In the late summer and early fall of 2020, I spent nearly two months traveling up and down the state in search of California’s Barbacoa Trail, a concrete patchwork of undisclosed pits and distinct communities linked by heritage and fire. Through a collection of restaurants, street stands, food trucks, and residential backyards, I explored the state’s diverse regional styles of Mexico’s pit-roasted meat tradition known as barbacoa. Preparations vary by meat (usually goat or lamb), seasonings, and — just as importantly — a panoply of accompanying dishes. While most of these operations are open to the public, they are built to primarily feed their communities, and some remain politely closed to outsiders. If you long to follow the trail yourself, be respectful of these communities and their traditions. And come hungry.
Heading north from LA on the 101 through Oxnard, toward Santa Barbara County, you’d have to work hard to miss the rows of crouched-over farmworkers scattered in the strawberry fields that line the 30-mile stretch of highway known as the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail. Covered head to toe in light fabric to protect them from the California sun, the workers seem a stark contrast to much of today’s Santa Maria Valley, largely a post-Sideways bacchanalia of wine tasting and bachelorette getaways set against postcard panoramas of the rolling San Rafael Mountains.
But — as is the case with so much of the California fantasy — every sip and swirl of a wine-fueled adventure here is sustained by workers, many of them migrants, hidden in plain view behind the breathtaking scenery and pinot noir buzz. Close to 90 percent of California’s Indigenous farmworkers are from one of the three Indigenous populations found in the Mexican state of Oaxaca: Mixteco, Zapoteco, and Triqui. In the Santa Maria wine country, a full 50 percent of the workers are from Mixteco, mostly from Oaxaca. Oaxacans have a long history of migration to the US, beginning with the Bracero program — which granted temporary work contracts to several million Mexican laborers between 1942 and 1964 — then as farmworkers and day laborers from the ’70s through the ’90s, accelerated by the Mexican economic crisis of 1994 and the critical devaluation of the peso. In Oaxaca, it was mostly Indigenous Mixtecos who fled Mexico’s third poorest state for the agricultural valleys of California.
Today, thousands of miles from home, they survive each day on a variety of Mixteco recipes they brought with them. The traditional food of Oaxaca’s rural Mixteco villages is vastly different from what you’ll find in the Valles Centrales, home to Oaxaca City and the region of Oaxaca best known by Americans — and most Mexicans, for that matter. Mixteco cooking doesn’t include some of Oaxaca’s greatest hits, like the chocolate-tinged mole negro or crisp, meat-laden tlayudas. Instead, in and around the Mixteco hub of Huajuapan de León and the clusters of smaller pueblos mixtecos, you’ll find a broad variety of recipes that rarely ever travel beyond their borders. Visit five towns and you’ll get five different, entirely distinct cuisines, rarely documented, that would seem as foreign to Mixtecos in other communities as they are to non-Mexicans.
One of those preparations is yique (often spelled yikin on Califrornia’s Central Coast), and it’s the thing I’ve found myself driving 200 miles north from LA for. Yique is the central dish in the Mixteco form of pit-roasted, whole-animal barbacoa, traditionally made with goat or sometimes lamb. The preparation of the meat itself isn’t altogether different from the barbacoa techniques you’ll find throughout other parts of Mexico, though Mixtecos often use avocado leaves along with maguey leaves to line the pit. What is uniquely distinct about barbacoa mixteca is its presentation: The meat comes heaped over a thick, chile-rich, porridge-like stew of broken corn — the yique, or masita (Spanish spelling) — that’s also cooked in the pit in a large pot. It’s a luscious fleshy gathering of pit-roasted lamb spooned over the corn mush, along with thick blood pudding (sangre) and pieces of lamb offal, in more elaborate spreads. Consomé, the ubiquitous broth made from drippings that’s a staple in other barbacoa styles, is a luxury, if present at all.
Yique, and Mixteco barbacoa as a whole, are the type of recipes that are nearly impossible to find outside Oaxaca’s Mixteca region but have become a staple of life in the agricultural communities of California’s Santa Maria valley. Maintaining this type of culinary tradition far from home is a way for Mixteco immigrants to stay connected to their land and history. And for Mixtecos born in California, foods like yique provide a potent taste of their heritage.
