The boat ride from El Zapotalito across the lagoon to Chacahua is breathtaking, framed by the shade of mangroves, fragmenting a clear blue sky and hazy golden rays of sunlight. Arriving at the home of Ines Serrano Mendes, I found her resting on a hammock. In this part of Oaxaca — the Costa Chica, south of the Sierra Sur mountains and on the Pacific Coast — a colorful nylon hammock mounted in the shade with a fan pointed right at you is the only respite from the heat.
The restaurant that made Serrano Mendes’s name does not have one itself. Located on the front patio of her home, under a palapa awning, is a single picnic table in front of a wooden bar with a home kitchen stove. By special request that day, she serves mole de pescado and mole de camarón, both made with a blend of chiles guajillos and chiles costeños — a thick, smoky, hickory mole of charred chiles that deeply penetrates the accompanying dried shrimp. The mole de pescado contains some tomato, giving it a more stew-like consistency, rich with fish oils from a boiled snook head, while her blissfully smoky mole de camarón leaves a stinging, briny balm of dried fruit that lingers and intensifies with each bite. Both were spicier than any I’d tried on my many trips to the Valles Centrales, Oaxaca’s Central Valley region, which includes Oaxaca City and is the origin of the Oaxacan foods most people are familiar with. “People don’t know how good moles can be until they’ve tasted our moles,” Serrano Mendes, a traditional Afromexicana cook, said of the Costa Chica’s unique cuisine.
Afromexicanos — Mexicans with African ancestry — make up just 2 percent of the country’s overall population. In the 16th and 17th centuries, more than 200,000 enslaved Africans were brought to Mexico against their will, forced to work on ranches, on sugar plantations, and in silver mines. While some were brought to Oaxaca, cimarrones (escaped slaves) who journeyed to the Costa Chica to hide in the inhospitable, unbearably hot land came to make up most of the region’s Afromexicano population; by the 18th century, pueblos Afromexicanos spanned the coast from just west of the city of Puerto Escondido to far past the border of the state of Guerrero, where lies the Costa Chica of Guerrero.
For generations, Afromexicano communities fished, gathered tichindas (mangrove mussels), and cultivated old-world staples in the tropical climate like plantains, melons, mangoes, and coconuts alongside local pineapples and papaya. The resulting cuisine is a singular mix of Indigenous Oaxacan and African ingredients and techniques based on seafood, game meat (including deer, iguanas, and opossum), chiles, beans, maize, and foraged ingredients. Afromexicano cuisine is bold, spicy moles served with fish heads and shrimp in Chacahua; mole with pork cheeks and mashed plantains with beef soup in Cuajinicuilapa; rich stews of beef barbacoa and red-hot tamales in Collantes; pork in green chiles and tamales de tichinda on the beaches of Corralero. It’s opossum in chileajo (toasted chiles and garlic stew) in Armenta and pescado a la talla (barbecued fish) in El Zapotalito; it’s mussel and iguana tamales in Rio Grande.
If Oaxaca’s notoriety is in part due to its delicious, complex moles, the Costa Chica is the most distinctive food region in the southern state, if not in all of Mexico. But a long history of erasure and hostility toward Mexico’s Black citizens means that among the many Mexicans, international visitors, curious chefs (not to mention food media) who flock to Oaxaca, there’s ne’er a mention of Afromexicano cuisine in glossy food publications or at Mexico’s grandest culinary events. But after my four days of eating delicious meals in Afromexicano towns and meeting their proud cooks, it’s clear that Afromexicano cuisine deserves its place on the sumptuous Oaxacan table — and in its unrivaled anthology of Indigenous recipes.
When someone speaks of Oaxacan cuisine, what they typically imagine is the food of a traditional Indigenous cook like the international star Abigail Mendoza Ruiz, a Zapoteca chef who has showcased her Valles Centrales moles, seguezas (soups made with toasted broken corn), and nicuatole (a gelatinous corn-based dessert) for TV shows like CNN’s Parts Unknown. For most tourists, a Sunday at the Mercado de Tlacolula spent sampling steaming bowls of goat barbacoa served by Zapoteca women donning aprons stained with adobo, browsing smoky aisles of grilled meats, and sipping hand-stirred tejate, a Valles Centrales drink of masa and cacao, serves as an outline for Oaxacan gastronomy. Missing from this picture are Black women cooking seafood tamales in red masa that’s blended with spicy red chiles; fiery moles served with mangrove mussels, armadillo, and the catch of the day; crabs cooked in a black bean paste; and mashed plantains paired with beef bone soup.
