I Heart Mexico

An Angeleno longs for the simple life of Culiacan


The sun glows like a midnight star but a billion times brighter. The rays of light sink into your skin as a golden tan awaits. The trees whisper as the breeze rustles the leaves. The hills are lush and green and the oceans are crystal blue. The dazzling city lights create a pathway through the city and every restaurant sign welcomes you in. This could easily describe Southern California, but I’m talking about Culiacan, Sinaloa, a city 1,142 miles south of Los Angeles. It is what I consider my second home; the birthplace of my mother, Adriana.

My mom, now 50, left Mexico for the states in her early 20s and settled in Los Angeles where she worked in a factory. She married my father, Nelson, a construction worker from Columbia who moved to the states when he was a little boy. Both have adapted well to American life and they love Southern California. I love it here too, but I long for the the laid back and simple lifestyle of Culiacan. We travel to Culiacan as often as we can to see family, but it is never enough for me. From the moment I walk off the plane and step foot in Culiacan, life feels different. Everything is different.

My mother taught me early on that I am American, but I am also Mexican. This culture is deep rooted and I connect to it on a much stronger level than I do in the United States.

Culiacan has population of 2,608,442 and is a famous destination for Mexicans, but not for the rest of the world. It is a place many call the drug capital of Mexico and a home to drug lords; a place where violence has risen in the last years and corruption is at its peak. I find contradiction in these statements because our family who live in Culiacan feel safe. When I travel there, I have never once felt afraid or threatened. Maria Fernanda Garcia, a 22-year-old radiology technician, grew up and lived in Culiacan for 18 years. She disagreed with reports of Culiacan being unsafe and said that crime is inevitable no matter where you go, but some places just hide it better. “Culiacan is a good place to live and raise a family, but honestly, the media exaggerates everything. It’s truly not bad,” Garcia said.

The city of Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico

Culiacan is located right in the center of the state of Sinaloa in Mexico. Humaya and Culiacan are the principal flowing rivers that travel across the city. The waters these rivers provide give a beautiful ecological environment along its banks. This is why Culiacan is known as the “Garden City of Mexico.” The city also has astonishing beaches like Las Playas de Ponce, Las Arenitas, Cospita, El Conchal, and La Puntilla.

Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico.

The rural side of Culiacan has traditional archeological sites and dams where locals go canoeing, water skiing, and fishing. Sinaloa lives for its agricultural production. They are the number one state that produces rice, vegetables, wheat, beans, garbanzo, sugar canes, and fruit. The immense market place in the center of Culiacan holds all of Sinaloa’s fine products. This is the one place you will encounter quality goods.

Over the past twenty years, I have traveled often to Culiacan, and each visit leaves me breathless. I live in California, a state known for its sandy beaches, mountains, deserts, lakes, vineyards, and beauty. The weather is the best in the world and every young artist dreams of visiting the entertainment capital that is only 30 minutes away from my home. America, to some, means success, and California is majestic, but many citizens of the United States lack humanity. We dwell on what we have and complain over things we don’t have. We do not find comfort in strangers and often avoid eye contact. The people in Culiacan know what it is like to have nothing; to suffer and live a simple life, but they do so with a smile on their faces. They welcome strangers. My mother describes her home town as a city of love.

“Culiacan is special to me because it is the place I was born in. My entire family lives there and it is a city with people filled with love. People that can capture your heart. It truly is amazing,” Adriana Casas said.

Culiacan may not be as luxurious as Los Angeles, but the souls of the people who live there can be felt in the communities. Every step taken offers a chance to meet someone new. The people of Culiacan are passionate and enjoy good times. They are a traditional group with Catholic roots. They are distinct from people you would run into in Mexico City or Los Angeles, where everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere.

Candy at the quinceañera party.

And Culicans love a good party. There is a celebration for everything, from Dia de los maestros (Day of the Teacher) to Dia de los Ninos (Day of the Children), and of course Dia de los muertos (Day of the Dead) Birthdays, holidays, and everything in between is celebrated.

Cakes at the quinceañera party.

I remember at 17 attending my cousin’s quinceañera, a right of passage when a girl turns 15, that is marked with a huge cultural celebration. Although we have quinceañeras in Los Angeles, the celebrations are not the same. In Los Angeles, too much emphasis is put on the party itself. In Mexico, the party’s sole purpose is to make every guest have a memorable experience. I was a high school student and all I knew was the typical house party thrown by every stud in the school. At these parties, everyone played beer pong, got drunk, and smoked weed. I was never fond of those parties, and as I observed this quinceañera, I realized that American teenagers have lost all innocence and cannot have fun without losing themselves in a substance. This party had a live band, candy and junk food laid out in every corner, clowns on stilts who gave out hats and sunglasses, and a dance floor filled with joyous people. Most importantly, family and friends were by each other’s sides.

