Role of Family and Culture in Shaping One Womans Decision
to Return to her Zapotec Roots in San Bartolomé Quialana,
Morales Pérez spent most of her life in Anaheim, California,
living what for many Mexican immigrants is the American dream
hard work resulting in a lifestyle that included going
to the show and for Chinese food on weekends, taking the children
to Disneyland, and spending the occasional evening in a Latin
nightclub. But on September 23, 2010, the 25-year-old Zapotec
native returned home to the tiny municipality of San Bartolomé
Quialana, Tlacolula, in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca.
Gloria shed her blue jeans for customary regional garb of
colorful satin dress and brightly embroidered apron; left
her two California jobs to spend virtually every waking hour
raising her children; and gave up the anonymity of urban living
together with the freedom to do as she pleased, in favour
of tolerating traditional indigenous normative behavior.
The bright, attractive and fully trilingual (English, Spanish
and Zapoteco locally referred to as dialecto)
Oaxacan, resides with children Juan age 6 and Daniel age 3,
and mother-in-law Mariana, in a one bedroom brick and cement
house tucked away at the end of a spacious dirt-floored courtyard,
part of an extended family compound. Husband Benito owns this
particular portion of the homestead. He plans to also leave
California, in about three months, to reunite with the rest
of his family.
The answer to why Gloria gave it all up and returned to her
cultural roots, a daunting transition for most, lies in understanding
the circumstances leading to her familys initial emigration
when she was only six year old, examining the role her parents
played in determining the twists and turns her life took while
living in the US, delving deeper into her California lifestyle,
and learning a little about San Bartolomé Quialana.
San Bartolomé Quialana, Tlacolula, Oaxaca
San Bartolomé Quialana (San Bartolomé)
is a 10 minute drive from the city of Tlacolula de Matamoros,
capital of the district of Tlacolula. Tlacolula is noted for
its Sunday market, attracting both merchants and buyers from
the city of Oaxaca, as well as from towns and villages within
Oaxacas central valleys and further beyond. Aside from
the broad array of goods available for purchase at the market,
the tianguis, as its commonly termed, attracts
tourists and Oaxacans alike because of its color and pageantry,
attributable in large part to the large number of Zapotec
natives in attendance from villages such as San Bartolomé,
and nearby San Marcos Tlapazola, noted for production of terra
Founded in 1422, almost 100 years before the Spanish arrived
in Oaxaca, according to 2010 census statistics the village
has a population of 2,471. Sixty percent is female and 40
percent is comprised of minors. Eighty-five percent of residents
over five years of age speak dialecto, most of whom
also speak Spanish. Of those 15 years of age and older, 441
are illiterate. Of youths 6 14 years of age, 70 have
not attended school despite the fact that the village has
five schools, one of which is officially bilingual (Spanish-Zapoteco).
Half the population has not completed public school. The closest
high school is in Tlacolula.
There are 524 households in San Bartolomé, 265 of which
have dirt floors and 27 of which consist of only a single
room. Construction materials are predominantly clay brick,
cement and adobe, with laminated sheet metal often
used for roofing. Most but not all households have electricity
and indoor plumbing. Eight residences have computers, 75 have
washing machines and 413 have televisions.
San Bartolomé has a health clinic provided by the Mexican
national health care plan (IMSS), although only 27 residents
are paid participants in the broader program. The village
has a small daily marketplace, Tuesday being its official
market day when vendors from a couple of surrounding villages
such also ply their wares. There are six variety stores where
one can buy clothing, tacos and other simple, freshly prepared
small meals, as well as packaged snacks, beverages and household
goods; but residents generally do their shopping in Tlacolula.
It costs only 5 pesos (about 45 cents) to there by sharing
a moto taxi (tuk-tuk).
There is a small police force serving the municipalitys
50 square kilometres (which includes farm lands surrounding
the village proper). The municipal government coexists with
indigenous customary law known as usos y costumbres,
not uncommon in towns and villages throughout southern Mexico.