“Mexico is a racist country,” said Anai Herrera Hernandez, a lawyer for Lawyers and Promoters of Indigenous and Afromexican Rights in Pinotepa Principal. “It’s based on skin color, so it is worse for us Afromexicanos… We don’t see ourselves in Congress, we don’t have representatives from our community, we don’t see soccer players from our community on TV, and we are not on food television.”
Afromexicano communities have remained fairly insular since their founding due to centuries of oppression and widespread anti-Black racism in Mexico. Outside of the pueblos, institutional, structural, and individual anti-Black racism is comparable to that in the United States: Afromexicanos suffer discrimination in Mexican courts and at police checkpoints; in the job market, where they’re underpaid and offered only low-paying jobs; in access to housing; and in freedom of movement. Violence is common with no legal recourse, and Black women are especially vulnerable; Mexico has a historic femicide problem that has drawn international attention — in 2021, 966 women were murdered in Mexico — and studies have shown that the majority of these murders are racialized, with the Indigenous and Afromexicanos having the highest rate of murder.
Afromexicanos were added to the Mexican constitution and recognized “as part of the multicultural composition of Mexico” only in 2020, finally granting them — at least on paper — basic rights and opportunities that belong to every Mexican citizen, such as government benefits and the ability to seek office. Still, even today, Afromexicanos with deep roots in the country are subject to threats of detention and deportation. A surge of Haitian, African, and Central American Latinx (of African descent) immigrants and refugees arriving in recent years has only fueled anti-Black racism, with a wave of anti-Black protests against immigrants sweeping the country in recent years, set off by the xenophobia surrouding the 2018 Migrant Caravan.
As a result, there have been few economic opportunities for Afromexicanos, even in their native Costa Chica, which is home to resort-ridden Puerto Escondido, where luxury lodgings can cost well over $200 a night. Hotels don’t hire Afromexicanos to work the front desk, and while travelers to the region can sign up through the hotels and many tourist kiosks for day trips to bioluminescent lagoons or to release endangered turtles into the sea, virtually no one offers opportunities to explore the area’s Afromexicano communities, culture, or cuisine. Since locals are largely shut out of the region’s biggest economic engine, there’s little work for them outside of farming in enclosed economies, harvesting papaya, mangoes, or corn for barely more than $10 a day. “People here work 12 hours in the heat and only come home with $250 [pesos],” said Arthur Santos, our photographer and travel buddy for this story, himself an Afromexicano.
Some hope that this will change when a new superhighway opens this year and just a few hours’ drive will separate Costa Chica from Oaxaca City, propelling regional tourism to unprecedented levels and fostering increased access to Afromexicano communities for both domestic and international tourists. Merced Rodriguez Lucero and Mohamed Molina, an activist Afromexicano couple a stone’s throw across the Guerreran border, see this as an opportunity to use food — along with dance, music, and culture — as a way to introduce Afromexicano culture to more Mexicans, allowing Afromexicanos to one day freely move about their home country without fear. “We are working on showing off our delicious food so that people will know about us,” said Rodriguez, a cook from Corralero, Oaxaca, who represented the Costa Chica at the 3rd Annual Encuentro de Cocineras Tradicionales Guerrero.
But Rodriguez and Molina find themselves frequently having to assert their place in conversations about Mexican cuisine, even locally. “There was one event [in Oaxaca] we did where a banner welcomed the Indigenous cooks, then they added ‘and Afromexicano cooks’ with a Sharpie,” said Molina.
In Rodriguez’s kitchen, an edible dissertation on Afromexicano gastronomy was revealed: She piled a bountiful table with a fiery mole de cabeza, or mole with pork cheeks made with chiles puya, criollo, and guajillo eaten with sliced squares of salty, squeaky queso de prensa, oozing with notes of charred fruit, and corn tortillas. Unlike the moles of the Valles Centrales — the famous mole negro, mole coloradito, and mole amarillo that lure travelers to Oaxaca — Costa Chica moles are typically bold with a spicy character. They pack lots of raw heat and are full of chiles, simply spiced with fewer ingredients, and proteins also make them locally unique: shrimp, fish heads, pork cheeks, tichindas, iguana, and armadillo.
