I am constantly meeting Oaxaqueños in North Carolina, too.  The cross-cultural influences are strong, not only through the sharing of food and recipes.  The Oaxaca people I know work hard, are honest, care immensely about their families, and value traditions.  They take pride in their roots even when living in the United States.   Beyond recipes, there is a lot to learn from them and share.

Oaxaca Center Shelters Migrants

The migratory route for people from southern Mexico and Central America comes through Oaxaca, explains Melissa Harrison who is doing a year of volunteer work here at COMI El Centro de Orientacion del Migrante de Oaxaca.

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Melissa, pictured on the right along with Xindy Li and Lair Martinez, finished her degree from The New School in New York and is in Oaxaca to hone her Spanish before going on to graduate school in the U.S. Her goal is to work in immigrant services and social advocacy in the U.S. southwest.

“My life is the way it is because there are people who are willing to do the jobs I don’t want to do. This is my way of giving back,” says Melissa.

We are at Nuevo Mundo, a cafe that roasts and brews their own organic coffee, located on Calle M. Bravo between Garcia Virgil and Porfirio Diaz. We meet just by the chatter that happens through enjoying good food and service. Melissa and her friend, artist Xindy Li, from Philadelphia, met here. Xindy is volunteering at the Espacio Zapata, where popular artists create murals, paintings, lithographs, street art and tee shirts.

There are two ways to go north from Southern Mexico and Central America — via free train (very dangerous) and by bus. People who can afford it take the bus because it is safer, more secure. Those who don’t risk kidnapping, rape, and worse. They go in search of work and a better life, the motivation for immigrants throughout the ages. To support themselves, they may stop and find jobs along the way. They may have been deported from the U.S. and are making their way south to go home. The migration stream goes both directions.

Melissa tells me that the people who stay at the shelter come for no more than a few days as they transit through Oaxaca. Many now are from Honduras and El Salvador. She notes that El Salvador is one of the most dangerous states in Latin America where civil war rages.

Her particular volunteer work is about locating missing people using a database for unidentified bodies.

COMI is operated by the Archdiocese of Antequera-Oaxaca in response to the U.S. and Mexican Bishops to help people caught in the migratory urgencies to seek a better life.

Mexican Immigration Heartbreak: Catch 22

Earlier this week I was visiting friends in Morganton and Valdese, NC, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Morganton is fortunate.  It has a chicken plant that is still operating.  Who are the workers?  Latino/a immigrants.  No one else wants the job.

Morganton is also the home of the deceased, venerable U.S. Senator Sam Ervin, Jr. chairman of the Watergate Committee, who claimed, “I’m just an ‘ole country lawyer from Dixie” as he brought his constitutional law prowess to bear on a presidency gone amok.  Ervin brought government jobs to Morganton. There is a vibrant downtown with galleries, shops, businesses, and cheap labor to clean homes, landscape yards and government school lawns and chickens. The local furniture and textile industry moved their plants off-shore to Asia years ago.  Their empty shells are a reminder of employment loss and the end of traditional prosperity.

Valdese has Hmong and Latino/a immigrants, lots of Asian restaurants, and a very multicultural feel to the very small town that was alive with furniture manufacturing.  The store fronts are empty.  The rails are silent. Latinos wait in the parking lot in front of one of the two town laundromats. The summer Waldensian festival the second weekend in August still draws people from far and wide.  There are great ceramic artists in these hills, too.

I had lunch with a local coach.  He told me, painfully, how some of his most talented students, both academically and athletically, are children of undocumented Mexican immigrants who, for the most part, crossed the border to escape drug war violence.  The children may have come here as infants or toddlers and will never be able to attend university unless they pay out-of-state tuition — which, of course, they can’t afford.  In-state tuition requires residency which requires a birth certificate or social security card.  The young people are working hard to get out from under fast food service jobs, the line up for chicken plant employment or at the day labor pool corner.  Their eyes are downcast, can see down the short stretch to the dead-end before they reach age 20.

He told me how his politics have changed.  He sees first hand how wrong it is for smart children with promise who have been in the U.S. for most of their lives not to have access to education.  We, as a society, keep them down and then complain that they can’t get up and take care of themselves.   Catch 22 comes to my mind.

We are a multicultural and blended society.  Soon, people of color will outnumber whites.  Bilingual signage is appearing everywhere, not just in bigger cities or airports. We are going to need to teach Spanish in our schools starting in early childhood if we are going to understand each other and communicate and problem-solve.

In the most rural areas of North Carolina immigrants are part of the labor pool and contributing to local economies.  We reward them with shame, fear, discrimination, and entrap and then incarcerate them as undocumented immigrants even when they try to return to Mexico.

I wonder what Senator Sam would say?

What would you say?