Photos by Carole Topalian. Clockwise: Jacinto Lopez enjoys a glass of his granddaughter and grandson-in-law’s Amplify Viognier. Amalia Lopez and her great-grandchild. A photo of Amalia being crowned “La Reina Mas Linda del Ejido,” (the prettiest girl of the village). A photo of one of Amalia and Jacinto’s first dates (accompanied by her cousin Elia).

Interwoven: Santa Maria’s Culture and Cuisine

As a child I imagined a red thread that wound around me and each person that I cared for. It looped around acquaintances. It zigged from friend to neighbor and knotted firmly around family members. This red thread traced the web of our interconnectedness. It knitted us together. And for my child mind it delineated a sense of community.

I was reminded of this image recently while talking with members of Santa Maria’s Oaxacan community. The Santa Maria Valley is home to an estimated 35,000 Oaxacan-Americans and one of California’s most established trans-national populations and cultural networks. Why, I wondered, of all the cities in California, had they chosen the Santa Maria Valley as their home?

I anticipated economic discussions about unemployment in Mexico and the modest cost of living in Santa Maria, agricultural jobs and financial decisions. But throughout our conversations, it became clear that while each of the immigrant families that I spoke with came to the United States primarily for economic reasons, they ultimately made their way to the Santa Maria Valley for a sense of community—they followed the red thread to be close to those that they love.

Oaxacans are corn farmers. Their Zapotec and Mixtec ancestors have farmed various types of maize for over 8,000 years in the stretch of land that lies in Mexico’s mountainous southern region. Corn is a cultural keystone. Each meal includes some form of corn in tortillas, hominy, masa or fresh kernels, and nearly every family grows it in backyard patches that support their existence.

In 1994 the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) disrupted that. As heavily subsidized American-grown corn poured into Mexico, producer prices dropped. Small farmers were no longer able to make a living. In fact, it’s estimated that since then, 2 million small farmers have been forced to leave their farms. And each year many of them migrate to the United States.

They come seeking jobs and easier lives. In Santa Barbara County, the growth of the Oaxacan population over the past 10 years has correlated directly with the increase in farming acreage—especially in strawberries, broccoli, wine grapes and lettuce crops. Sustainable employment and affordable housing are attractive. But, as I discovered, the woven fabric of community is what anchors many Oaxacans within the Santa Maria Valley.

Zefe’s Story

Zeferino Gutierrez came across the border in a suitcase. “It wasn’t that bad,” he explains. “As soon as the car made it to San Clemente, the coyote stopped and let us out.” He and his compadres emerged from the suitcases wet with sweat.

“I was lucky,” he says. “Today people have to walk for eight days. And many die along the way.” His voice trembles as he recalls the names of four people from his village who perished while running through traffic to freedom.

Zeferino—or Zefe, as most of his friends call him—is from Santa María de Tindú, a village of about 1,100 people to the northwest of Oaxaca’s capital city. He worked there for six years as a veterinary assistant and in 1986, after a period of unemployment, decided to head north to Madera, California, where his cousins were already working in the vineyards. With their help, he found work and began planting, pruning and harvesting grapes.

Each year during Madera’s off-season, his cousins traveled to Santa Maria as migrant laborers, returning when the work in Santa Maria was complete. So when his seasonal job in Madera finished, Zefe made the journey with his cousins to the Santa Maria Valley.

The three of them worked at Bien Nacido Vineyards tending vines. Zefe liked the work and excelled at it. He was promoted to work with other crops besides the grapes and was gradually offered more responsibility for the avocados and lemon groves. When the others eventually left Bien Nacido for other careers, Zefe decided to stay on.

One day while shopping at Albertsons in Santa Maria he saw a woman that he recognized from his childhood. Reyna Giron had not only grown up in Santa María de Tindú, she had lived on the same street as he and his family. They reconnected and she encouraged him to come to her family’s home in Santa Maria for dinner. They fell in love, married and had two daughters—now 10 and 23 years old.

“My eldest daughter just graduated from San Francisco State with a degree in business,” he says with pride. “And the little one just finished third grade.” He marvels at the fact that his children have spent time in Mexico but prefer the American lifestyle—with cartoons and Internet.

“Really, they are two different lives,” Zefe explains. “In Mexico, it’s a very honest, simple lifestyle. People talk to you on the street. If you build a house, everyone comes to help. You work together and then make a dinner and have a party. Everyone helps one another. There’s a sense of community.”