There was caldo de hueso, a spicy beef bone soup eaten with a mash of sweet, boiled plantains, called machuco; small rounds of plantains are pinched away to dip into the soup, a practice that came from West Africa where fufu (mashed cassava) is similarly used. Rodriguez’s enchirmolado de marrano (pork in red salsa) tasted of classic Mexico — it’s found all over the country, but it’s notable in Oaxaca, where one would not expect to find so much chile in a dish.
The next morning, when we parked our rental car for the lagoon crossing to Chacahua, the simple pleasures of everyday seafood presented an even broader cuisine. At El Deposito Baradero in El Zapotalito, just across the street from the boat launch to Chacahua, Roberto Uriel Lugo and Leidy “Karen” Santiago serve tichindas foraged by locals from the shore’s endless mangroves, alongside affordable Coronas and Victorias. Seafood is the emblematic ingredient of the Costa Chica and its Afromexicano cuisine — think pescado a la talla, piña rellena de mariscos, and barbecued lobster in an Indigenous clay oven on the beach — but tichindas are king. Delicately briny, they’re earthy like mushrooms and ideal for using in a variety of recipes. Mole de tichindas, a dark mole of toasted chiles jam-packed with tichindas, is a typical dish served in Afromexicano homes; tamales de tichinda, made from masa mixed with adobo, brimming with tichindas in their shells, wrapped in corn husks, is the dish most likely to have broken through to outside familiarity in Mexico.
“I love to make food here from the region because it’s what I’m used to eating,” Santiago said as she popped the caps off of cold beers and served a plate of pasta de frijol con tichindas, ashy, viscous mussels coated in a glaze of bean powder, epazote, garlic, and onions. “Tichindas are great for ceviches, soups with whatever chiles I have, or chileatole (soups thickened with masa) with red chiles — everyone here has different recipes.”
It’s good form to loudly slurp the lightly pungent paste inside and outside the shell, chasing with sweet, garlicky mussels, using the emptied shells to scoop up the last traces of bean paste. At the end, there’s a pile of empty Coronas and mussels spread across the table.
In the Costa Chica, more formally guided day trips for nonresidents are nonexistent, so in the small town of Collantes, a pueblos Afromexicano eight miles inland from the coast, I’ve been instructed by Herrera, the lawyer, to find her uncle, a man named Andrés Gonzalez, though most people in town know him as Tio Maga. He’s everyone’s uncle. When I met him just before 9 in the morning, he was standing outside the school that serves the local population of 2,348: a handsome, fit, middle-aged man donning a worn safari Boonie hat, multi-terrain camo pattern, and strapped with an old machete. It was clear from the start that Tigo Maga would become the Winston Wolf of this story; he’s the town ringleader, the unofficial mayor who holds a self-made key to the city. “A woman is having a birthday party tonight, and you are all invited,” Maga said. “You just missed the butchering of a whole steer; do you want to see us make barbacoa?”
Tio Maga led us through town to meet the barbacoyero, Herminio Toscano. Toscano was loading a galvanized tub full of large beef cuts rubbed in adobo, then more adobo, until the meat was swimming in a spicy vat of oily, sangria-red stock flavored with bay leaves, cloves, oregano, and other spices. In both the Afromexicano regions of Oaxaca and Guerrero, barbacoa means the stew version made with whole steer, lamb, or pig, depending on the size of the wedding, party, or celebration. Sometimes wild animals are used — deer, opossum, armadillo — all cooked in a large pot over a wood fire. Tio Maga drew his machete to cut banana leaves to cover the meat, which was then sealed with a tarp and tied down by steel wire. It took five men to move the tub onto the fire, carefully shuffling across the patio, grunting and expelling air in high-pitched hisses in unison. “If it’s a smaller party, we’ll cook a lamb and sometimes half pork and half beef,” said Maga.
This style of barbacoa is one of the unique celebratory dishes of Costa Chica Afromexicano cooking — one that’s found only in the Costa Chica. In other parts of Mexico, barbacoa, which usually refers to pit-roasted meats, can also be a simple stove-top stew, but it is nothing like the elaborate, head-to-tail barbacoa de res that Afromexicanos prepare for the many milestones of their lives. (A more practical version is an everyday dish in homes, restaurants, and stands in the Costa Chica with a portion of chicken or beef, cooked in a pot for a tasty lunch.) The full-scale stew is made with a whole animal, simmered low and slow until the carcass and bones are cooked into an unbelievably rich stock.
