The Role of Family and Culture in Shaping One Woman’s Decision to Return to her Zapotec Roots in San Bartolomé Quialana, Tlacolula, Oaxaca

Gloria 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 family’s 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 Oaxaca’s central valleys and further beyond. Aside from the broad array of goods available for purchase at the market, the tianguis, as it’s 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 cotta pottery.

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 municipality’s 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 didn’t 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 Gloria’s 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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, Gloria’s 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 12.

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 Gloria’s 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 Gloria’s 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 with Juan.

When the baby was 10 months old, the three of them returned to San Bartolomé for an eight week visit. In Gloria’s 17 years in Anaheim, that was the only time she returned home for a visit.

When Juan was a year old, just after the family’s 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 owner’s 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 Daniel’s 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, Oaxaca

As much as Calfornia dreamin’ had indeed become a reality, a subtle sense of uneasiness eventually began to weigh upon Gloria’s psyche. Perhaps it had always been there. It wasn’t 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 lottery tickets.

Gloria’s 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 father’s 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, Gloria’s 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 don’t 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 family’s 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 one’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 he’ll stay for 3 – 4 years.
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 Juan’s 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 tongue.

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 it’s 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. Gloria’s brother-in-law bought a bed for his mother, but she wouldn’t 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 Gloria’s brother-in-law’s home.

From Benito’s weekly income of about $500, he wires $100 to Tlacolula for Gloria to cash; he occasionally sends $150. It’s 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 my wedding.”

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, “I’m now comfortable wearing this kind of clothing, but it took a while. Now I wear what I want and I won’t 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 coping.

Gloria gets to Oaxaca every 6 – 7 weeks, but no more. It’s usually to go shopping with the children in a large American-style supermarket (Soriana), and to the movies. She’s 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 Gloria’s 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. She’s not entirely sure exactly what she’ll be doing, but has been going in from time to time to learn about the functioning of the operation. She has no idea about the pay.

Epilogue: Gloria’s Future in San Bartolomé Quialana, Oaxaca


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 Gloria’s 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 Gloria’s life path; at least to date.

On balance, Gloria and her family will return to Anaheim some day. She’s 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 it’s very expensive. And of course American schools and colleges are better. I want the children to have a good education. Eventually we’ll return to the states, but it’ll 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, it’s 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.”

Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ) ©

Alvin 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 – (http://www.oaxacadream.com ). 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).

ARTICLES MAIN PAGE | CONTACT US | LINKS | HOME