Garcia, who currently lives in Pachuca, Mexico, misses Culiacan, a city she calls “magnificent.” In the Spring of 2013, Garcia moved to Los Angeles to attend Mt. San Antonio College and study English, and although she said it was one the best experiences of her life, the people in America were quite different. “They obviously don’t have the same traditions as I do and they were also very harsh. They are too serious and spend too much time working and not enough time enjoying life.”

Cholorio, fried pulled pork.

While Culican’s lifestyle is like no other I’ve experienced, the food is some of the best I’ve had. In the United States, Mexican food is very different. Los Angeles is known for its Mexican food, but it is nothing like authentic Mexican cuisine. Culican is famous for its fresh seafood, regional recipes, and a few special dishes that are custom to the area. One of my favorites is Chilorio, a dish that consists of fried pulled pork cooked with distinct spices. It is eaten with eggs, in tacos, with potatoes or vegetables, and often with homemade tortillas. Machaca, another favorite dish, is made with sun dried shredded beef or pork and sauteed with onions and serrano chili peppers, eggs, fresh salsa and homemade flour tortillas and refried beans.

Carne en su jugo, or meat in its juices, served alongside fresh tortillas.

Carne en su jugo (meat in its juices) is a bean soup with serrano chilis, cilantro, bacon, garlic, onions and spices. It is topped with radishes and eaten with lemon and fresh tortillas. The seafood is fresh and local, with shrimp a main ingredient in popular dishes like agua chile, a recipe that consists of raw shrimp, cucumbers, red onion, seranno chiles, lime juice and water. As for drinking, the culiacans love their Coke. For anyone who has never tasted a real Mexican Coke, it is nothing like the Coca Cola you drink in America. It is made with real cane sugar and served in glass bottles. It is served at any time of day, and even eaten with bread at breakfast. Beer and tequila are very popular, and most celebrations will have both on hand.

Churros filled with cajeta.

And then there’s the sweets.

Jamoncillos are milk candies with a pecan on top and are made locally. They are soft and sweet. The churros, a warm fried stick donut with powdered sugar are sometimes filled with cajeta, a thickened caramel syrup. These churros are to die for and sold on every corner. You can also grab a raspado, shaved ice made with real fresh fruit.

So what makes life in Culican so special? Every day I wake up in Los Angeles as if a bulldozer has knocked me out. I rarely wake up happy, and always feel a load on my shoulders that seems to never go away. The same routine day after day can be a tortuous battle. We are no longer are spontaneous human beings. Well at least I’m not. We are so overwhelmed and have lost sight of what is important. “I’m busy” has become an overused phrase. Things like social media, gaming, and work in general is now our priority. But not in Culiacan. The people there make time for everyone and everything and they are never too busy. They do not wait until tomorrow because they know they may not have one.

Daney Casas, 17, Culiacan, December 2011

I walk around school with a shield; the same shield that a lot of people my age wear. I put on this character and act like someone I’m not just to protect my own emotions. I feel as though if I don’t act this way, people will see that I am weak and shut me out. Culiacan humbles me and makes me feel like a real human being with a purpose in life.

I miss walking down the street to buy a raspado or a bag of churros. I miss the mass variety of greasy tacos on every corner with the delicious guacamole and salsa on top. I miss the endless rich and flavorful food choices my grandmothers make; the fresh bread that melts in your mouth. I miss the hospitality. I miss the gatherings with family and friends where the night is young and we dance and sing until the break of dawn. I miss the friendliness that is ignited by the people. I miss having the freedom to do as I please and not be judged. I wish life could be more simple.

I took my last visit to Culiacan three years ago and the plane ride back “home” was devastating. There was pain in my heart and a waterfall of tears. I knew I would not be back for a very long time. As I plan for my next visit in spring, I dream of Culiacan. Maybe one day I will pack up my life and move there once and for all. Until then, Culican will remain in my dreams and I will keep yearning for the real place I call home.

Substance is a publication of the Mt. San Antonio College Journalism Program. The program recently moved its newsroom over to Medium as part of a one-year experiment. Read about it here.