Waiting for five hours for the barbacoa to cook is a convenient time to dig into some of the other local Afromexicano foods in Collantes. Deicidania Noyola Bustos and her partner, Maria Corro Lopez, run an all-day street-food stand 100 feet before the welcome banner to Collantes, as crafty as a Primm casino, erected just across the Nevada border. “This is our strategy to increase our sales — we are the first restaurant you see in town,” said Noyola Bustos, standing under a patio cover of aluminum siding while crimping the edges of a sope to warm on her clay comal mounted on an oil drum. Called memelas elsewhere in Oaxaca, Afromexicano sopes are filled with tomato sauce, crumbled queso de aro (a regional fresh cheese), and raw diced onions. Typically they’re topped with a raw, spicy salsa de molcajete and are lighter and fresher than memelas, which draw their richness from a fatty spread of asientos (unrefined lard) that’s representative of the Valles Centrales, as in other regions of Oaxaca.
In Collantes, like in most pueblos Afromexicano, people raise their own pigs, cattle, lambs, and chickens to sell or cook for a celebration after they slaughter them. They also grow vegetables and herbs to trade, cut young green coconuts off trees, fish, and dive for oysters and mussels. There’s no central market, so everyone just posts on Facebook when they harvest quelites (greens) or butcher an animal — or they roam the neighborhood with baskets of ingredients and cooked foods balanced on their heads to sell.
That day, a neighbor posted on Facebook that she had harvested a small crop of chepiles, edible leaves that look like baby spinach, so Concepcion Mariano Liborio, or Doña Concha, featured sopa de chepiles on the menu at her new restaurant. I found Doña Concha online; she’s one of the few Costa Chica cooks who welcomes social media to advertise her restaurant beyond her community — to Oaxacans from other parts of the state and international visitors. There’s no sign, but she has a brand-new kitchen, a fancy stainless steel refrigerator, and a long table on the porch for her clients. The chepiles are boiled in water with a little chile serrano and served with Mexican rice, queso de aro, and warm corn tortillas. There was a touch of fresh green chile, and the pungent soup took on layers of deliciousness, with fluffy, tangy rice and lightly salty cheese, a simple, pleasurable meal made on a budget during a difficult time. But Doña Concha has had some experience making it work with less.
“Good morning, Collantes, head to Doña Bonfilia’s house for tamales de mole con pollo, she has tamales today, delicious tamales, they’re ready, get your tamales,” said a booming voice on the town’s PA horn nearby. Doña Bonfilia Corcuera Melo was assembling tamales, spreading bright orange masa on a banana leaf that was stained by a mole made with chile puya and ancho inside of a cinder block prep kitchen in her front yard. Wearing an African head scarf with the colors of the Mexican flag, Doña Bonfilia exuded confidence, the kind that comes from being one of a few local cooks who gets her own ad broadcast all over town. “I’ve had nice moles in Oaxaca City, but they don’t have a lot of flavor,” said Doña Bonfilia, whose tamales of pure mole are hot enough to make one cry.
I wiped the sweat away, sniffling from the spicy tamal, and my gaze fixed on the proud display of the Mexican flag, part of a unifying theme of assimilation we’d heard about from many people in Collantes: Afromexicanos long to be recognized — but simply as Mexicans. The want for recognition without distinction from a community estranged from its own government is in seeming contrast to the goals of Oaxaca’s Indigenous groups who are fighting to preserve their traditional cultures. Both populations suffer from racism, are marginalized, and constantly fight erasure, but Indigeneous people, increasingly celebrated as the roots of traditional Mexican cuisine, identify first with their cultural group, then as Oaxacan — and not necessarily as Mexicans. “I just want to be able to go to Mexico City, the capital of my country, where I think it’s the most racist, and to just be Mexican,” said Luciano Bernal Vargas, an Afromexicano dancer and coconut seller in Collantes. “I am Mexican.”
