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RETURN TO OAXACA

When my father moved our family from Oaxaca to Los Angeles in 1994, he told us we would only be there for a year. I was 9 years old then, excited to learn a new language and enamored with the America I saw on TV shows like Saved by the Bell and Full House. I said goodbye to my school friends and the neighborhood kids, telling them I’d be back soon, not realizing that one year would become 25 in the blink of an eye.

Our life in Oaxaca had been simple. My dad traveled from town to town, selling his mezcal. My mom cooked, cleaned, sewed, and tended to me and my three siblings. We spent weekends and holidays at my maternal grandmother’s house in San Pablo Villa de Mitla, a small town an hour outside the city. The long braids my grandma wore every day, each interwoven with a brown ribbon, always smelled of smoked pasilla chiles; her hands were coarse from decades passed in front of the comal, making corn tortillas.

In the 1990s, the Mexican economy was in crisis. Oaxaca, already among the nation’s poorest states, was hit particularly hard, and my father, just one of many Oaxaqueños who sought work in the United States. “We all said we’d leave for a year or two at most,” he admits. “But we got caught up in the American way of life.”

Shortly after settling in Los Angeles, my parents opened Guelaguetza, a restaurant in the heart of Koreatown. Although things were slow at first, the restaurant began to flourish once local paisanos learned that there was finally real Oaxacan food in LA. The money my father intended to save for his mezcal business back home was instead invested in a second restaurant, and later a third, fourth, fifth, and sixth.

Then, in 2008, the Great Recession struck the United States, and our lives were again upended. Over the next few years, my parents shuttered one restaurant after another, until only the original Guelaguetza survived. My siblings and I had grown up there, bussing tables and doing schoolwork in the kitchen. None of us ever played sports or musical instruments, but we

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