The predominant economic activity of San Bartolomé
residents is subsistence farming, although according to statistics
less than a quarter of the population is engaged in any remunerative
enterprise. Animal husbandry and cultivating herbs, vegetables
(mainly corn, beans, squash), agave (or maguey, used
in the production of mezcal) and some fruit are the primary
activities, supplemented by hunting. There is also cottage
industry manufacturing such as sewing and hand-embroidering
as well as basketry using a bamboo like river reed
known as carrizo and hemp like twine known as
ixtle, derived from agave leaves. Production
of corn-based foodstuffs for sale in Tlacolula such as tortillas,
tlayudas, tamales and atole round out the list
of most frequently encountered activities. Building trades
are also represented (i.e. carpentry, iron works, electrical,
and of course bricklaying).
The Morales Pérez Family in San Bartolomé
Quialana Prior to Emigration to California
Gloria was born in San Bartolomé on February 21, 1986.
She has three siblings. Sister Lidia (age 21) and brother
Miguel (age 26) were also born in San Bartolomé, while
Miriam (age 17) was born in Anaheim. While in San Bartolomé,
their mother Emilia eked out a modest existence by sewing
and embroidering, and selling hand made tortillas.
Her father Luis was never really a wage earner in the village.
He left at age 14, and returned only periodically, of course
long enough to marry Emilia and father the children.
Luis left the family more or less for the final time and moved
to Washington state when Gloria was three years old, becoming
a documented immigrant during a period of amnesty. He entered
into a conjugal relationship with another woman, and had a
child. But when word filtered back to him that his wife had
been with another man, he returned to Oaxaca.
But in fact, someone had tried to rape Emilia, she defended
herself with a knife, and the aggressor ended up in the hospital.
Luis didnt learn the truth until arriving back in San
Bartolomé. But that was enough for Luis to make a unilateral
decision to relocate his family to the US. He selected Anaheim
because San Bartolomé villagers before him had tended
to migrate to Anaheim or other nearby California cities. This
pattern of emigration is extremely common in the state of
Oaxaca, other Mexican states, and in fact internationally
as is born out in the anthropological literature.
For those first six year of Glorias life in San Bartolomé,
she grew up in a Zapoteco only speaking household,
and accordingly learned very little Spanish given the more
general make up of San Bartolomé.
Socialization and Education of a Young Female Oaxaca Native
in Anaheim, California
The first couple of years for any immigrant transplanted from
a foreign culture are difficult, but for Gloria life was particularly
arduous. Not only did she not know a word of English, but
she lacked Spanish, a working knowledge of which would have
put her in good stead for socializing with other Latin Americans,
school children in particular. In her case, however, it was
family dynamics which played a more significant role than
for perhaps most in her position:
At that time my mother had to work two jobs, so I was
responsible for looking after my younger sister, and even
my older brother. I hardly saw my mother for those first couple
of years; and since my father has always been irresponsible,
and a heavy drinker, he couldnt be relied upon. My parents
were always fighting because my father was unwilling to provide
for the family, in large part because of his alcoholism.
Luis had always found employment in the gardening and landscaping
field, but his brushes with the law which landed him in jail
(i.e. impaired driving) and his unwillingness to acknowledge
his obligation as a major financial and emotional contributor
to the family, resulted in significant challenges for Gloria,
her siblings, and of course their mother.
Emilia was the rock of the family, often working two jobs,
invariably in a hotel housekeeping capacity. But money was
still tight for the family:
Occasionally we would get to go to Pizza Hut or Chuck
E. Cheese, but in those years we didnt really have the
opportunity to enjoy leisure time; we would never go to the
movies, out to the mall, or even for walks.
Gloria enjoyed going to school and learning. She had attainable
career aspirations. Her parents, however, played a significant
role in determining whether or not Gloria would ever achieve
her goals, adversely impacting on the choices available to
her and how she would react to their dictates.
