Growing up in Oaxaca, Mexico, Bricia Lopez spent her days indulging in regional dishes cooked by her mother and grandmother, who she describes as the “the best cooks ever.” But when her family migrated to Los Angeles, Lopez was exposed to a food landscape that was very different from all she knew. “I [didn’t have] McDonald’s until I was 10 years old. I never tasted a hamburger until I was 8. All those things were very foreign to me,” Lopez told LATINA.
As a way to preserve their culture and secure a future for their family, Lopez’ parents opened a Oaxacan restaurant, Guelaguetza, nested in a traditional Korean building on the outskirts of L.A.’s Koreatown. The establishment soon became a popular destination for Oaxacan cuisine, but when the 2008 financial crisis hit, Lopez’ parents were forced to consider shutting Guelaguetza down.
Lopez grilling tortillas. Photographed by Aaron Pinkston.
Fearing to see it all gone, Lopez and her siblings Fernando and Paulina stepped in and took over the restaurant’s management — and they still run it to this day. “Growing up in the restaurant, seeing how much work my parents put into it, and then one day being faced with the possibility that it was all going to be gone and we all [might have] to go and find another career was scarier than taking on a failing business,” Lopez said.
The trio managed to revive the business and have since won multiple awards, including the James Beard Classics Award in 2015, an award given to “locally owned restaurants that have timeless appeal and are beloved regionally for quality food that reflects the character of its community.” But Lopez hadn’t always imagined her life to take this path. “I never really wanted to do the restaurant thing because I know how difficult the industry is,” she says, “but as I got older, I didn’t see it as a job, I saw it as a calling to really champion my culture.”
Fernando Sr. in front of the original Guelaguetza location in L.A.’s Koreatown.
In terms of what’s next for Lopez, she’s excited to take over the main stage at the LA Times Food Bowl for their Fiesta Friday on September 22, where she will do a cooking demo of memelas. Guelaguetza will also be present serving their famous mole negro with rice and micheladas in the VIP booth. “We’ll have all the things I love in one night, I’m super excited to be able to represent.”
Alejandra Arevalo is a Peruvian multimedia journalist based in New York covering the music industry at Chartmetric.