Alcohol in Latin America – Book Review


I recently read Alcohol in Latin America: A Social and Cultural History, edited by Gretchen Pierce and Maria Áurea Toxqui. [amazon] [bookshop]

9780816536573The book is a little pricey ($35 for paperback) for everyday casual beverage readers, so you might want to do what I did and request that your local public library order a copy. You can find it at the SF Public Library, or probably get it as an interlibrary loan from there now that I've done the hard work for you. 

The book is an academic work, a collection of chapters written by different authors rather than a textbook or history book written in chronological order. The book's description from the publisher is: 

Aguardente, chicha, pulque, vino—no matter whether it’s distilled or fermented, alcohol either brings people together or pulls them apart. Alcohol in Latin America is a sweeping examination of the deep reasons why. This book takes an in-depth look at the social and cultural history of alcohol and its connection to larger processes in Latin America. Using a painting depicting a tavern as a metaphor, the authors explore the disparate groups and individuals imbibing as an introduction to their study. In so doing, they reveal how alcohol production, consumption, and regulation have been intertwined with the history of Latin America since the pre-Columbian era.

Alcohol in Latin America is the first interdisciplinary study to examine the historic role of alcohol across Latin America and over a broad time span. Six locations—the Andean region, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, and Mexico—are seen through the disciplines of anthropology, archaeology, art history, ethnohistory, history, and literature. Organized chronologically beginning with the pre-colonial era, it features five chapters on Mesoamerica and five on South America, each focusing on various aspects of a dozen different kinds of beverages.

An in-depth look at how alcohol use in Latin America can serve as a lens through which race, class, gender, and state-building, among other topics, can be better understood, Alcohol in Latin America shows the historic influence of alcohol production and consumption in the region and how it is intimately connected to the larger forces of history.

When I wrote Doctors and Distillers, I wasn't able to find as much information about alcohol and medicine in South America as I would have liked, particularly not of cachaca, pisco, or tequila in their homelands. This book added a few items I could have used (tequila was rumored to cure the Spanish Flu!), but more importantly it put a lot of other things in context. 

Here is the Table of Contents: 



I didn't read every chapter but learned a lot about chicha, cachaca, and other fermented spirits, as well as distilled spirits during the colonial and post-colonial eras. Several chapters of the book look at the association of beverages with specific segments of the population – how indigenous people and enslaved people drank one thing while imported wine and some distilled beverages were associated with European heritage.

For me, the most interesting chapter, which looked at this issue in detail, was the one titled, "Tequila Sauza and the Redemption of Mexico's Vital Fluids, 1873-1970." It was authored by Jose Orozco.  

This chapter traces the perception of tequila via three generations of the Sauza family (Tres Generaciones) and this family's attempt to influence that perception in the popular culture- specifically "how tequila became Mexico's national drink in the post-revolutionary era, [and] why other alcoholic drinks (most notably, pulque) lost out on this prestigious designation."   

My very weak summary of the view of beverages consumed in Mexico is:

  • Pulque was considered smelly and slimy and associated with the 'uncivilized' indigenous/Indians and poor of Mexico
  • Imported wine and brandy were directly European and aspirational, but didn't exactly evoke Mexican pride and progress
  • Beer was a foreign beverage that could be made in Mexico [in the 1920s beer companies conducted smear campaigns against the cleanliness of pulque] but still didn't invoke local pride
  • But tequila could potentially be a beverage associated with a Modern Mexico, advanced and forward-looking, made by a clean, modern industrial process. It was not smelly and could potentially be seen on par with whiskey and brandy (and of course we see many old references to "Mexican whiskey" and "Mexican brandy" that are just tequila). It could indicate pride in Mexican accomplishment with native Mexican plants and be made by modern Mexican people. In short, it was a product that could project the image that Euro-centric Mexican upper class wanted. 

The author writes (p191) "By entering his mezcal in the World's Fair [1893] Cenobio Sauza wanted to highlight the ways in which mezcal was simultaneously an authentic product of Mexico and a clean, non-disgust-inducing, civilized, and cosmopolitan liquor like cognac, champagne, or brandy." … "Because Sauza and his fellow mezcaleros were anxious to sever the viscerally negative connection that Americans made between mezcal and pulque, [the judge]'s praise of their product's purification and deodorization must've felt like not only an affirmation of the quality of their mezcal, but also the confirmation of a larger project, rooted in aspirational racial purity, refined social taste, and improved appearance, and general condition of the Mexican nation and its people." (p192)

Throughout US Prohibition and the 1910-1920 Mexican Revolution, mezcal/tequila production dropped, and then towards the 1930s and 1940s, mezcal became associated with revolutionary gunslingers and fighters, rather than upper class farmer-aristocrats, so the image the Sauzas wanted was again challenged. 

Eventually, as tequila became the name for the mezcal from the Tequila area, the beverage was promoted to be associated with Mexican Spanish heritage, (p200) "[Sauza] borrowed a version of mexicanness that while acknowledging that Mexicans were the product of both Indian and Spanish cultural and genetic material clearly favored the Spanish side of the mestizo equation."

Into the 1950s-1980s, tequila came to be represented in ads from Sauza by “fair skinned mariachis, bullfighters, horse riding charros, and raven-haired rosy-cheeked damsels” of Jalisco (with a touch of the 'untainted' and often blonde Altenos mythology) of “an idealized rural Hispanic world.”

I had no idea that tequila – and pulque- came with so much baggage. 

Anyway, that was my favorite eye-opening chapter. Check out the book for more on that and on alcohol in the rest of Latin and South America. 



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