Three hours later, as the hellish sun at long last relinquished its paralyzing grip on the town, we made our way back to La Cancha, the name locals call their outdoor multipurpose event space in the center of town. Upon arrival, we joined a dozen seated men drinking Coronas and Victorias in a circle, anticipating the arrival of Gudelia Mariche, who was turning 79, and finally the barbacoa. The first service began at a long banquet table where we were brought Styrofoam plates of beef barbacoa and the essential Afromexicano party combo: creamy “alfredo-like” pasta made by Rosalina Mariche Calan, using Barilla spaghetti in a sauce of homemade Mexican cream and local queso de aro, a runny salsa verde, and corn tortillas. The super-rich pasta and acid in the salsa are there to add tartness and fat to the beef stock — it all comes together in the corn tortilla. As for the barbacoa itself, the adobo simmering for hours with the beef stock yielded a translucent red, peppery beef stew rich in fat and with grassy undertones, enriched with cream sauce from the pasta, cut by acid from the salsa verde. The bite lingered on my palate like a smoky Mexican family reunion.
The hospitality — the sense of family, community, and traditional values often associated with Mexico — was alive at this humble town square in Collantes. “Anyone here would let you stay in their home, and they would sleep on the floor so you’d be comfortable,” said Tio Maga. This sentiment rang true on this night, where dear guests and welcomed strangers were embraced with the same cold bottles of beer, replenished before the last one emptied.
Within Costa Chica’s Afromexicano communities, elders have long taken on the work of passing down tradition. In Santo Domingo Armenta, 68 kilometers west of Collantes, Ofelia Torres Solis, a retired traditional cook renowned for her beef barbacoa, mentors other local cooks in the laborious process. “[The barbacoa] was our gift to the people,” Solis said, referring to herself and her late husband, who died 10 years ago. With his death, she retired from preparing the dish for local celebrations, but “now I just want to make sure the next generation gets to experience our food, the way it was before,” said Solis.
While Indigenous communities have protested the commercialization and appropriation of the official Guelaguetza — an annual Iindigenous cultural event — by the government, young Afromexicanos aspire to stand on stage to show people what they can do. For Solis’s grandson, Jason Bustos Salinas, his dream is to someday dance the Danza de Los Diablos in the state-sponsored Guelaguetza; Afromexicanos have been invited only once in its 70-plus-year history. An invitation to return on another occasion was hijacked by Pinotepa Principal, who sent Mixtecos to dance at the Guelaguetza in their place. Teary-eyed, the quiet, shy Bustos spoke of the time his dance group, Diablos Santodomingueños, had won a contest and their prize was given to another group. “It would be a beautiful thing to see our dancers from these towns participate in the Guelaguetza so they could see our talented people,” said Herrera.
Some are hopeful for incremental change. In 2016, a video of the Obatala dance group titled AfroMexicans: Dancing Their Way Back to Their Roots, went viral. The video featured Afromexicana dancers who had learned dances from northeast Africa by watching YouTube videos. “My time has passed, but I hope the younger generation gets to see themselves accepted as Mexicans,” said Solis. “To be seen.”
A nonstop journey of days and miles up Oaxaca’s Costa Chica revealed welcoming towns that took us beyond the comforts of Puerto Escondido and gave me cause to rethink Oaxacan cuisine. In a perfect world, Rodriguez’s dream of food acting as a gateway would lead to more recognition for Afromexicanos and their culinary traditions — because it’s in a class with the best Mexico has to offer. The moles made by Serrano Mendes in Chacahua, the tamales of Doña Bonfilia in Collantes, and the caldo de hueso by Rodriguez in Cuajinicuilapa are a paradigm shift for any conversation about Oaxacan food — these are big, spicy flavors that only make the case for Oaxacan preeminence more convincing. Here, lessons of a broader cuisine, based on foraged mussels, can be had at a beer deposit on the way to Chacahua or while watching the production of queso de aro and queso de prensa at Quesería Jimena. Or in the town square of Collantes, where Tio Maga and the people of his town embrace visitors like family, treating strangers to barbacoa de res at an intimate gathering.
During our last meal on the Costa Chica, on the El Zapotalito beach, Santos and I ate plump, tender pescado a la talla with refreshing Coronas in a hammock. It felt like a fitting place to end. “Why is our food so delicious?” asked Santos with a shrug. “Porque la Costa rifa!” Because the Coast rules.
Bill Esparza is a James Beard Award-winning writer and author of LA Mexicano, covering Latino food and culture. Arthur Santos is a photographer of Afromexican origin from Rio Grande, Oaxaca, who works to publicize the cultural diversity and natural beauty of the Costa Chica.