“Without agaves, there would be no tlachiqueros; without tlachiqueros there would be no pulque; and without pulque, there’s nothing; no parties or fun” –tlachiquera Teresa de Jesús García.
Nopal cactuses and agave dominate the landscape that extends around the majestic Pyramids of Teotihuacan.
I pause in the middle of the red gravel country road to listen to the sounds of the Mexican countryside: in the distance, I can hear the voice of a teacher issuing instructions to her students through a megaphone, birds singing, the buzzing of mosquitoes, a rooster, dog exchanging barks and up in the sky, the turbines of an invisible aircraft flying over the Valley of Mexico. Behind me, the farmer Julián Beltrán emerges from the agave field, carrying a leaf in one hand and a bucket of tools in the other: a chopping board, knife and shovel, gloves, machete, sickle and file. Along with a hundred other producers from the Teotihuacan area, in the State of Mexico, Julián has launched a crusade to restore the ancient cultivation of pulque agave in the popular imagination. After several days of talking and spending time with agave producers and tlachiqueros, it is hard to imagine that the idiosyncrasies of these people were about to die, after the good times when demand for pulque was so great that trains laden with the nectar of the pre-Hispanic gods ran to and from the capital on a daily basis. In the early 20th century, large breweries came to Mexico with the aim of replacing the ancient beverage and succeeded, since today, only a few people have tasted good pulque, while Mexico has become one of the world’s top beer consumers [http://www.profeco.gob.mx/encuesta/brujula/bruj_2013/bol252_comparativo_cervezas.asp].
Pulque distiller Juan Carlos Lara complains, “Years ago, if you offered someone pulque, the first thing they would say was, ‘I’m not a bricklayer, I’m not a builder’s mate,’ which made us sad because for us, it’s a sacred plant”.
But those who drink pulque and those who produce it are usually proud people.
Take, for example, Bernardino Sánchez Roucas, a tlachiquero with an elegant black hat, who surveys the surroundings with his razor-like gaze. Although he would be hard put to understand the written word, he has a gift for interpreting his agaves’ mood. Years of pruning and scraping agave have honed Bernardino’s appreciation of his raw material, which he describes through a series of proverbs:
“You have to treat agave like a woman, don’t give her all your love or all your money, because you’ll soon have nothing,” he says one day while proudly showing me his seedling nursery. “When I scrape it, I have to be very careful and do it at the same time every day, if not the agave gets jealous and reduces the amount of sap it produces. It’s the same with women, if you don’t treat them with love and kindness, they won’t respond”.
His brother José Alfredo Sánchez Roucas, the eldest of 14 children, also likes to compare agave to humans: “We are all Mexicans… but there are fat ones, thin ones, smart ones and not so smart ones. It’s the same with agave”.
As a young man, José Alfredo emigrated to try his luck in cities and lived there a long time, but when he was nearly 60, he decided to return to the countryside, where he bought some goats and planted agave. He remembered that this was what his ancestors had grown and knew that it was a fine, resilient plant, characteristic of the central highlands. Now, at 64, he regards each agave as a grandson that needs affection, hugs and food.
“It’s like people, you have to spruce them up. Men have to have their hair cut, women have to beautify themselves, likewise agaves have to be pruned: You have to cut off any dead leaves, give them nutrients and check there are no pests in the soil”.
Then there’s Sara García, a math teacher who always dreamed of being a farmer and made her wish come true after she retired. She talks cheerfully about her chance encounter with agave, how they fell in love and then concluded this was her destiny: ”Agave is my better half. I know this because it doesn’t enguixa me [in inline This is an Otomi word, referring to the effect of contact between the caustic juice of the agave leaf and the skin, characterized by persistent itching and irritation] or prick me with its thorns, it’s as though we were meant for each other”.
And the list goes on, because agave fields are chockablock with characters who are full of the joys of life, such as Don Julián, who bombs around in his sky-blue 1972 Beetle at 50 kilometers an hour, and explains the production stages of agave with the assurance of a born leader.
Later on, once the ice has broken, he reminisces about his childhood when, due to the shortage of potable water, they used to drink agave nectar, a light, sweet liquid that quenches the thirst and staves off hunger pangs.
Maybe that’s where the saying, “Pulque for men and water for oxen” comes from.
Then, as if to belie the idea that the Mexican countryside is only populated by old folk, in comes Teresa de Jesús García González, the UNAM geographer who returned to her homeland in Teotihuacan to restore the region to its original state and replant the land, now devoid of vegetation and eroded after years of abuse, with agave.
“The land needs young blood, that’s what it’s crying out for. Young people who have lost their way in the city should come here,” declares this 28-year-old woman. “The earth is not dirty, it cleanses and purifies us and helps us understand the reason we are here”.
Despite its declining fortunes, agave continues to capture the imagination of those who cross its path, and local producers are still promoting its consumption, either from their “offices”, where they serve their customers, selling pulque to tourists who emerge from the pyramids eager for authentic experiences, or by handing down their knowledge to the next generation.
“Everyone is seeking recognition for their plant and products, they want it to have the prestige it had before,” explains CONABIO consultant Anel Viridiana Franco Martínez, “Pulque was the beverage of the gods; not just anyone could drink it. They want to recover a little of that, obviously with more people and more plantations, and make it their livelihood”.
The fight to preserve the pulque agave requires a certain amount of endurance and producers know it will be an uphill struggle, not only because it is now compared unfavorably with European ones. There is also the problem of the theft of mixiote, lack of government support, the challenges of social organization and marketing the product, and the decline in the number of young people wishing to live off the countryside.
But as the distiller Juan Carlos reflects, the great pulque haciendas died out in the last century, but those who produced pulque before the arrival of the Spaniards continued, continue and will continue to prune agave plants and make pulque.