It is precisely this sense of community that first drew him to the Santa Maria Valley and has kept him here. “There is a network of families,” he says. He explains that he and his family keep their cultural traditions alive with the help of other Oaxacan families residing in the area. “When somebody dies, we pray with them every evening for nine days. We bring a little money and food and we say the Rosary together. It’s the same as we do in Mexico.”

They also travel to Madera, where hundreds of people from his village currently live. “We celebrate the same fiestas, weddings, saint’s days as we did in Santa María de Tindú. We like to all be together. And we talk about the fact that the streets of our village are now empty. Our community is here now.”

Amalia and Jacinto Lopez

Amalia and Jacinto Lopez met in 1956 when she, the village beauty, was elected to present the champion basketball players with an award.

“My hands shook when I pinned the medal on his shirt because I was so nervous,” she remembers. “He was the Michael Jordan of Teotitlán del Valle,”

“I knew instantly that I was in love with her,” he says and squeezes her hand.

They are from neighboring villages in Oaxaca: El Tule and Teotitlán del Valle. They have been married for 58 years and have 21 grandchildren.

The challenge of making a living in the small village presented itself early on in their marriage. Jacinto made woven rugs and serapes from hand-dyed wool. He also worked as a baker and helped his father raise corn, beans and pumpkins. But they quickly realized that the only way to get ahead and feed their growing family was for Jacinto to go north.

He made his first journey to the U.S. as a participant in the Bracero program, a war-time labor relief agreement that allowed temporary contract laborers to cross the border and work. He picked tomatoes in Woodland and grapes near Fresno for nearly 10 years, returning home to his family when money and time would allow.

In 1973 an American named Herbert Madsen visited Teotitlán and offered to help a few families emigrate to the United States legally. He arranged the paperwork and ushered the group of 20 across the border at San Ysidro. He was a foreman at Valentine, a large table grape producer. So for a few years, the families worked with him near Fresno.

They hired on as laborers in the strawberry fields and also harvested onions and asparagus. Amalia began working in the fields during the day and cooking the next day’s meals and hand washing all of the children’s clothing at nighttime. They had seven mouths to feed beside their own.

“Ultimately we decided that being close to the family that we had here in the U.S. was the most important thing,” says Jacinto. So when his brother found steady employment at Riverview Farm in the Sacramento Delta the family decided to follow him. They moved to Bacon Island, Camp 12, and lived in homes that were once part of the Japanese internment camps.

“The Japanese community was like family to us,” Jacinto reminisces. “They would invite us over and feed our kids dinner. They would pick us up for work in the morning and give our kids hand-me-downs. They were our bosses, coworkers and closest friends.”

After several years there, one of Jacinto and Amalia’s sons moved to Oxnard. There were opportunities there, he said, for jobs, affordable housing and education. The family followed. Jacinto studied to become a machinist and began rebuilding engines. They worked hard and saved money, at one point by all living together in a cramped two-bedroom house.

“I think it’s a cultural thing,” their daughter Isabel Martinez says. “Wherever our family goes, we follow. We have to be all together.”

Three of Jacinto and Amalia’s sons and one son-in-law played music in a band called Grupo Anhelo. One by one, they moved to Santa Maria to be closer to their bandmates. While visiting them, Jacinto and Amalia found a beautiful little piece of property with a home and space to grow figs, and corn, chiles, and grapes—a dream fulfilled. Soon their family followed and made the Santa Maria Valley their home.

Today six of their children and 10 of their grandchildren live nearby. Their daughters Mari and Isabel live within a mile of one another. Jacinto and Amalia live only a few miles away. And the proximity delights them.

“Our life has been really beautiful. Yes, very beautiful,” Jacinto says. They look at each other and smile. “As long as we’re together, we’re happy.”


Left: Marlen Porter stirs mole beside her grandmother. Right: Cameron shares some of his favorite wines from the Santa Maria Valley. Photos by Carole Topalian.

Marlen and Cameron Porter

“I think that family structure and food are really important in maintaining our culture,” says Marlen Porter. “My mom and grandma and I cook the traditional dishes and it’s love. It helps me connect to my family and keep our cultural identity alive.”