Within the area’s roving farm labor camps, Mixteco cooking has served an even bigger purpose: It emerged as a literal life saver during the COVID-19 pandemic, which ravaged these vulnerable communities due to a lack of PPE, workplace protections, and access to public health information in their languages. Without much external aid, any ways for the community to be self-sustaining — including feeding itself — is a powerful means of survival.
In the political arena, the Mixteco labor camps were repeated targets of former President Trump’s xeonophic rhetoric, ICE raids, and the subsequent rise in anti-immigrant violence and harassment. Yet we cheer them on as the unseen heroes of the United Farm Worker videos, risking themselves and their families to get us our $40 seasonal CSA produce boxes on time. But it is also within these labor camps that Mixteco recipes like yique get shared with workers from other Indigeous populations from Mexico — a phenomenon that has birthed an entirely new collection of hybridized dishes that you’ll find only here, in the orchards and farm rows of California, known as the “salad bowl of the world.”
The first stop on my quest for yique and Mixteco barbacoa is the Santa Maria backyard of Candelaria Bautista, a retired farmworker and traditional cook from the Oaxacan town of San Juan Mixtepec.
Barbacoa is early weekend morning fare, and in the crisp air my breath clouds mingle with plumes of oily, lamb-scented steam escaping from the underground brick-lined pit as the plywood lid, insulated with plastic, is finally cracked open. I’ve been fortunate in my time to have witnessed the unearthing of many barbacoa pits, but nothing quite like this.
Inside is an elegant geometric overlapping of adobo-stained lamb parts, white bones protruding through the broken-down flesh, covered in a pile of avocado leaves. This is barbacoa mixteca, and Candelaria Bautista, the cook and family matriarch, joins her husband, Francisco, in carefully removing the wet leaves from the lamb carcass one at a time, stacked on grates covering something wonderful. The Bautistas, both retired from the farm labor camps, are full of life this morning, their spirits lightened by a labor of love as they reveal their masterpiece. Beneath the pile of roasted meats are four round pots, two of them bubbling cauldrons of rose- and cherry-hued liquids, emitting the signature dried-fruit scent of chiles secos, swelled by broken corn, the yique. The smaller pots hold murkier stocks, one brown consomé, the other a dark stew of loose blood sausage, with a whole lamb stomach floating on top stuffed with other bits of offal, called tsiti nií, which means stomach blood.
Candelaria attends to all things at once, helping her husband load the large lamb cuts into an Igloo cooler, running into the kitchen for paper plates, then darting back out to tend to her mole. Finally she opens precisely on time, 8:30 a.m., and spends the next four hours giving each of her nearly 100 customers, most from different parts of Mexico, her undivided attention.
“She has the flavor of our land,” says Jesus, a young mixteco who waits patiently in line along with his girlfriend, Nayeli, whose family is from Santiago Juxtlahuaca. “Besides the great food, it’s important to preserve our heritage. We bring our children, too, so they’ll know.” Meanwhile, a pair of farmworkers who’d arrived even before the place opened head off to the fields with their order: a large Styrofoam cup of pozole and a pile of juicy lamb barbacoa tacos made with flour tortillas, wrapped in foil, then slid into a white plastic bag.
“There’s no hello and goodbye in the Mixteco language,” says Claudio Hernandez, the Mixteco office manager at CIELO (Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo), a nonprofit fighting for social justice and Indigenous rights. Instead, the typical salutation is “yeu,” a word that’s nearly impossible to translate but means something like, “Is your presence here at home?” This sentiment of belonging feels particularly important here in the Santa Maria Valley — a place dominated by large-scale wineries like Firestone and Westerly, which donated to Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign, and local berry giant Driscoll’s, which has been embroiled in labor disputes with its largely Indigenous workers — and it echoes in the cold morning air as customers saunter into the Bautistas’ backyard.
“When I opened, I really just thought of our town [back in Oaxaca], but little by little, others have come,” says Candelaria. She dips a tasting spoon into the pot of the yique swimming with chunks of cracked corn, and smiles. “Perfect,” she says. There are no do-overs in barbacoa once the pit is covered, except for adjusting the salt, and on this morning she nailed it all: the yique, the moronga, and the consomé made with the drippings from the barbacoa pit, all of which require precise measurements before covering the earthen cavity. The supple meat is perfumed with adobo, a marinade of chile, spices, and acid, and spooned on top of a bowl of the spicy yique, followed by clumps of brightly herbed moronga and snappy pieces of tripe.
