The history of tequila and its symbolism for progress clashes with todays' woke culture.
Similar to a lot of Chicanos in the States, I love representing my culture and I am very proud of my Mexican parents. For those reading who don’t know what a Chicano is, it’s an individual born in the United States of America whose parents are Mexican.
Now that I have my own family I’ve taken the last couple of years to read a lot about Mexico and what it means to be Mexican. Through that journey, I have found a lot of conflicting narratives and difficult ideas to tackle. For those of you who have experienced similar things, you might know what I’m talking about.
“I’m proud to be Mexican, and I’m also proud to be born and living in the United States of America…but my Mexican relatives don’t think of me as Mexican and my classmates and co-workers don’t think of me as ‘American’”
I’m sure every Chicano has had to tackle that identity issue. This brings me to my latest topic, Tequila.
History of Tequila
I’ve read many books in the past couple of years focusing on the history of Mexico, the Conquista, and Native Americans. Some of my favorites are Fire and Blood by T.R Fehrenbach, Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano, and most recently Tequila! Distilling the Spirit of Mexico by Marie Gaytan.
What I know now, that I didn’t know before is that Mexico as a country/culture/spirit is also trying to form its own identity.
Tequila fundamentally is a symbol of ‘progress’.
Tequila is the name we use today, but before we called it tequila. It was called Mezcal de Tequila. Which means “Mezcal from Tequila” a city in the state of Jalisco. Mezcal is the alcoholic drink you get when you distill the maguey plant. If you use a specific kind of maguey called Agave Azul or Blue Agave, that’s now called Tequila. It’s just a branding thing, which you’ll learn is a big deal.
Tequila became popular for many reasons but I’m going to try to give you the birds-eye view summary and you can do the additional research for yourself. What you’re about to read might upset you or make you see things differently, if you are Mexican or Chicano. But when you’re talking about Mexican history, this is more common than not.
“Mezcal wine was more sophisticated…”
During the Spanish reign of Mexico, the entire population was divided into classes. The field workers and Natives were called Indios, mestizo’s, mulato’s and castizos among other things.
The Indios, descendants of the Aztec and other Native American tribes would drink pulque. A fermented agave drink highly revered by the natives for its nourishment and religious beliefs. The Aztecs and Maya were said to survive and thrive off of two things, maiz and pulque.
Pulque was seen as so important that pregnant women would be given small amounts of it, specifically to help them through their pregnancy…the days before prenatal vitamins.
Further studies on the nutritional benefits of pulque intake demonstrated that after maize tortillas and legumes, pulque was the third most important source of iron (non-heme form), ascorbic acid, riboflavin, and other B-vitamins.
The study of pulque intake in 70 expectant mothers from the Valle de Solís showed that 72.9% of women included in the study consumed pulque during pregnancy, and 75% continued consumption during the postpartum period as an important source of nutrients and energy. The consumption of 0.5 L of pulque, the amount commonly consumed by women in the research site supplied 24 g of ethanol, 9% of energy, 42.9% of ascorbic acid, 6.7 of thiamine, 5.9% of riboflavin, and 14.6% of iron of the Mexican Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) during pregnancy. Results indicated that ascorbic acid intake from pulque was associated with a decrease in the risk of low ferritin and hemoglobin levels. The ethanol content in pulque was proposed to enhance iron absorption and to improve mother's daily iron intake. These authors showed the association between pulque intake during lactation and robust newborn growth, suggesting a beneficial effect of low pulque intake associated probably to the micronutrient content of the beverage. However, the study concludes that earlier intake of pulque during pregnancy and lactation was associated with poorer child height and weight (Backstrand et al., 2001, 2004).
Regardless of how important pulque was to the native people, it was seen as “unchristian”, “not for the elite”, and “the root of evil”. While the people with “honor and class” drank mezcal wine, also known as mezcal.
Mezcal was produced in a more sophisticated manner, similar to brandy or other drinks from the West. Pulque was a thing of the past and in order to form its own identity, Mexico had to move forward.
Tequila beats out Mezcal
Classism and racism is not the only factor as to why pulque isn’t seen as the drink of Mexico today. Even though I think it’s probably the biggest reason, there are other practical reasons. For one, pulque spoils quickly and it cannot be transported for long distances. Also, it’s an acquired taste, and other drinks like mezcal, beer, and wine just tasted better.
It’s also human nature to want the “best” thing out there. Even today when I’m picking out a new tequila to taste, I want to find the best one. What that means, “best” is up for interpretation.
Back in the 1600’s and 1700’s what made a drink better than another was the technology it used for production. Today we want the most “traditional”, and that’s where the irony is. Tequila was chosen as the drink of Mexico because it used the most cutting-edge methods to make it.
It was even the first spirit in Mexico to be bottled. Other mezcal drinks were still transported in barrels for the most part. The technology was so important that even the first licensed manufacturer in Mexico, Jose Cuervo has their factory on one of its labels.
Tequila is Mexico
I personally don’t like learning that something I truly enjoy like tequila is popular because we suppressed our native ancestor’s traditions. But the truth is, in order for Mexico to be what it is today, it had to happen.
Mexico has had a long internal struggle with identity. With some people wanting to be more like the West, and another group wanting to do its own thing. This caused a lot of problems, if you don’t believe me go read about the countless rebellions and civil wars including our independence and revolutions.
Through all of this, we fought off brandy, champagne, wine and were proud of the homegrown Mezcal de Tequila. The city of Tequila was close to the port of San Blas so it could be exported worldwide, then in the 1880s additional growth in the railroads made it easier to move north through North America.
With people coming over to the United States from Mexico in the 1900s and later. Seeing the name Tequila on the cover of newspapers instilled pride in the country that they had left. It was a reminder of their home and the Mexican government knew that.
It put Mexico on the world stage of spirits. So much so that in 2003 a proposal was put forward to the United Nations to make Tequila a purely Mexican export. No other country can claim to make tequila.
The Irony in Tequila
With that short history of Tequila and understanding that Tequila fundamentally symbolizes progress and innovation. I find it comical when ‘tequila snobs’ on Instagram or Twitter complain that a certain bottle of tequila is not as good because it’s not made with a tahona or it’s not the traditional way of doing things.
I’m all for tradition and keeping traditions alive. But before you judge a tequila, how about you taste it.
You might find that a new method of cooking, crushing or aging, makes it even a better spirit to enjoy. This elevates all of Mexico, because when tequila succeeds we all benefit, salud.