Indigenous migrants find refuge and ancestral pride in SoCal’s “Little Oaxaca”

By Natalia Valle
May 4, 2021

PICO UNION, CA- Indigenous people have for years been victims of racist systems that have displaced them from their lands. Oaxaca, Mexico, is divided into eight regions that are home to 18 indigenous ethnic groups. Among these groups are the Mixtecos and Zapotecos. Due to social marginalization, the deterioration of the field workers’ standard of living, the low educational level, and the few possibilities they have of getting a job of higher qualification and social status in Mexico, Oaxacans have migrated to the United States.

This migration has been traced back to the bracero program (1942-1964). The Oaxacan communities established and built a community in West Los Angeles. Their influence in Koreatown and parts of West L.A. is visible with their restaurants, markets, and art. According to the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles, 400,000 Oaxacans are based in L.A. Despite the strong presence of this community in the city, Little Oaxaca has not been officially recognized.

Since 2010 there has been a fight for the informally known “Oaxacan Corridor” that covers 2.2 miles from Pico Boulevard, between Westmoreland Avenue to Crenshaw Boulevard, to be officially recognized by local authorities. However, according to Isai Pazos, a member of ORO (Organizacion Regional de Oaxaca), the action is still pending. Still, a record and documentation will help the process not go away and eventually become a reality. The recognition of “El Corredor Oaxaqueno” will boost the Oaxacan families’ economy, which relies on their businesses, especially after the pandemic.

The Tlacolulokos murals feature in The Museum of Latin America Art as part of the OaxaCalifornia exposition.

Food Insecurity

“OaxaCalifornia” is a term used mainly by the younger generations of Oaxacans born and raised in California. OaxaCalifornians like Melina who is 23 years old and works as a campus assistant and her sister Anahi who is 20 years old and is an undergrad student at U.C. Berkeley. Anahi majors in sociology and is minoring in education. Both sisters are involved in community aid programs and host the “La Serranita” podcast. During our conversation, they remarked on the food insecurity and racism that the Oaxacan community and students face. People that face food insecurity have more deficient nutrition, their health gets compromised, and they have a higher risk for cognitive problems, depression, and anxiety. Melina shared that students don’t receive a full fresh meal for lunch; instead, they are boxes or plastic bags with cucumbers, celery, carrots, and broccoli. 

The Los Angeles Unified District provided a menu and detailed nutrient chart of the food they offer to the schools in the district to respond to my email in which I asked about the nutritional guidelines they follow in the food they distribute in the community.

 According to the Los Angeles food bank, “an estimated 1 in 5 people in L.A. County lived with food insecurity before the pandemic. Still, after the COVID-19 outbreak, the number of people needing food assistance increased considerably.” In an effort to provide food to their community, Melina and Anahi work with Veggie Mijas in the “A Bag For All” project. They distribute produce bags every Saturday at no cost in their mom’s small business, “Royalty Cleaners,” in the corner of Pico and Arapahoe.

The Maqueos family is another Oaxacan family that have made California their second home. Don Estanislaos Maqueos migrated to the United States and, over the years, after working in different jobs and founding various music bands, Estanislaos founded Maqueos Music Academy. His academy receives Oaxacan students who, in addition to learning music, try to keep their traditions alive. Estanislaos assistant director is his daughter Yulissa Maqueos, a woman, leader, teacher, and Dreamer! Yulissa is studying for her master’s degree in music at California State University, Fullerton. Despite having reestablished in a new country, the Maqueos family, like many other Oaxacans, have faced discrimination and, in most cases, from the latino community. Yulissa mentioned how now more families have stopped feeling ashamed of their language. Yulissa and her dad recently participated in the Netflix production “City of Ghosts” where they shared their story, traditions and even spoke in their native language, Zapoteco.

Even though racism is still a huge issue in society, it’s clear that indigenous youth are standing up for their community and feel more proud of who they are. Melina and Anahi will keep working for the community through various initiatives and joining efforts to empower Oaxacan youth.

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