Talking Location With author Leigh Russell – YORK
Talking Location with Jessica Winters Mireles – OAXACA, MEXICO
14th May 2020
#TalkingLocationWith...Jessica Winters Mireles. Oaxaca, MEXICO, author of Lost in Oaxaca
Growing up in Santa Barbara, California, I came from a family that rarely traveled. We weren’t wealthy, and since we already lived in a venerable beachside paradise with a view of the purple Santa Ynez Mountains out the front window, there was really no need to go anywhere. If I wanted to travel, all I had to do was walk a few blocks to the local library, check out a book, and I could go anyplace in the world I wanted.
It’s remarkable that the little girl who never went anywhere would grow up to marry a man who would take her to a faraway land—and that after visiting that magical place, she would never be the same again.
I met my husband, René, the summer before my senior year as a piano performance major at USC. Instead of returning home to Santa Barbara that June, I stayed in Los Angeles and got a job as a waitress in an upscale hamburger restaurant. There, I developed a mad crush on a handsome, Mexican line cook who spoke as much English as I spoke Spanish, but somehow we communicated enough to fall in love. Despite the objection from my mother about our “vast cultural differences,” I married him the following year.
Of course, we chose to travel to his hometown of Oaxaca, Mexico for our honeymoon. I consider myself fortunate that I was able to experience Mexico not as an American tourist, but as the wife of a local Oaxaqueño. We stayed at his family’s rustic home in Colonia Independencia, a quaint neighborhood just outside of the city, where I listened to many conversations in their native language—a Zapotec dialect that sounded like music to my ears. We attended his brother’s wedding celebration, a party of non-stop dancing that lasted for three days, sampling tamales wrapped in green banana leaves and chicken covered in a spicy, chocolatey mole negro sauce. I dipped freshly baked bread into mugs of foamy, hot Oaxacan chocolate, and even downed a shot or two of Oaxaca’s world famous mezcal. Let’s just say I got a taste of the real Mexico.
It’s only natural that my novel, Lost in Oaxaca would reflect the many experiences I’ve had while traveling in my husband’s homeland. The main character, Camille, is a privileged, white American piano teacher who travels to Oaxaca in search of her missing piano student, but ultimately finds much more. She arrives there with many preconceived ideas about Mexico, but leaves with a greater understanding of the culture, as well as a deep affection for the Oaxacan people.
In the story, Camille visits many of the same places I’ve visited in Oaxaca: The Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, a former monastery transformed into the renowned Museum of Oaxacan Cultures, complete with an ethnobotanical garden that features many of the native plants and flowers of the region. She dines at an outdoor restaurant that borders the zólcalo, or main plaza, and listens to traditional Oaxacan music while watching the tourists stroll under the laurel trees. Camille even travels by bus high up into the mountains of Oaxaca to the town of Villa Hidalgo Yalálag—the place where my own husband was born—and experiences the Fiesta de San Antonio de Padua, a celebration honoring Saint Anthony, the patron of lost things or people. There, she learns to value the beauty and uniqueness of the indigenous Zapotec culture.
Recently, with the Covid-19 pandemic, our lives have changed drastically. At least for now, all travel plans have been put on hold while we practice social distancing. But being homebound doesn’t mean we can’t travel in our minds. Just like that little girl who was able to travel the world just by opening a book, so can you. If nothing else, reading about Oaxaca will help you pass the time until traveling there is an option again.
In the meantime, try to imagine the vibrant color, sounds and tastes that Oaxaca offers us, even if temporarily, it’s only in our imaginations.
Maybe think about how delicious that mole negro will taste when you actually get to Oaxaca someday. I guarantee that it will be worth the wait.
Jessica Winters Mireles
Born and raised in Santa Barbara, California, JESSICA WINTERS MIRELES holds a degree in piano performance from USC. After graduating, she began her career as a piano teacher and performer. Four children and a studio of more than forty piano students later, Jessica’s life changed drastically when her youngest daughter was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of two; she soon decided that life was too short to give up on her dreams of becoming a writer, and after five years of carving out some time each day from her busy schedule, she finished LOST IN OAXACA. Jessica’s work has been published in GreenPrints and Mothering magazines. She also knows quite a bit about Oaxaca, as her husband is an indigenous Zapotec man from the highlands of Oaxaca and is a great source of inspiration. She lives with her husband and family in Santa Barbara, California.
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