There are no reliable figures of how many Oaxacans live in Los Angeles but, suffice to say, it is almost certainly a larger community than in any other US city and one of, and perhaps the, largest outside of Mexico. There have been efforts for at least ten years to get the city to grant official recognition to Los Angeles. Given the recent disparaging remarks from disgraced City Council members Nury Martinez, Gil Cedillo, and Kevin de León — perhaps it’s time we honor this vibrant community that is such an integral part of Angeleno culture. And if you’re an ignorant politician, maybe learn a bit about the people you at least publicly purport to represent.
Oaxaca is derived from the Classical Nahuatl name, Huāxyacac, which refers to the Leucaena leucocephala tree. Oaxaca is one of the 32 states that compose the United States of Mexico. It is divided into 570 municipalities, of which 418 are governed by the system of usos y costumbres. Its capital city is Oaxaca de Juárez. It’s also known for its historic cities, including Guadalupe, Laguna Zope, Mitla, Monte Albán, San José Mogote, Santo Domingo Yanhuitlán, Tierras Largas; the resort town of Huatulco; and the beach towns of Bahia de Tembo, Mazunte, Playa Zipolite, Puerto Ángel, and Puerto Escondido.
Oaxaca is a multi-ethnic state, home to substantial populations of Zapotecs and Mixtecs, as well as sixteen other recognized cultures, including the Amuzgos, Chatinos, Chinantecs, Chocholtecs, Chontales, Cuicatecs, Huaves, Ixcatec, Mazatecs, Mixe, Nahuas, Popoluca, Tacuates, Triqui, and Zoque. About 5% of Oaxacans self-identify as being of West African ancestry. There are approximately 3.5 million Oaxacans, about a third of whom speak a language other than Spanish. It is also the most biologically diverse state in Mexico; home to more than 8,400 recognized plant species, 1,431 documented terrestrial vertebrate species, and 738 identified species of birds.
The first human likely arrived in Oaxaca about 13,000 years ago. The Guilá Naquitz Cave contains fragments of the first known evidence of the domestication of maize. Other plants consumed by Oaxacans, historically, included beans, chilis (eg amarillos, anchos, chilcostles rojos, chilhuacles negros, costeños rojos, and pasillas de Oaxacas), chocolate, epazote, gourds, hoja santa, maguey, pitiona, squash, and tomatoes. Animals historically hunted included armadillos, deer, fish, iguanas, pacas, peccaries, shellfish, and turkeys.
The Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs first arrived in Oaxaca around 1250 CE. In 1457, Moctezuma I invaded and conquered the Mixtec areas of Coixtlahuaca and Tlaxiaco before expanding Ēxcān Tlahtōlōyān (the Aztec Empire) into the Zapotec homeland. Aztec expansion ended with the invasion of the Spanish. Although the Mixtec resisted the Spanish invasion, the Zapotecs attempted to ally themselves with the Spanish against the Aztecs. The Spanish introduced almonds, chickens, coffee, cows, goats, horses, mules, sheep, sugarcane, tobacco, and vanilla. Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1810 and fought until it was recognized in 1821. Oaxaca became a state in 1824.
OAXACAN AMERICANS AND ANGELENOS
Poverty and lack of development have impelled large numbers of Oaxacans to emigrate in search of opportunities. Many rural Oaxacans seek work in Oaxaca’s capital. Many others migrate to cities elsewhere in Mexico or the US. Most Oaxacans who come to the US settle in the late 1970s and early 1980s in either Illinois or California. Looking for estimates, I found figures as low as 50,000 and as high as 700,000. The latter seems improbable — unless we’re talking about with the entire 19 million people of Metro Los Angeles — because if we’re talking about the 3.9 million of Los Angeles proper, that would mean about one in five residents of the city is Oaxacan, which I’m pretty sure is not the case. Most estimates are between 150,000 and 250,000 — but even if the low estimate of 50,000 is accurate — that’s still a large community. Most early Oxaquen Angelenos settled in Central Los Angeles and Oaxacan business today are still especially prominent in areas of Midtown and East Hollywood.
In 2012, a group of Oaxacans lobbied to get the stretch of Pico Boulevard between Crenshaw Boulevard and Westmoreland Avenue, “El Corredor Oaxaqueño de Los Ángeles.” In 2014, the Latino Economic Empowerment Round Table proposed designating a stretch of Olympic Boulevard rather than Pico, the “Oaxaca Corridor.” While Olympic has, since 1994, been home to one of the nation’s preeminent Oaxacan restaurants — Guelaguetza.
