The first time I heard an indigenous Zapotec dialect, it wasn’t in Mexico; I was in Los Angeles. It was the summer before I began my senior year at USC, and I’d landed a waitressing job at an upscale hamburger restaurant in Santa Monica. Semi-fluent in high-school Spanish, I became friendly with the kitchen staff, all of whom were from the same region in southern Mexico. One afternoon, I was intrigued to hear two busboys having a conversation in a language I had never heard before. To me — a piano performance major — the rise and fall of their spoken phrases sounded like a lyrical music. I learned they were speaking a Zapotec dialect from their hometown in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Growing up in my bubble of white privilege in Santa Barbara, California, I hadn’t had much exposure to the culture of Mexico, other than a quick Spring Break trip as a teenager to the tourist towns of Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta. I’m ashamed to admit that as an almost college graduate, I had never even heard of Oaxaca, nor did I have any idea that there were large groups of indigenous people there, many of whom had migrated to the greater Los Angeles area.
Almost two years later, I married a line cook whom I met and fell in love with at that very restaurant — also an indigenous man from the highlands of Oaxaca — who spoke his own Zapotec dialect. He introduced me to the enchanting culture of Oaxaca, first in L.A., then during our honeymoon trip to his homeland. It’s only fitting that after 30 years of marriage, four children, and a career in music, that my novel Lost in Oaxaca would be about a piano teacher who travels to Oaxaca in search of her missing piano student.
The experiences of my protagonist, Camille, are basically drawn from my own travels in Oaxaca. The setting of the opening chapter takes place in the mountains, when Camille is stuck on a bus during a monsoonal thunderstorm. My husband and I actually traveled to his hometown of Villa Hidalgo Yalálag on a similar bus, although luckily for us, it wasn’t raining at the time. But the trip was arduous, at least for me, as we bounced along for six hours on a ramshackle diesel bus high up into the mountains. The road was unpaved at the time, with numerous switchbacks and no guardrails to protect the bus from flying off a steep cliff. I was a nervous wreck, but my husband was in his element—happily riding on top of the bus with his paisanos and several wooden crates of clucking chickens.
A tropical climate is what comes to mind when thinking of Mexico, so I was surprised how much the highlands of Oaxaca reminded me of the Rocky Mountains. With the crisp mountain air, towering pine trees, and delicate wildflowers dotting the green hillsides, it was almost like being in Aspen, Colorado in the summer. We stopped in a small town called Cuajimoloyas where, at over ten thousand feet above sea level, the temperature was in the low 40s. No matter — we were immediately ushered into a delightful little café and warmed up by one of the most delicious culinary delights of my life — a bowl of caldo de pollo — a rich, savory chicken broth simmered with regional vegetables, including chayote, a light-green squash native to the region. Accompanying the soup were fresh homemade corn tortillas, black beans, and fresh queso Oaxaqueño — a ball of white, mozzarella-like cheese that is peeled off in strips and then drizzled with salsa and wrapped up in a crispy tortilla. We topped it all off with cups of hot Oaxacan chocolate served in glazed pottery bowls and whipped into a delicious frothiness by a handheld blender called a molinillo. It’s not a surprise that every little detail of that unforgettable lunch went into a scene in my novel.
In fact, during the time I wrote Lost in Oaxaca, I never once lacked for ideas or descriptions because Oaxaca’s diverse culture has so much to offer me as a writer. With its marvelous cuisine, talented local artisans, incredible Spanish colonial architecture, and archeological ruins, it’s no wonder that writers flock there to get their creative juices flowing. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the lovely people of Oaxaca, who are some of the kindest and most generous souls on the planet.
I believe that authentic stories come from real life. As writers, we spin our experiences into a narrative that might be more vivid and condensed than our own lives, but genuine nonetheless. I’ve been fortunate that I married into a culture that has allowed me a view into a world that I might not have otherwise experienced. My hope is that through my novel, I can take my readers on an adventure to Oaxaca, so that they might learn to love and appreciate it as much as I do.
And perhaps even get lost in Oaxaca themselves.
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 40 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 her dream 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 lives with her husband — an indigenous Zapotec from the highlands of Oaxaca — and family in Santa Barbara, California. Her website is jessicawintersmireles.com