Food Activism and Food Culture In Oaxaca, Mexico

Download 81.04 Kb.
Size81.04 Kb.

Food Activism and Food Culture

In Oaxaca, Mexico

Spring 2017, Dates: May 15 - June 12 (May 15-21 in Los Angeles)

Office Hours: Tuesdays 1PM – 2PM


I. Course objectives:

  • Investigate the Mexican/Oaxacan culture of Los Angeles, especially in areas in close proximity to USC (Boyle Heights, downtown, and South L.A.)

  • Experience firsthand the cultural, political, economic and spiritual vale of Oaxaca’s most important foods, corn, cacao, and chili, crops that have been part of the Mesoamerican diet and culture for thousands of years

  • Explore the effects of immigration to Los Angeles on the culture and cuisine of a largely indigenous community that has historically faced discrimination

  • Learn about in indigenous food sovereignty movements based in Oaxaca that have developed local food cooperatives and small-scale ecological production and food activism through visits to indigenous communities fighting to preserve traditional crops

  • Understand how food sovereignty offers opportunities to advance women’s rights and witness the enormous contribution of women to the food/agricultural economy

  • See how women small business owners use food production as an important form of entrepreneurship and empowerment through microfinance

  • Unearth the economic, cultural, spiritual, and political importance of maize (corn) in Oaxaca/Mexico. Engage directly with the chefs, campesinos, and activists who have been working to protect it from multinational agroindustry.

II. Brief Course Description and Weekly Topics:
Oaxaca is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the most culturally and biologically diverse of Mexican states with sixteen different languages spoken in addition to Spanish, and environments as varied as desert, pine forest, and tropical rain forest.

The food of Oaxaca stands out as one of the richest and most diverse in all of Mexico. Based on a synthesis of Spanish and Indigenous legacies, Oaxacan cuisine is known for its many moles, complex sauces made of chilies, chocolate, herbs and spices; for its many corn products; for its mescal, a locally cultivated, distilled beverage made from agave; and for the rich Oaxacan chocolate.
During the Maymester, students will explore Oaxacan culture, food, and agriculture, discover how food is used as a tool for activism, sovereignty and empowerment of women, and learn about the connection between Oaxacan food and politics and immigration.

III. Weekly Agenda
Week 1:

Since Los Angeles is home to the largest Oaxacan community outside of Oaxaca City (an estimated 80,000 economic migrants have come since the 1990s), the course will begin with a week in Los Angeles introducing students to Oaxacan culture and cuisine through lectures, visits to local markets and restaurants, and conversations with members of Los Angeles’ Oaxacan community. We will see how, in some cases, Oaxacan food in Los Angeles has maintained its own unique culture, while, in other cases, it has merged with other cultures to become a truly global cuisine.

Week 2:

The second week of the program, based in and around the city of Oaxaca, will offer an intensive overview of Oaxacan cuisine and culture, through lectures, a hands-on cooking class, a tour of Oaxaca’s largest Sunday market in a nearby town, a visit to the archeological ruins of Mitla, and a cacao tour with Chocosol, a social enterprise that makes artisanal chocolate using organic, shade grown chocolate sourced from indigenous communities in the Oaxacan mountains. We will learn about Chocosol’s reciprocal relationship with local producers and how they benefit from it.

Week 3:

This week will focus on agricultural production and indigenous rights in Oaxaca. Oaxacan activist, intellectual, writer and founder of Universidad de la Tierra, Gustavo Esteva will speak about food sovereignty and food activism in Oaxaca. Esteva will accompany us on an overnight excursion to corn and amaranth growers where we will discover how indigenous farmers use food production for greater agency and sovereignty.
During week 3, we will also learn about the intersection of food and ecotourism when we spend two days in one of the Pueblos Mancomunados, indigenous villages that developed a communal ecotourism project in the 1990s that has become a model for all of Mexico. We will spend time with two different indigenous families; one that makes pulque (a fermented drink from the agave plant) and another that makes bread, hike a pre-Hispanic trade route between the villages, and eat at a local trout farm.
Week 4:

This week will focus on female empowerment through food production. We will participate in a food-focused tour with the microfinance foundation, En Vía, learning directly from Oaxacan women in indigenous villages how they use interest-free loans to expand their small businesses and lift themselves out of poverty.
The final days will be used for presentations of the students’ ethnographic research on the intersection of Oaxacan food/agriculture and social justice, politics, or gender rights. We will have the final exam and final class dinner on the last days.