Personally, I prefer the colloquial name, Oaxacatown. That’s what everyone calls it. But then I always prefer the names bestowed by the public rather than those clunky ones coined by special interest groups (see Little Osaka vs Sawtelle Japantown and Little Seoul vs The Korean Business District). And don’t get me started on all of the nicknames with unnecessary and overused “historic” tacked on unnecessarily (hello Historic Filipinotown, Historic South Central, Historic Sugar Hill, Historic West Adams — we get it — you have history. You can put your hand back down). Worse still are the designations that try not to offend anyone but end up just confusing everyone (I’m talking about like the Byzantine-Latino Quarter (aka Greek Town) and the International and Cultural Shopping District (aka Little India). In other words, while it’s nice when the city finally recognizes a widely recognized enclave, we don’t really need. a blue sign from the LADOT for it to be “official.” And when they do — why not just go with the name already in use by Angelenos.
The most visible indication of Los Angeles’s large Oaxacan population is the metropolis’s large number of Oaxacan restaurants. Oaxacan cuisine is widely known for its “seven moles“: amarillo, chichilo, coloradito, manchamanteles, negro, rojo, and verde. Oaxacan Cuisine is also known for its use of grasshoppers, delicious tlayudas, banana leaf-wrapped tamales, and one of the world’s greatest alcoholic beverages — mezcal. Oaxaca cheese, or quesillo, is sold at all fine grocery stores.
One of the main roots of Oaxacatown, I believe, is Guelaguetza, which opened when Fernando Lopez and Maria Monterrubio opened their famed Oaxacan restaurant there. I first ate there in 1998, on my first visit to Los Angeles. I still remember eating my first tlayuda that night. It’s interesting that it is from here that so much of Oaxacatown sprouted because it was also this same building that modern Koreatown was also born. In 1975, Hi Duk Lee (the father of Koreatown) had this building constructed for his V.I.P. Palace (영빈광). Although today it’s painted a festive orange, the bones of the building (and several adjacent properties — also developed by Lee) are amusingly and unmistakably Korean.
Today there are quite a few Oaxacan restaurants across Metropolitan Los Angeles — and quite a few that are almost universally highly regarded. I’ve tried to include them all — and all other Oaxacan businesses — in the map of Oaxacan Los Agneles. Please let me know any and all that I’ve missed and I will add them immediately.
THE MAGÓN BROTHERS
Cipriano Ricardo Flores, Enrique Flores, and Gaspar Jesús Melchor Flores Magón were a trio of radical Nahua activists, Leftists, and Pacificists born in Oaxaca. Their brand of anarcho-communism was known as political philosophy Magonism (or Magonismo) and their views frequently resulted in their imprisonment both in Mexico and the US. Their followers were known as Magonistas. In 1902, while working at the the anti-Porfirio Díaz publication, El Hijo del Ahuizote, the elder brothers were arrested and incarcerated in the military prison at Santiago Tlatelolco. In 1906, Ricardo relocated to Los Angeles, where he published Regeneración from an office located Downtown to be distributed in Mexico. Ricardo and Enrique reunited and settled in the Edendale neighborhood. Ricardo was arrested during Woodrow Wilson‘s anti-Leftist Palmer Raids (1919-1920). Ricardo Magón died at Leavenworth Penitentiary in 1922. After his death, Enrique returned to Mexico. In 1945, Ricardo’s remains, which had been buried in Los Angeles, were exhumed and sent to Mexico. Enrique died in Mexico City in 1954.
Actress Lupita Tovar was born Guadalupe Natalia Tovar in Matías Romero in 1910. In 1918, her family migrated to Mexico City, where she was discovered by filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty. She competed in a screen test competition, organized by Fox Film, and won first place. Then, in 1928, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film. She’s best know for starring in the 1931 Hollywood film, Drácula, filmed in Spanish by Universal Pictures simultaneously with the better-known, English-language version that starred Bela Lugosi. She also starred in one of the earliest Mexican sound films, 1932’s Santa. She died in Los Angeles in 2016.
Singer Lila Downs was born Ana Lila Downs Sánchez in Tlaxiaco, in 1968. She was raised in Oaxaca. She moved to the US when she was fourteen and took vocal lessons in Los Angeles. After her father died, she returned to Oaxaca at the age of sixteen. She later briefly attended the University of Minnesota where she studied anthropology. In Minnesota, she formed a band, La Trova Serrana. Today, Downs and her husband/musical collaborator, Paul Cohen, live in Los Angeles, where they frequently perform.
OTHER OAXAQUEÑO ANGELENOS
Alexander Miguel of Alebrije Folk Art in Echo Park, clothing designer Sonora Mindling-Werling of Mindwerl, educators Briseida Mendez and Jessica Antonio of NHETO, painter Jesus Hernandez, printmaker Pável Acevedo, Sofia Uribe of Cultura En Tu Ropa, immigration lawyer Naomi Cruz of Cruz Villatoro Law, game designer Hesiquio Mendez Alejo, activist Odilia Romero of CIELO (Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo), artist Narsiso Martinez, and multi-media artist Juan Marcial (aka ItsAcon327).