Tortillas are served alongside, of course, but these are unlike anything you’d find in Oaxaca: thick, ruddy discs made of wheat flour, not corn masa, a practical permutation that’s unique to the farm labor camps throughout California, Sinaloa, and Baja. Because while all of this food is delicious and soul warming and an important means of cultural preservation, its primary purpose here is fuel for a hard day’s work. Flour tortillas, it turns out, last longer in the fields, and are beloved by Mixtecos for their flavor.
One hundred miles south of Santa Maria is the city of Oxnard, known for wide beaches and rolling strawberry fields with views of the Channel Islands.
Here, from her small backyard, Isabel Vásquez and her family sell Styrofoam cups of yique filled with pit-roasted goat barbacoa and handmade flour tortillas for the farmworkers out picking berries, hungry for sustenance and a taste of home.
Cooking barbacoa takes time, a scarce resource for most hardworking Mixtecos, so when they do it, it’s an event. The evening before service, the Vásquez family’s backyard looks like an archaeological dig, as six family members swiftly load the pit while the soaring Mixteco harmonies of Dueto Dos Rosas wail in the background. First, they hoist the pot of yique onto a rock that’s set over red-hot mesquite coals at the bottom of the pit. The opening is lined with maguey leaves, which protrude out of the square brick-lined hole. They use avocado leaves to fill in the area around the pot, forming a base for another pan of offal and large cuts of goat. The final touch: a whole side of goat ribs and a leg that functions as a lid for the giant pot of yique. The pit is covered with large pieces of cardboard, a length of particleboard, and a blue tarp, which is quickly piled with a large mound of loose dirt to seal and insulate the pit.
All in all, the pit-loading process takes less than 10 minutes, though the cook will take eight hours. The next day, Sunday, I arrived just in time to grab a 32-ounce cup of yique with strips of moist goat meat and a dozen tortillas de harina Mixtecas, or flour tortillas. Oaxaca is staunch corn country, so the presence of flour tortillas with the yique and barbacoa here struck me as remarkable. But practicality often trumps tradition. While working their way through the farm labor camps in Sinaloa, Mixtecos learned not only how tortillas made with wheat flour hold up longer in the fields, but that they can be made with ingredients that are more affordable and often more accessible stateside.
“I learned how to make flour tortillas from other workers at Rancho Los Pinos and Rancho La Choya in San Quintín,” says Nieves Guevara, an Oxnard farmworker from Metlatónoc, Guerrero. I stopped at her home as a last meal on my way back to LA and found some of the best flour tortillas I’ve ever had. Guevara also makes yique and a handful of other Mixteco specialties during her off time to feed herself and her fellow workers. “The flour tortilla is a better-quality tortilla for our tacos. I bring three: one for the morning filled with rice and beans or a stew, one for lunch, and one more to give to my friend. We trade food.”
They trade more than that. These farm camps have become a culinary crossroads of dishes and traditions, a trading ground between mixtecos and other Indigenous groups — zapotecos, triquis, mixes, maya — working in the same camp. The Mixteco taco, with goat barbacoa meat rolled in large flour tortillas, is likely the iconic dish of this part of California, a powerful symbol of Indigenous resistance, built to withstand assimilation and 10-hour days in the fields. I bought three from Guevera to take home, and they were gone before I hit the 405 an hour later.
When I finally get back to LA, I immediately place the half dozen flour tortillas left from this leg of the journey in the freezer. Glancing at the produce in my crisper drawer, neglected from my time on the road, I think about the Mixteco workers who likely picked it, people like Candelaria Bautista and her husband, who’ve spent decades following the seasonal work from Sinaloa to San Quentín to Santa Maria until their backs gave out. Now settled thousands of miles from their homes, they make world-class barbacoa on weekends for extra money, but more importantly, to honor their ancestry.
Bill Esparza is a James Beard Award-winning writer and author of LA Mexicano.