Holy, Hated, or Hip?: The Circuitous History of Mexico’s Pulque

We here at Points are very excited to present the first installment of guest blogger Gretchen Pierce’s new three-part series. Gretchen is an Assistant Professor of History at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania.  Her research focuses primarily on the social and cultural history of Mexico, a topic she will exploring in today’s article on the Mexican culture of pulque.

Mayaheul, the Aztec goddess of the maguey plant.

Dr. José Siurob Ramírez (1886-1965), legislator, Chief of the Department of Public Health, and ardent temperance advocate during the Mexican Revolution, would be turning over in his grave if he knew that pulque, a beverage made from the fermented sap of the agave plant, has been making a comeback in the last few years. An ancient concoction whose roots trace back to pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, pulque was once a holy beverage associated with the goddess Mayahuel.  For centuries elite Spaniards and then many Mexicans hated it, equating it with the poor and largely indigenous population of Central Mexico.  Today, young urban Mexican hipsters consume it as a way of reconnecting with their indigenous history and defying mainstream cultural norms.  It should be noted that a similar trend has taken place with European and American young people, who have rediscovered the formerly blacklisted absinthe or the déclassé Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Until recently, intellectuals like Siurob viewed pulquerías, Mexican taverns that serve pulque, as dives that only catered to poor men looking to get a cheap buzz.  Today, they are hip and happening gender-neutral joints catering to the twenty-something college crowd.  Two such bars are Pulquería La Risa and Pulquería Las Duelistas, both of which were founded in the opening decades of the twentieth century.  Although they are proud of their heritage (La Risa, or The Laugh, has a plaque stating the establishment was opened in 1903 and belongs to the Historical Zone of Mexico City), the owners have consciously worked to modernize their businesses, introducing brightly colored Aztec-style murals, loud jukeboxes, and Facebook pages.  Arturo Garrido of Las Duelistas (The Duelists) says, “I have totally changed the image of the pulquería, a totally new concept, with different clientele.  Most of my clients are young, and it is my way to continue giving life to pulque.”

The pulqueria is now, apprently, a “thing” with young, educated Mexican urbanites.

Pulque is not only cool with Mexico’s trend-setters but is going global. At the New York restaurant-bar Pulqueria, patrons can choose between seven types of pulque, including ones infused with ingredients like tomatillos, maize, and watermelon.  Pulque is now even showing up at gourmet and other specialty grocery stores, most commonly in the southwestern United States.  For several years, Boulder Imports has been bottling and canning the fermented agave nectar as Pulque La Lucha.  Others may want to experience pulque in its natural habitat; No Reservations’ Anthony Bourdain broadcast his visit to a pulquería in 2009.  Thirsty tourists can even sign up for tours which allow them to travel to several different pulque estates over the course of a few days, giving them the chance to not only consume the beverage, but also to see it being made.

These developments would be shocking to someone like Siurob. Like many of his contemporaries, not to mention his predecessors, he believed that pulque was the scourge of the nation.  Reformers claimed that the abuse of the beverage led to cirrhosis of the liver and made the drinker more susceptible to typhoid and venereal diseases.  Temperance advocates also linked it to crime and domestic violence. Further, the besotted could not go to work or be trusted to participate in the political process; thus it challenged nation-building goals of the revolution. Because of all of these problems, at a congressional debate over taxation of the beverage in 1917, Siurob explained “pulque is opposed to the principal idea of the Revolution, which is to raise up the spirit of the masses.” 

Nineteenth century picture of the pulqueria as Siurob and many others saw it: a drinking haven for poor men.

Siurob would likely feel that pulque’s resurgence in popularity would threaten all of the progress made in his era, when Mexican revolutionary leaders paired with doctors, teachers, and concerned citizens to combat alcoholism.  Between 1910 and 1920, the national anti-alcohol campaign was fairly weak and decentralized, with the most effective measures being taken at the state level.  For instance, Plutarco Elías Calles, the governor of the state of Sonora, which shares a border with Arizona, prohibited all alcoholic beverages, including beer and wine (pulque was not as popular in the north), at a time when most federal legislators opposed American-style Prohibition.  From 1920-1932, the national anti-alcohol campaign strengthened, thanks in large part to more active Presidents and the creation in 1929 of the Comité Nacional de Lucha Contra el Alcoholismo, or the National Committee for Struggle Against Alcoholism.  This group consolidated the work that had previously been carried out in the states and by the national departments of education, public health, and labor. The CNLCA mostly used cultural methods to teach people about the dangers of alcohol abuse.  It promoted anti-alcohol teaching in schools, organized temperance-themed parades, and broadcast informative lectures on the radio.  From 1932-1940, the techniques of the national anti-alcohol campaign broadened.  The cultural events increased and were supplemented by laws that limited the sale of intoxicants on weekends and holidays, as well as a corps of inspectors who helped make sure these rules were followed.  Officials even took the time to follow up on requests from ordinary citizens to close excess bars in their neighborhoods or crack down on the selling of adulterated beverages.

These revolutionaries believed that abuse of alcoholic beverages was the near-exclusive domain of the working class and indigenous men.  In a speech that launched the CNLCA, President Emilio Portes Gil advised, “Worker: spend in books what you would otherwise spend on alcohol.  The books will teach and educate you and alcohol will only make you a brute and kill you.”  Other temperance advocates had a similar message for native peoples.  The implication was that the poor, regardless of their ethnic heritage, drank more than others, and they lacked an education, which seemed to explain their supposed affinity for intoxicants. To that end, Siurob and other temperance reformers would be shocked that the consumers propelling the new pulque trend hail from the educated middle-class.  As Lonely Planet’s Daniel C. Schechter notes, pulquerías have been “adopted by students who engage in intellectual pursuits like playing chess or reading history while they sip their pulque.”  This is a far cry from the stereotypes of the late 1920s.

Revolutionaries saw pulque as a truly malevolent brew.

Above all, reformers in the first half of the twentieth century believed alcoholism to be a male vice.  Countless images, songs, and plays from this era depict drinkers as males who engaged in crimes like street fights or domestic abuse.  Appealing to the stereotype that women did not abuse alcohol and were merely negatively affected by it, President Portes Gil beseeched women to, “for your husbands and your sons, for your brothers and for your fathers, combat alcoholism.”  Although temperance advocates did admit that some females consumed alcohol, they were seen as “fallen” women who were an exception to the rule.  Siurob and his peers might be shocked to see the number of contemporary pictures attesting to the female presence at Pulquerías La Risa or Las Duelistas.

Recent articles documenting this new trend assert that pulque is here to stay and will likely replace tequila as the national drink of Mexico.  In many ways, it always has been the national drink of Mexico, once holy, and popular with the masses even when elites hated it, turned up their noses at it, or tried to ban it.  The likelihood, though, that it will remain “hip” and “subversive” to Mexican youth is small.  When the beverage becomes too mainstream, it will be replaced by the latest fad.

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2 thoughts on “Holy, Hated, or Hip?: The Circuitous History of Mexico’s Pulque

  1. Very interesting work. I should comment that in pre-hispanic times, pulque was in fact reserved for the elderly and religious ceremonies. The Mexica punished other uses. Sahagun is best source on this. Arqueologia Mexicana ran an issue on these beverages, which actually were quite varied. I had a student in my class do a paper on pulque where she linked the resurgence of pulque in colonial times to the benefit of taxation. Drop me a line if interested in further comments.

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