IV. Course evaluation:

  1. Attendance and Class Discussion (15%) -- Attendance at each session is mandatory. Class discussions will be focused on readings and larger questions for the daily topic of study. This part of the grade will be determined by a combination of attendance, and participation in class discussions. Attendance at all field trips and excursions is mandatory as well. Except in cases of serious illness, attendance at all of the classes/excursions is expected, as they are an important part of the course. macintosh hd:users:sarahportnoy:desktop:4167220460_f0fda296b2.jpg

  1. Reading Quizzes (two quizzes, 20%) – A reading quiz will be offered at the beginning of two classes. These quizzes will be short and factual -- they are designed to ensure that students complete the reading and come prepared for discussion.

  1. Food ethnography (25%)-- You will observe eating and food production processes in Los Angeles and the city of Oaxaca or its environs. Each student will write up a short description and analysis of his/her observations, and answer the following questions in the course of your analysis:

- How was the food prepared? Who prepared it?

- Who is dining? What binds the diners together?

- Is there an order to how the food is consumed?

- What choices have been made about what to consume and when?

-What ingredients are being used? Are they locally grown and purchased?

- Is there a history to the food being consumed? How do you know? Would this eating process have looked any differently three or five or ten decades ago?

- What supplements the food? Décor, conversation, etc.? Is the food secondary to the supplements? Or does the food come first?

- How are the food, ambience, or diners different in the U.S. from Oaxaca? Similar?

In 4 double-spaced pages, record your observations and then draw conclusions about the role of food consumption rituals in everyday life in Oaxaca and in Los Angeles. You will be graded on the vibrancy of your description and analysis and the details supplied. You should also prepare a 10-12 minute presentation based on your observations. This presentation should summarize the basics of your ethnography and then conclude with the most interesting analytical elements from your description.
Students will be provided with instructions as to how to conduct an ethnography.
D. Examination (25%) – The final exam will cover readings, lectures, and discussions.

E. Research Paper (15%) – Each student will investigate a particular aspect of Oaxacan or Mexican food culture/production both in Oaxaca and Los Angeles. The topic will be chosen in consultation with Prof. Portnoy. It must include firsthand observations as well as research. The paper will be 6-8 pages long and must include a Works Cited page with at least 10 sources. It is due by June 9th.
V. Lodging and Program Host Institute:
Universidad de la Tierra ( will be our hosts for the program.
The ICO, which is housed in a lovely 19th century estate, has been teaching Spanish-language programs in Oaxaca since 1984. The institute gives classes to individuals and groups, provides support, and organizes home stays for several university programs. The ICO will be the location of our introductory lectures.
Unitierra will coordinate homestays with local Oaxacan families so that students can use their Spanish language skills and experience the culture through contact with a local family.

The office of Overseas Studies of the Dana and David Dornsife College of Arts, Letters and Sciences at the University of Southern California urges students and parents to stay informed of conditions that may affect the health and safety of USC students abroad. Traveling and living in a foreign country always has an element of risk. In study abroad as in other settings, students’ own decisions and behavior can have a major impact on their health and safety. To aid students and parents in their consideration of potential health and safety risks, we have put together some information and provided links to readily accessible web sites that address issues of health and safety while abroad:


Plagiarism – presenting someone else’s ideas as your own, either verbatim or recast in your own words – is a serious academic offense with serious consequences.  Please familiarize yourself with the discussion of plagiarism in SCampus in Section 11, Behavior Violating University Standards Other forms of academic dishonesty are equally unacceptable.  See additional information in SCampus and university policies on scientific misconduct,

Discrimination, sexual assault, and harassment are not tolerated by the university.  You are encouraged to report any incidents to the Office of Equity and Diversity or to the Department of Public Safety  This is important for the safety whole USC community.  Another member of the university community – such as a friend, classmate, advisor, or faculty member – can help initiate the report, or can initiate the report on behalf of another person.  The Center for Women and Men provides 24/7 confidential support, and the sexual assault resource center webpage describes reporting options and other resources.