Gloria was active in extra curricular soccer and cross
country. But it was her junior army class in Grade 11, JROTC
(the US federal government Junior Reserve Officers Training
Corps program in high schools), which motivated her the most:
I really wanted to be in the army. I liked everything
about it from what I had read, and what I was learning in
JROTC. In fact I was the sergeant of my troupe. But my parents
didnt want me to join the armed forces because it would
have meant moving away. They made it clear to me that they
would refuse to sign my enrolment papers. Had I joined, the
army would have helped me with my immigration papers.
[Gloria, her husband, her mother and her Mexican born
siblings are all undocumented immigrants; only her father
was legal. However his status was revoked as a
result of his criminal record, and he was deported to Tijuana.
He cleverly managed to use his earlier immigrant papers to
return to California in January, 2011.]
Immediately after her parents had made their decision regarding
the army, Glorias grades dropped, and she promptly became
pregnant by her boyfriend Benito. Because her pregnancy was
high risk and she required early hospitalization, Gloria had
to drop out of school four months shy of graduating from grade
Nevertheless, Gloria did not lose her motivation to achieve
a career once her dream of entering the army had been dashed.
Of her own initiative she entered the North Orange County
Regional Occupational Program (ROP), a career technical
training program, with a view to becoming a medical assistant.
She passed the first three month semester, but was
not permitted to continue because of her immigration status.
A Oaxacan Quince Añera Gets Pregnant, Married
and is Finally California Dreamin
Life changed dramatically after Gloria met Benito. They initially
became acquainted at her quince años celebration.
He was also born in San Bartolomé. In Anaheim he had
been living with Glorias aunt. Like her father, he was
employed in the gardening and landscaping field, but their
similarities stopped there. He was kind, supportive, motivated
to earn a living, and as Gloria subsequently learned, a caring
husband and father.
By the time Gloria and Benito had met, both Glorias
English and Spanish were excellent, but her Zapoteco had begun
to wane. She credits Benito (as well as her mother) with helping
her out, as words, phrases and grammatical structures in dialecto
got garbled or simply forgotten.
Gloria and Benito married in Las Vegas, but subsequently had
an Ahaheim church wedding. They initially lived with her aunt,
but moved in with her mother when she was six months pregnant
When the baby was 10 months old, the three of them returned
to San Bartolomé for an eight week visit. In Glorias
17 years in Anaheim, that was the only time she returned home
for a visit.
When Juan was a year old, just after the familys return
to Anaheim, Gloria began working as a supermarket cashier.
She then quit in favour of taking two jobs, working at a fast
food chain and at a gas station as the owners assistant.
She maintained both jobs for five years, earning about $400
per week, until returning to San Bartolomé, with only
one brief hiatus in the interim towards the end of her pregnancy
with Daniel, until he was three months old.
After Daniels birth the family moved into their own
two bedroom apartment. It was the first time that the children
were able to have their own bedroom, with Gloria and Benito
having their own private quarters. The family began leading
what Gloria terms a middle class lifestyle. They went out
and bought themselves a car. They had three steady incomes
and did not have to contribute to the living expenses of the
rest of her family, particularly burdensome when her father
was either not around to help out or was spending a considerable
portion of his income on alcohol.
The couple enjoyed going dancing from time to time. They would
go out with the kids every weekend, going to the movies and
then a restaurant for lunch or dinner, walking around and
shopping downtown, and even spending a day at Disneyland;
Gloria had friends who worked there, and accordingly she would
receive free family passes from time to time. There was even
disposable income available to buy modern electronics (a laptop
and stereo system, for example) and the occasional special
toy for Juan.
The Decision to Return to San Bartolomé Quialana,
As much as Calfornia dreamin had indeed become a reality,
a subtle sense of uneasiness eventually began to weigh upon
Glorias psyche. Perhaps it had always been there. It
wasnt as if she had made the decision to migrate to
the US and then had her dreams crushed. In her case aspirations
developed as they do with American born children, in
the school playground, watching TV, learning from teachers,
classmates and their families, and even participating in a
lifestyle characterized by conspicuous consumption, leisure
time and recreation, albeit to a limited extent; yet it was
enough to create fantasies, more attainable than through buying
Glorias parents played a major part in stifling the
realization of her career potential and thus her ultimate
decision to return to San Bartolomé.
