Amelia Moran Ceja

Jalisco, Mexico


I had the most idyllic childhood. I grew up in Jalisco, living on a farm owned by my maternal grandparents. On their farm there was no running water or electricity but I never missed it — or anything else — because I had everything I needed, meaning I felt so secure and protected by the love of my large, extended familia and their nurturing of my very independent spirit. In our house,  everyone supported each other, everyone was listened to — even me, the youngest grandchild. And every day growing up I saw the importance of being part of a warm, always supportive family.

In our household, everyone who is a cousin, whether its first, second or third, you’re still a first cousin. We don’t think in terms of how distant a family member is. We just want to take good care of everyone — and everyone around us too. That’s how I was raised. When I was growing up, my grandfather raised cows, goats, chickens,  pigs, lambs — all the protein we needed —  and my grandmother had an amazing organic garden, where she grew everything else we needed. So I was raised in a household where all of the ingredients for our meals came right from the harvest. As a result, my respect for food and where it comes from has been in my blood, in my DNA, since I was born. Today I understand why everything back then tasted so wonderful, and that experience was a perfect preparation for what I was to become.

As the youngest grandchild, when everyone else was in school or working on the farm, I had the privilege of hanging out with Mama Chepa, my grandmother, for the first five years of my life. She taught me so much. When I was first able to walk, she showed me how to go mushroom hunting. She would explain the aromas that we detected in the mushrooms, and she would help me identify different mushrooms by learning where they grew. With some, she would say, “Don’t pick it. It will hurt you.” As a result, I was never afraid of mushrooms. She was giving me an incredibly valuable life lesson: successful living was never about fear; it was about exploring the world and learning to solve problems without being frozen by fear.

My grandfather had horses. That was our main means of transportation. The roads were muddy and often very bad, so if we wanted to go to the river to bathe and wash our clothes, we used donkeys. That was how we brought water back to the farm as well. So we learned how to handle the donkeys and using them we became very resourceful and helpful on the farm. When I got older, my grandfather gave me a horse of my own. That meant that he really trusted me, and it allowed me to go places very far away. That was very impactful. By the age of six, I felt totally independent.

Then there was cooking. We had no gas, we cooked everything over the hearth, over a fire that we made with mesquite. When I was very young, Mama Chepa let me grind the corn she used to make the family’s tortillas. By the time I was 7, she trusted me to start the fires and cook the tortillas. Then one day Mama Chepa helped me make my first mole, a traditional dish that we all loved, and that was incredibly liberating. Now I could experiment with ingredients and create my own flavors. I had total freedom to try new things and develop my skills. This training quite naturally prepared me for my later specialty as a chef, introducing Americans to the joys of Mexican cuisine.

How and why did I come to America? That was thanks to my father, Filipe Morán. He really cared about education. He believed in the relentless pursuit of knowledge. And he believed that if we wanted to reach our goals — anywhere in the world — it was going to be through education. When my older sister, Maria de la Luz, finished grammar school, my dad sent her to a boarding school one town over. But when I finished sixth grade, my father had a different plan. By then, after many years as a migrant farmworker following harvests from San Diego to Washington state, my dad landed a green card, thanks to an employer in the Napa Valley. So in 1967 my dad decided it was time for all of us to be united, and I would start school that fall.

Right away good luck came my way. On my first weekend in the Napa Valley, my dad took me to a vineyard where he was harvesting grapes. There we met Pablo Ceja, one of my dad’s best friends and a fellow farmworker. And with him was Pablo’s young son Pedro. He was 12, just like me. Before long, Pedro and I were in a long row of vines, cutting off bunches of grapes and dumping them into five-gallon cans. We worked hard, and I managed to eat a lot of grapes too! Delicious! By the end of that day, I had made $3 and I was so proud! Soon, Pedro and I were both in special ed classes, learning English together. We went our separate ways for university but then we came back to the Napa Valley and we have been together ever since.

We have been together in wine, in food, and in raising our kids with a devotion to education and to maintaining the values and family closeness that we grew up with. Always, too, we believe in the virtues of hard work. Pedro studied engineering, and for seven years after we were married he commuted down to an engineering job in San Jose. The commute was not easy but the money he earned helped us build our American dream: Ceja Vineyards, located in the Carneros region of the Napa Valley.

Pedro’s brother Armando is our chief winemaker, I help sell the wine and show  people how to pair our wines with wonderful dishes, many of them coming from my years with Mama Chepa. And Pedro, with his strong analytic mind, helps us keep our family business running smoothly. For me, this is the cycle of life, and with our kids we try our best to nurture their feisty, independent spirits.

Ever since I was little, growing up in Mexico, people have called me a “chingonas” —  a “bad ass” — and that has helped me become resilient, fearless, and relentless in the pursuit of our goals. That comes from our strong Mayan culture, and I bring that same spirit to America. As I always say to my kids, “Don’t doubt yourself. Don’t!”