Any student requesting academic accommodations based on a disability is required to register with Disability Services and Programs (DSP) each semester. A letter of verification for approved accommodations can be obtained from DSP. Please present your letter of accommodation to me as early as possible to arrange for acommodations. DSP is located in 3601 Watt Way, Grace Ford Salvatori Hall 120, and is open 8:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. The phone number for DSP is (213) 740-0776. They can be reached via email at

May 15, Monday (10-2 PM)

  • 10 A.M. Opening lecture on Oaxacan culture and gastronomy and history of Oaxacan immigration to California

  • 12:30 P.M. Sampling of traditional Oaxacan cuisine close to USC at Oaxacan family restaurant Gish Bac, 4163 W. Washington Blvd.

  • conversation with Gish Bac’s owners David Padilla and María Ramos

Readings for Day 1:

  1. Stephen, Lynn, “Transborder Communities in Political and Historical Context: Views from Oaxaca,” and “Mexicans in California,” “Mexicans in California,” Transborder lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon (Duke University Press, 2007)

  2. Portnoy, Sarah, “From Tamale Wagons to California Burritos: A History of Latino Food in Los Angeles,”Food, Health, and Culture in Latino Los Angeles (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

  3. Weber, Devra, “The Oaxacan Enclaves of Los Angeles: A Photo Essay,” The Journal of the Southwest Vol. 43, No. 4, Border Cities and Culture (Winter, 2001), pp. 729-745.

3. Videos about Oaxacan cuisine and culture:

Comida oaxaqueña”
May 16, Tuesday

  • The Oaxacan Community in Los Angeles, a history of discrimination and celebration

  • 9 AM: Presentation by María Elena Cabezut, Chief of Cultural Affairs, Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles

  • Discussion with Dalila Castillo, Cultural Affairs Secretary, Regional Organization of Oaxaca (Organización Regional de Oaxaca), a 29 year-old community organization that promotes indigenous Oaxacan culture in Los Angeles

  • 10:30 AM: Discussion of readings

  • Think about presentation topics and discuss food ethnographies


  1. Cohen, Jeffrey, “The Oaxaca-U.S. Connection and Remittances.” Migration Policy Institute,

  2. Kresge, Lisa, “Indigenous Oaxacan Communities in California: an Overview,” file:///Users/sarahportnoy/Downloads/Pub1107.1%20(1).pdf

May 17, Wednesday

The Evolution of Traditional Oaxacan cuisine in Los Angeles

  • 10-1: Discussion with L.A. Oaxacan Chef Rocío Camacho: Rocíos Mexican Kitchen, Bell Gardens, CA, sample moles, discuss evolution of Oaxacan cuisine in Los Angeles


1. Portnoy, Sarah. “From Border Grill to Broken Spanish: The Evolution of Latino Cuisine in Los Angeles.” Food, Health and Culture in Latino Los Angeles (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).
May 18, Thursday

Oaxacalifornia: Oaxacan food and globalization

  • 10-11:30: Discussion of food and globalization

  • 11:30-12:30 Visit to Oaxacalifornia (Mercado de la Paloma)


  1. Pilcher, Jeffrey, “The First Wave of Global Mexican,” Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

  1. David Inglis and Debra Gimlin, “Food Globalizations: Ironies and Ambivalences of Food, Cuisine and Globality,” The Globalization of Food (Oxford: Berg, 2009), 3-32.

May 19, Friday

  • Quiz #1: 9-11 A.M.

  • 12-2: Meal at Guelaguetza, conversation with owners Bricia and Fernando Lopez, children of founder, on the evolution of Oaxacan cuisine—and the community—in Los Angeles

  • Discuss trip plans

Readings and video for before trip:

1. “Sin maíz no hay país,” online/festival/play/5911/Sin-Ma--z-No-Hay-Pa--s--Las-Semillas-de-la-Dignidad (39 min)

2. Kennedy, Diane, “Regions of Oaxaca,” Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy (University of Texas Press, 2011), 3-11, 2. “Maps of the Region,”

“Pillars of Oaxacan Cuisine: Chocolate, Corn, and Chiles,” xii-xxii, “Glossary”


3. Roberto González, “The Conceptual Bases of Zapotec Farming and Foodways,” Zapotec Science (University of Texas, 2001).

May 22, Monday

  • Flight to Oaxaca. Make sure you arrive by early evening. ($626 R/T, 9:15 AM arrives at 6 PM)

May 23, Tuesday

  • 10 A.M: An orientation to Oaxaca will be provided at the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca (ICO) (1 hour)

  • 11-1-Walking tour of the city and of the food market, Mercado 20 de Noviembre. Wear good shoes, bring a light rain jacket, and come hungry! We will discover chocolate, chapulines and chiles!