Marlen is Amalia and Jacinto’s granddaughter. She and her husband, Cameron, work in the wine industry, she as general manager of Andrew Murray Wines and he as sommelier and estate manager for Presqu’ile. Both were raised in the Santa Maria Valley and enjoy the area’s array of Mexican foods.

Marlen feels that the interaction between elder family members and younger ones helps preserve the traditions of their heritage. “I grew up with my grandparents. I went to their house every day after school. I watched them cook. And I got to know the traditions that way.” And she hopes that her own newborn son will be able to absorb some of the cultural richness in his great-grandmother’s kitchen.

It’s likely that her wish will be granted. Every Tuesday Jacinto makes flour tortillas and delivers the fluffy, aromatic stacks to each of the family members. Amalia prepares Oaxacan dishes like mole to share with her family during frequent celebration dinners.

“At each family dinner we kept thinking, ‘These are the foods that we enjoy and that are unique to our area. Let’s pair them with wine,’” says Cameron. He and Marlen began experimenting with flavor combinations. Along the way they discovered some exquisite pairings. They also decided to begin making their own wine. Their label, Amplify, aims to capture the essence of each vineyard site and amplify it.

When pairing wines with Oaxacan cuisine, Cameron recommends wines with high acid and low alcohol. He favors wines with minimal oak treatment and little to no tannins. But he also encourages wine drinkers to experiment with flavor combinations in order to discover what works best with the dishes that they enjoy most.

“Santa Maria Valley wines have the perfect levels of acidity, delicacy and the trademark spice component that makes them pair well with complex, delicate, spicy foods. They tend to complement rather than overwhelm,” explains Cameron. “Santa Maria’s cool climate and fog helps grapes retain vibrant natural acidity while extended time on the vine allows them to develop complex flavors.” As a result, they offer a refreshing counterpoint to piquant foods.

We sat down to an elaborate feast of Oaxacan black mole with chicken and pork and traditional rice prepared by Amalia. The mole was seasoned with chiles, exotic spices and chocolate and it was exquisitely balanced. We tasted an array of wines from the Santa Maria Valley to explore the flavor interactions. The exotic interplay was an epiphany.

Delicacy: The delicacy of the 2013 Foxen Chenin Blanc was one of our favorite sensations throughout the meal. Its transparent layers perfectly complemented the mole without overpowering the flavors. It was refreshing and highlighted precise equipoise of spices as well as the rose petal delicacy of the dish.

Rosé: “Rosé wines with bright acidity offer a refreshing counterpoint to spicy foods,” Cameron explained. Both the 2014 Presqu’ile Rosé of Pinot Noir and 2014 Foxen Rosé of Mourvedre demonstrated beautiful natural vibrancy, while also offering juicy fruit flavors.

Complexity: Marlen and Cameron’s own 2014 Amplify Carignan is light-bodied with beautiful acidity and an array of exotic spices. Its complexity made an ideal bridge with the mole and allowed us to fully appreciate the kaleidoscopic flavors in both the wine and the food.

The Unexpected: Harmonious surprises are the excitement of food and wine pairing. The 2013 Cotiere Murmur Vineyard Chardonnay offered tropical fruit flavors that gracefully accented the fruitiness and rich chocolate of the mole. “Beyond that, the subtle oak treatment
and creamy character acted like a foil,” explains Cameron, “almost like a tortilla with butter would.”

Santa Maria Spice: Wines from the Santa Maria Valley tend to have an intriguing spicy nuance—a pleasant regional trademark. In Pinot Noir it’s often perceptible as sandalwood or Chinese Five Spice powder. In other varietals, it appears as subtle smokiness, clove, or baking spices. And it just so happens that this inherent Santa Maria seasoning accompanies Oaxacan cuisine beautifully.

“The hints of spice and smokiness of Santa Maria Valley wines remind me a little bit of the earth and smoke of mescal,” says Cameron. “So they’re a natural complement to one another.”

Over the course of our meal we determined that Santa Maria Valley wines and Oaxacan cuisine share a delectable synergy. By enjoying them together, we not only tasted the essence of the Santa Maria Valley, we experienced the intersection of terroir and community, and we honored our area’s vibrant cultural tapestry. In fact, each illuminating pairing seemed proof that through food, wine and community, the red thread connects us all.

Laura Sanchez is a Santa Barbara–based writer who hopes that heaven smells like homemade tortillas and mole.

Originally published in Edible Santa Barbara December 2015.

Tags: ,