Gloria opened her own doors to a future, and her parents firmly
shut them. They both refused to sign for army enrolment. Her
fathers positive immigration status, rather than at
least easing the ability for Gloria to become documented and
proceed with a professional career, was revoked as a result
of his criminality.
While working two jobs was difficult, Glorias workplace
employment significantly contributed to the ability of the
family to live comfortably. But there [in California]
you have to work, work, work to have that lifestyle,
Gloria confesses, and here [in San Bartolomé]
people dont have to work as much to get by.
After much discussion, a greater understanding emerges of
why Gloria returned, a thought process through which she had
apparently not previously gone. As much as Gloria professes
to having led a middle class lifestyle, by most accounts it
would be considered working class, a difficult working class
existence relative to life in San Bartolomé. It bothered
Gloria that in California, at least within the context of
her employment at the time, work, work, work would
never lead to home ownership and being able to literally build
a future. In San Bartolomé they can improve their own
home, with much less effort, and work towards accumulating
some of the material indicia of a middle-class lifestyle.
In Anaheim it would always be working to pay the rent and
get by, albeit with leisurely Sundays and Disneyland.
That all pervasive, anti Mexican racist sentiment
which permeates much of the US was felt be Gloria, and subtly
worked on her. Notwithstanding her immediate familys
income, her linguistic skills, and development of her social
and employment networks, while living in sunny CA there would
always be a lingering sentiment of feeling out of place, removed
from ones roots and ethnicity. How it would have manifested
had Gloria ended up proceeding in one or those two career
options, one will never know.
Benito didnt want to go back, Gloria admits.
When Mexicans like us return home with our American
born children, the children tend to get sick, and as
a consequence the family returns to the US, she explains.
Benito didnt want to go through all that expense
of coming here and then going back.
In June, 2010, Gloria decided to return to San Bartolomé
with their children. What had been in the recesses of her
mind promptly came to the fore; she still cannot identify
a precipitating event, comment or thought; the time had come.
Gloria arrived in Oaxaca on September 23, 2010. Benito plans
to follow, in October, 2011. He says hell stay for 3
Upon Gloria leaving Anaheim with her children, her parents
moved in with Benito. The entire family subsequently moved
into a different two bedroom apartment.
Lifestyle of an American Woman & Her American Children
in San Bartolomé Quialana, Oaxaca
Gloria awakens to the sound of Juans four chickens and
dog Frisky howling away in the courtyard, together with the
early morning sounds of the street and her neighbors
chatter and activities. She feeds the children. Their grandmother
goes about her business getting her herbs and vegetables ready
to take to market in Tlacolula. Gloria, accompanied by Daniel,
walks Juan to school.
Juan struggles with Spanish. He grew up learning mainly English,
with no Zapoteco. Daniel, by contrast, somehow managed
to master Spanish, and that remains his most comfortable speaking
Several extended family members live in and around the compound,
and village friends and other family are in close proximity,
dropping by throughout the day. Gloria holds court either
outside, or when the sun is beating down or its raining,
in her main indoor living space. It contains a large dining
table and chairs, a couple of smaller tables with clothes
piled on top, assorted other chairs, a fridge and stove, and
a tall contemporary-styled wooden, glass front china cabinet
with drawers at the bottom. The adjoining bedroom has two
beds; one for Gloria and Juan, and the other for Daniel. Their
grandmother sleeps in the same room, but on the floor, as
has been her custom throughout her entire life. Glorias
brother-in-law bought a bed for his mother, but she wouldnt
use it, because she never has.
When Gloria and the children moved into the house last September,
it had a dirt floor. With the assistance of her extended family,
she has slowly been making the modest abode more comfortable.
