Rosa Hernandez and Sylvia Rojas, co-owners of Colectivo Sabor a Mi Tierra. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)
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 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. But 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 Central 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,” 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, shaking her hands to relieve the heat. She pinches the hot dough to shape furrows or spirals, a form she says, “goes on forever and doesn’t have an end,” 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 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.
A Community Like Home
Hernandez learned to cook Mixtec staples from her mother, grandmother and her community. On the days when there were large parties, she said, “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 Gaspar Rivera-Salgado of the UCLA Labor Center. “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.”
“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.
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 a 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.
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 help form a paste, to which she adds blended tomatillos and broth.
Building Solidarity Among 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 interethnic relationships.”
When the Pan Valley Institute 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,” Hernandez says.
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.
Hernandez and her business partner, Sylvia Rojas, met with potential investors and the owner of the market where their restaurant is now. Myrna Martinez Nateras says, “Rosa, because she’s a natural marketer, brought a jar of mole and some tamales” to sell them on the idea of 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,’ says Hernandez, "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."
This piece is part of Lisa’s series California Foodways. To read more, see her companion piece at Civil Eats, where it’s part of that publication’s yearlong series about under-reported stories in rural communities.