Tag Archives: Oaxaca

MIGRANTS: A Oaxacan baker and the “The Radicalism of the American Revolution”

Juan Gutierrez, Oaxacan baker in Santa Monica

I’ve been reading The Radicalism of the American Revolution by historian Gordon Wood lately. The book talks about the ways in which colonists were breaking from dependence on each other and from Britain, from traditions of England, from old religions to a new, individualistic Great Awakening and new ways of thinking, making a living and doing business.

This break from the Old World and creation of the New has always intrigued me.

Thus I was fascinated to listen to the story of Juan Gutierrez, a Zapotec Indian from a village in Oaxaca, and the owner of Panaderia Antequera in Santa Monica, which was the first Oaxacan-owned business in the LA area when it opened in 1985 or so.

We spoke in his bakery (17th and Ocean Park) the other day.

He and his wife began baking in their house, then found the small shop that was barely surviving and took it over. With the huge population of Oaxacan Indians on LA’s west side (the reasons for which are themselves fascinating, but which I’ll go into later), business has been great almost from the start, and this has encouraged other Oaxacan Indians to start their own.

Living and doing business here, far from the traditions and customs of his village, Gutierrez has had his own awakening, new ways of viewing what’s possible.

Running a business in Santa Monica, he was at the same time dealing with the 17th Century, in the form of demands by villagers back home that he return to do what’s known as his tequio or servicio. Indian villages in Mexico require members in good standing to perform a servicio, unpaid for three years.

This communal custom goes back hundreds of years and has been essential to the functioning of Indian villages. Those who don’t perform it can have their land, houses and property confiscated.

Now, though, many villagers live in the US, with responsibilities up here. Even if they have legal residency, it’s still expensive to go home; if they do not have papers, it’s even more so to return. Plus, they no longer are thinking like the young migrants they were when they arrived from the village as teenagers.

Mr. Gutierrez noted that the village depended on remittances from paisanos in the US, who had also donated money to the annual fiesta each year and funded improvements to city hall and the local school.

He offered to pay someone to do his servicio, saying he had a family and business up here and both needed his attention.

But the village authorities, in his view motivated by envy and believing him rich because he owned a business, insisted he come personally, to be a city councilman for three years.

So for three years he lived in the Old World and the New.

More later on what happened.


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MIGRANTS: Pizza Hut Tanda

I’ve just begun a story on the large number of Oaxacan business owners you find now in Los Angeles, particularly in Pico-Union, Hollywood and Koreatown.

I remember in the late 1990s coming to LA and not seeing any of this. But Oaxacans have lost a little of their fear of business. So now there are restaurants, markets, beauty salons, bakeries, a hardware store — all mentioning their Oaxaca connection and drawing on the vast Oaxacan population in those areas.

It’s an entire business community that started without anyone walking into a  bank for a loan.

I met Ramiro, who owns a butcher shop and market on Pico.

He told me years ago he worked at Pizza Hut, where all the Mexican employees formed a tanda — an informal savings/loan network, in which each member contributes money each month, then receives a large payout a year or two later. When it came his time to get the payout, he bought a house in Inglewood not because he wanted a house but really because he wanted a garage he could control. In the garage, he started a meat truck business.

That was 10 years ago. Now he’s got three butcher shops/markets.





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STREETS: Virgin of the Carniceria


Virgin of the Carniceria, Beverly Boulevard

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MIGRANTS: Zeus Garcia, the Michael Jordan of Oaxacan Indian basketball

I had lunch the other day with an old friend, Zeus Garcia.

In his day, Zeus was like the Michael Jordan of Oaxacan Indian basketball – this in the mid-1970s. He and his brothers and cousins formed a basketball team from their village outside the City of Oaxaca and won tournaments for miles around for years. In the 1980s, they all migrated to LA., part of a large Zapotec Indian migration to the area that really heated up during those years. Almost all of them moved to either Pico-Union or Mar Vista or Venice.  (More on why not East LA in a later post.)

Zeus, when I first met him in the late 1990s, was a bus boy and intent on bringing a purer form of basketball to the United States, which he felt had corrupted the sport he loved. He coached a team of Oaxacan all stars, which he called Raza Unida.

Oaxacan Indians are basketball-obsessed folks and the sport plays an enormous role in their lives here in Southern California. Tournaments take place almost every weekend somewhere in the LA area. Zeus was kind of the guru of Oaxacan Indian basketball here. I wrote about him in my first book, True Tales from Another Mexico. I later went to the Copa Benito Juarez in Guelatao, Oaxaca, and watched 7000 people take in the tournament at a small outdoor court in the birthplace of the legendary Mexican president, who was Zapotec.

Zeus is now a truck driver delivering for a fruit and vegetable wholesaler near downtown L.A. He told me his brother, Isaias, himself a great basketball player in his day, last year returned to their village to take on a servicio – a public job that is unpaid and that each member of an Indian village must do if he wants to remain in good standing. Some who’ve refused have had their lands taken. Zeus was full of stories of how folks back home seemed from another world to Isaias, mired in gossip and unwilling to try new things or work hard.

This is the story of many Mexican villages, seems to me. The ones with the drive and gumption leave. Those left behind depend on the dollars sent down from El Norte, and the result is a kind of welfare dependency that drives a lot of returning immigrants nuts.

I may do that story. Keep you apprised as it goes along.

Photos:  Zeus Garcia then and in 1999, and two shots of village teams from the Copa Benito Juarez.

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