Through the predawn fog, a barely visible gate opens into a field of soft earth, where the scents of hay and manure give way to a distant banter. It’s 5:30 a.m., but it sounds like the party has already begun in Avocado Heights, a community less than 20 miles east of Downtown LA next to the City of Industry. Men dressed in cowboy hats, puffy vests called chalecos, Pendleton jackets, and hoodies take swigs from jarros de barro, large clay mugs loaded with a beverage called pajaretes. Tinted with cocoa powder and coffee, plus a splash of 96 percent sugar cane alcohol, the cup is passed to a milker who pulls thick streams of raw milk, called leche bronca, from a cow or goat, unleashing white plumes of steam in the morning air and mixing the ingredients into a warm, frothy drink.
Pajaretes, the name of the spiked hot chocolate as well as the gathering itself, is a morning ritual for countless farm workers, ranchers, construction workers, and laborers across Southern California. The gatherings originated in the states of Jalisco, Colima, Nayarit, and Michoacán, but they’re now a common scene that takes place all week long in ranching or semirural areas like Chino, Muscoy, Victorville, Palmdale, and even in the city of Compton. For Angelenos, the drinks are a warm cupful of nostalgia reaching the next generation of Mexican Americans who are hungry for a taste of the quieter rancho life that their parents and grandparents might have lived. They’re also a complete breakfast loaded with vitamins, probiotics, and good cholesterol, a pick-me-up before a long day working under the hot sun.