  • 4 PM-lecture on Oaxacan cuisine by Chef Pilar Cabrera

  • 6 PM-welcome meal for class at Casa de los Sabores

May 24, Wednesday

  • Explore the city on your own

  • 3 P.M. Introductory lecture on food activism in Oaxaca by Gustavo Esteve at Unitierra

  • 8 P.M: Class on mescal production. Meet at the Mezcaloteca.


  1. Sarah Bowen, “Making Mezcal in the Shadow of the Denomination of Origin,” Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production, 123-146.


May 25, Thursday

Zapotec Cooking Class in Teotitlán del Valle and visit to Women Weavers (9AM-6 PM)

  • Meet at Unitierra at 9 AM, transport to Teotitlán del Valle, local market tour, hands-on cooking class in Reyna’s outdoor home kitchen followed by a sit-down group meal

  • We will learn about traditional cooking tools including a clay comal (flat griddle used to roast ingredients), a metate (large stone tool used to grind maize, chocolate, or dried chiles and spices for mole), and a molcajete (stone pestle and mortar) to make salsa.

  • Visit to women’s weaving cooperative in Teotitlán

May 26, Friday

Chocolate Tour: cacao’s spiritual and culinary role in Oaxacan culture (9AM-1 PM)

  • We will explore Oaxaca City's centro histórico, includes three local markets, three chocolaterías and local churches/parks. While touring Oaxaca's various markets, parks, and chocolatiers, we trace the history of chocolate not only through Mexican and world history, but through flavors. Via pre-Hispanic hot and cold cacao drinks, local seeds and chocolate tastings, we follow the mysteries and the path of the humble cacao bean from its beginnings to its modern incarnations today, its relation to Maize, and finally how chocolate is made.

  • Afternoon lecture on Zapotec culture and the archeological site of Mitla (Instituto Cultural Oaxaca)

  • Meet with me to discuss ideas for topics for food ethnography (5-7 PM, La Betulia)

Readings and Video:

  1. Ted Talk with founder of Chocosol: “Reclaiming Chocolate: Chocosol Traders and Chocolatiers.”

  2. Excerpt from the Popul Vuh, “Book of Counsel,”

  3. Sophie and Michael Coe, “The Birth of Chocolate: Mesoamerican Genesis,” The True History of Chocolate, 33-64.

May 27, Saturday

  • You have the day off to explore on your own and work on your ethnographies. I will provide suggestions of outings.

May 28, Sunday

Day trip to largest Oaxacan market in the town of Tlacolula, archeological site of Mitla, waterfall Hierve el Agua (9 AM-5 PM)


  1. “Insects” from Cambridge World History of Food, 546-554.

  2. Chapter 4 in Food Culture in Mexico.

  3. Cohen, Sanchez, and Montiel-Ishino, “Chapulines and Food Choices in Rural Oaxaca,” Gastronomica, Winter 2009.

May 29, Monday/May 30, Tuesday

Agricultural Production, Indigenous Rights, and Food Sovereignty in Oaxaca’s Mixtec Communities: Overnight Trip

  • Presentation by Gustavo Esteva, author, activist, and founder of Universidad de la Tierra (8-9 A.M.)

  • Leave for excursion to corn and amaranth growers in the Mixtec region of Oaxaca to learn directly about food sovereignty from the community members. Overnight with community.

  • Day 2: Excursion to the community of Reyes Mantecón, where a woman’s collective where we will visit a woman’s collective that grows organic crops

  • Learn how traditional seed varieties are under threat from GM crops and how local community members, scholars, and activists have come together to form the Autonomous Network for Food Sovereignty to challenge injustices in the food system.


  1. Lynn Stephen, “Testimony: Human Rights and Social Movements,” We are the Face of Oaxaca: Testimony and Social Movements (Duke University Press, 2013)

  2. Gustavo Esteve, “Sin maíz no hay país,” México: Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares (2003). (Optional for Spanish speakers)

  3. Anjali Browning, “Corn, Tomatoes and a Dead Dog: Mexican Agricultural Restructuring after NAFTA and Rural Responses to Declining Maize Production in Oaxaca, Mexico,” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, Winter 2013.

