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.
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.)
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.