It now has a concrete floor. The washroom has been built,
but is still an outhouse. For showering, the family goes next
door to Glorias brother-in-laws home.
From Benitos weekly income of about $500, he wires $100
to Tlacolula for Gloria to cash; he occasionally sends $150.
Its enough to get by, and helped a great deal with the
initial improvements to the house. To get the money Gloria
must go to Tlacolula every week. Sometimes she goes with the
children to the Sunday tianguis to shop; sometimes
she goes during the week, if only to pick up her money from
the storefront wire service.
Most days Gloria dresses in traditional regional clothing
a brightly embroidered apron over a locally made, long
colourful satin dress. In 17 years of living in Ahaheim,
Gloria asserts, almost boasting, I wore a dress only
twice; once for my quince años, and again for
Gloria is often pressured by her mother-in-law to wear only
traditional dress, but she now puts on normal
clothes when she feels like it. But she admits, Im
now comfortable wearing this kind of clothing, but it took
a while. Now I wear what I want and I wont yield to
pressure from anyone in the village.
San Bartolomé, not unlike other villages in Mexico,
or even in small town USA, is a rumor mill. When Gloria has
had visitors from California, if there happened to be a male
amongst them, the looks, innuendo and suspicion would begin.
And even if the group was strictly female, cavorting
out of the house in the evening was unacceptable. But Gloria
has gotten used to it, and has found her own inner means of
Gloria gets to Oaxaca every 6 7 weeks, but no more.
Its usually to go shopping with the children in a large
American-style supermarket (Soriana), and to the movies. Shes
taking the children this Saturday so that Juan can buy a special
game from Soriana that his father promised. Benito is wiring
an extra 285 pesos, so earmarked.
Benito speaks with Gloria three or four times a day. He has
a long distance phone plan for which he pays $60 a month.
It enables him to make unlimited calls of unlimited duration
to Glorias land line. Gloria and Benito also text one
another throughout the day.
Monday Gloria begins working ten hours a week at a Tlacolula
commercial mezcal factory and retail outlet. The owners value
her ability to communicate well in Spanish, Zapoteco, and
English. Shes not entirely sure exactly what shell
be doing, but has been going in from time to time to learn
about the functioning of the operation. She has no idea about
Epilogue: Glorias Future in San Bartolomé Quialana,
By most accounts, while living in Anaheim Gloria was a working
class American woman of indigenous Mexican decent; fluent
in English, working two jobs, she and her husband raising
two American-born children in a single family household. Their
lifestyle was not all that different from that of working
class urban whites with a bit of ethnic flare.
The dashing of Glorias hopes is not that unusual, either,
in terms of parental control of decision-making over minor
progeny. Her immigration status (to only a minor extent) and
the strong sense of Zapotec indigeneity and the allure it
apparently continually held for Gloria, were, together with
that subtle American racism, determinative of Glorias
life path; at least to date.
On balance, Gloria and her family will return to Anaheim some
day. Shes concerned about schooling for her children:
School here is okay, but in order to attend a good school,
you have to go to a private school and that costs a lot. And
to go beyond high school, you have to go to Oaxaca [or further
abroad], and its very expensive. And of course American
schools and colleges are better. I want the children to have
a good education. Eventually well return to the states,
but itll be to better the chances for our children to
get a quality education and have good careers.
To get into the US when I was six, we took buses to
the border at Tijuana. There were five of us, and I think
the coyote charged us $400; but it was stressful, and took
close to ten tries. But getting back into the US again? No,
its not an issue; we know we can do it and will do it
if we want to; the issues are how long it will take, and of
course the cost, but for us, the ability to get back to Anaheim
will never be a concern.
Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com
Starkman has a background in social anthropology and law.
He lives in Oaxaca, where with wife Arlene he operates a bed
and breakfast (Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast
). Alvin consults to documentary film companies, takes couples
and families to the village sights, writes about life and
traditions in the state, and together with Chef Pilar Cabera
Arroyo operates Oaxaca Culinary Tours (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com).
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