  4. “Amaranth” from Cambridge World History of Food

May 31, Wednesday: Discussion on Agriculture and Social Justice in Oaxaca/Quiz

  • 9-11 Reading Quiz #2 at Unitierra

  • 2 P.M.: lunch and visit to Itanoni Restaurant. The owner is a great defender of native corn and they make many different dishes with their masa.

  • Afternoon discussion/reflection with Gustavo Esteva about experiences/readings at Unitierra

  • Check in with me individually to discuss progress on your food ethnographies (3-5 PM)

  • Pack for overnight trip to Pueblos Mancomunados. Bring a rain jacket and warm clothes!

June 1, Thursday/ June 2, Friday
Food and Ecotourism in the Pueblos Mancomunados: pulque, pan and pescado

This ecotourism project was developed communally by 8 Zapotec villages in the 1990s and has become a model for all of Mexico.

  • Meet at 8 AM for transport to Pueblos Mancomunados (indigenous communities in the mountains (1 ½ hour drive)

  • Morning Workshop Day 1: Learn how to make bread with a local indigenous family of bakers and another family that are makers of pulque(fermented agave juice).

  • Overnight in pueblo of Latuvi in local cabañas (cabins)

Day 2:

  • Hike a pre-hispanic trade route from rom Latuvi to Lachatao/ Amatlan using the old prehispanic trading path, learn about medical herbs and local crops, lunch at small trout farm. Afternoon return to Oaxaca. 

June 5, Monday: Traditional Oaxacan Food and Women Entrepreneurs

  • We will participate in a food-focused tour with the microfinance foundation, En Vía, learning directly from Oaxacan women in indigenous villages how they use interest-free loans to expand their small businesses and lift themselves out of poverty. The tour includes visits to five women’s businesses, a meal, and an opportunity for a hands-on dessert making class. (10 AM-4 PM). Lunch included.


  1. Lynn Stephen, “Ethnicity and Class in the Changing Lives of Zapotec Women,”

Zapotec Women: Gender, class, and ethnicity in globalized Oaxaca (Duke University Press, 2005)

2. Fundación En Vía video:

June 6, Tuesday

  • Meet at Unitierra: Morning excursion to Monte Alban archeological site and to visit makers of traditional alebrijes (Oaxacan wood carving figures) in nearby villages. We will see pre-Hispanic ruins with corn god imagery and folk art being made in nearby villages (10 AM-3 PM)


  1. Blanton, Richard, “Introduction,” Ancient Oaxaca: The Monte Albán State.

June 7, Wednesday

  • 9-10 AM: Discussion of readings on women and food sovereignty in Oaxaca

  • Discuss progress on research paper topic and ethnography with me (10-12 PM)

  • Time to work on final papers/study for exam

June 8, Thursday

  • Presentations on your food ethnography in the morning (10-12 AM)

  • Turn in short food ethnography paper along with your presentation

  • Check in with me about your final paper

June 9, Friday

  • Final exam (10-12 AM)

  • 8 P.M. Final class meal at Origen and conversation with renowned chef Rodolfo Castellanos,

June 12, Monday

  • Meet at airport for flight to Los Angeles

  • Turn in final paper by midnight June 11th

V. Additional Readings and Films/Videos:

  • Coe, Michael and Sophie, The True History of Chocolate (Thames & Hudson, 2007).

  • Cohen, Jeffrey, “The Oaxaca-U.S. Connection and Remittances.” Migration Policy Institute (2005).

  • Esteva, Gustavo, Food policy in Mexico with James E. Austin. (Boston: Cornell University Press, 1987).

  • Esteva, Gustavo, Sin maíz no hay país. Con Catherine Marielle (coord.). (México: CONACULTA 2003).

  • Kennedy, Diane, Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy (University of Texas Press, 2011)

  • Pilcher, Jeffrey, Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

  • Portnoy, Sarah, Food, Health and Culture in Latino Los Angeles (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

  • Weber, Devra, “The Oaxacan Enclaves of Los Angeles: A Photo Essay,” The Journal of the Southwest Vol. 43, No. 4, Border Cities and Culture (Winter, 2001), pp. 729-745.

  • “Oaxaca, viaje de cultura y tradición.”

  • Documentaries:

  • “Sin Maíz no hay país,”

  • "Oaxaca: La Cara Magica del Otro Mexico" (Parte 1 y 2),

Download 81.04 Kb.

Share with your friends:

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page