“I remember the taste of sweet watermelons. My father was a farmer, he grew corn, watermelon, pumpkins, squash. I remember following the plow--planting seeds.” Genoveva was born in Xilitla Guerrero, a little town that was off the grid when she was growing up. There were no cars. “We went to the next town to buy things we need.”
At the age of 15, she immigrated to Los Angeles. People migrate from their native countries for so many reasons including political strife, environmental problems, and like Genoveva, for economic and educational opportunities. In the history of California, thousands came from Latin America, Europe and Asia during the Gold Rush era; and thousands more came during the Dustbowl of the thirties. During the past several decades, migration has been influenced by globalization. Developed countries, such as the U.S., rely on immigrant labor for highly skilled jobs such as engineering as well as for manual labor such as harvesting crops.
“My brothers were living here. I came to Los Angeles to work, to help my parents. I worked during the day, and went to school in the evenings.” Genoveva, worked for a “sweatshop,” a large clothing manufacturer. She still stays in touch with friends she made there. “The work was not too hard, but it was a new experience being in a big city. I felt shy but I made a lot of new discoveries.” Not only did Genoveva, move away from her parents at 15, but she also helped to support them; that is a big responsibility for any teenager.
Even in a brief conversation, one can see that Genoveva, is engaging and vivacious. You can imagine her feeling at home with people wherever she goes. Nevertheless, she experienced a tremendous cultural change coming from her small subsistence-based village to a mega city. Her experience as an immigrant transformed her life, and has also helped her parents.
Genoveva, has now lived in Santa Barbara for most of her life, and has worked as a longtime housekeeper for just a few families. Holli’s portrait beautifully captures her graciousness and the care that she takes with her work. “Santa Barbara has felt more like my village. I like that there is a lot of agriculture nearby -- I think of Xilitla when I pass a farm.”
The village of Xilitla is known for its artists, who create colorful paintings on bark paper, called amate. These are then sold all over Mexico. "Everyone in my family is an artist."
Genoveva, and her husband are parents to two daughters, one still in middle-school and one in college. She weaves her family traditions into their lives, along with occasional trips to Xilitla to visit relatives. “We knew everyone; we spent all of our holidays together, and there was always a lot of food.” She learned to cook from her mother, who spoke Nahuatl as her first language. “I learned this too. I don’t speak it now but enjoy hearing stories and songs in the language.” Several of our English words have Nahuatl origins, such as chocolate (xocolatl), cacao (cacahuatl), avocado (ahuacatl), chile (chili), tomato (tomatl), and mesquite (mizquitl); foods native to Mesoamerica.
“My dreams for my children include that they learn the traditions of my village -- I want them to know both cultures, and I want them to have the opportunities that education offers them.” Her eldest daughter studied computer science but found her passion as a student at the culinary institute.
So many of Genoveva,’s good memories revolve around family gatherings and the savory foods her mother prepared. “Posole, tamales nejo and moles; when I have time I show my kids how to prepare these. Mole sauce requires a lot of ingredients and takes a lot of time.” One of her mother's specialties was mole verde, made with tomatillos, serrano chiles, pumpkin seeds, epazote and garlic. When asked where she likes to eat here in Santa Barbara, she suggests Los Arroyos and El Bajio.
From families who settled on the Central Coast generations ago to more recent immigrants, our communities take pride in celebrating our various heritages in such festivals as Danish Days in Solvang and Old Spanish Days in Santa Barbara. Our community is always growing and changing in new directions, often directed by the seeds our immigrant families plant in the towns that make up the Central Coast of California.
By Katherine Bradford