The Points Interview: Gretchen Pierce and Aurea Toxqui

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re long overdue for an interview about the superb new essay collection, Alcohol in Latin America: A Social and Cultural History (University of Arizona Press, 2014). The collection is edited by Gretchen Pierce, an Associate Professor of History at Shippensburg University (and a past contributor to Points) and Aurea Toxqui, an Associate Professor of History at Bradley University. Read on for an overview of this sweeping collection on the history of alcohol in Latin America.

screenshot_1226Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Toxqui: This book is about how alcohol has been not only at the center of any celebration in Latin America, but also at the center of political, economic, social, and religious policies. It has locally and transnationally bonded people since the pre-Columbian times and continues doing so in the era of globalization.

Pierce: This is a book that has ten chapters. Each chapter is about one country in particular, but on the whole we have seven different countries or regions that are studied, and it spans a long time period from the pre-Columbian era (before Columbus arrived in the Americas) up through the present day. What the book attempts to do is use alcohol as a lens to study bigger topics within Latin American history.

For instance, one chapter looks at Brazil and talks about a native drink that indigenous people in Brazil consumed (cauim). This was a fermented beverage made from local plant matter. Then when the Portuguese arrived in Brazil they brought in very hard, distilled liquors that were more common in Europe at the time. The essay looks at relationships that are forged between native peoples and European explorers and commissioners and talks about how, as they’re changing from one beverage to another, they’re also changing customs. The colonizers attempt to Christianize the native people and to change them from their traditional polytheistic religion, and alcohol is seen as connected to their past religious tradition.

Another example is my chapter. I look at Mexico in the twentieth century as Mexico was attempting prohibition of alcohol. Prohibitionists were claiming that this was a very revolutionary thing to do; Mexico was in the middle of a revolution: “If you stop drinking you’ll be able to save your money and all those people who are exploiting you won’t be able to do so. You’ll be educated, healthy, and sober.” But strangely enough, the very people the revolutionaries were trying to help were continuing to sell alcohol at a small scale were very resistant to finding a new line of work. I use this to show revolutions are contested; even if the idea is to help working people, if you take away a source of income from them, they’re going to fight back. I use alcohol as a lens to understand how normal people become involved in the process of state-building.

Some of the bigger themes of the collection are gender relations, racial tensions, and nation-building.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Toxqui: They will find how the same roles and processes in which alcohol and drugs have been involved in other regions of the world are repeated in Latin American countries, with their specific connotations. Also they will find interesting how alcohol has been central to the cultures of Latin America.

Pierce: I hope that since it’s about alcohol they would find the whole thing interesting! I think many alcohol and drug historians at Points tend to focus on the United States, so I’m hoping that looking at a new region will be meaningful for them. I think people will be interested because of the interdisciplinary nature of the book. We have mostly historians, but we also have an anthropologist, an archeologist, an ethnohistorian, and a literary scholar. We take a broad approach.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

Toxqui: While editing the book, I truly enjoyed to see how no matter the landscape, the distance, the native groups to the region or if the area was colonized by Spaniards or by Portuguese or by French, alcohol has played pivotal roles in the development of Latin American societies throughout centuries. In the same way that food is an identity marker, the kind of beverage consumed by specific groups, which came in interaction as consequence of the European colonization, either indigenous, African slaves, poor white people, and their mixes or rich white colonizers, revealed a lot about how these people defined themselves within their community and in comparison to the rest of their society. I also found fascinating how in the effort of bringing modernization and progress to their Latin American nations, the white elites applied similar policies and reforms like those implemented in the United States or European nations.

Pierce: One of the surprising things is that alcohol is so central to so many different areas of history. One of the main things we argue is that alcohol history is not just a different type of history, but it’s central to political history, social history, economic history—and it’s integral to all of these other processes. I think often people think an alcohol history is going to be a laundry list— here’s how it was made, here’s who made it, that sort of thing. But it’s tied to the act of building a nation, it’s tied to modernization, it’s tied to traditional religious practices, it’s tied to how men and women interact, different racial groups. The way alcohol is central to other issues is interesting to me.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

Toxqui: Originally, the project included a chapter on Cuban rum and a chapter on Brazilian beer and temperance campaigns. I would’ve loved to see those chapters made it to the end. There are a few works on Cuban rum, but they are not written by historians. In the case of temperance movements, there are a few studies for Latin American cases such as Mexico, done by my co-editor Gretchen Pierce among others, or Uruguay and Guatemala, but there is nothing on Brazil. Another topic that I would love to read about is Colombian aguardiente. We heard and read about drug production in Colombia, but what about alcohol? It is a topic that needs to be explored.

Pierce: One of the things we would have liked to do—and that we attempted to do—was to cover all of the major regions of Latin America. For various reasons, certain chapters ended up falling through. For instance, we didn’t end up with a chapter in the Carribean, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, or Puerto Rico; we would have really liked to include them. We also had another chapter that focused on African-descended people that didn’t end up in the final version. If we can do a second edition of the book, I’d like to find chapters to fill those gaps.

In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

Pierce: The Dos Equis guy!

Toxqui: Of course the guy that advertises Dos Equis! As Gretchen told you. Just imagine him saying: “I don’t read too much, but when I do, I prefer Alcohol in Latin America. Stay thirsty my friends!”


Harry Gene Levine: Joseph R. Gusfield and the Multiple Perspectives of Cubist Sociology

Note from Ron:  Here is another tribute to the late Joe Gusfield, authored by Harry Gene Levine.  It circulated via email among some of us old-guard alcohol and drug history types a few days ago.  And, when I asked him, Harry was kind enough grant permission it be published at Points. The italicized first paragraph, below the Picasso image, offers Harry’s suggested introductory words for the piece.  I’m also going to take the liberty of adding, as a comment, below, my response to it when it was sent around by email.  I really like this piece.  Thank you, Harry!

Picasso's Guernica

Picasso’s Guernica

In 2000 I was invited to join a panel at the meetings of the Law and Society Association devoted to Joe Gusfield and his book Symbolic Crusade.  I wrote a four page presentation, only slightly tongue-in-cheek.  Since hearing of his death I have been thinking about him a lot and dug up the paper. It’s kind of sweet.    — H.G.L.

Joseph R. Gusfield’s book, Symbolic Crusade, discusses the temperance movement in America history. I too have studied the American temperance movement and would like to begin with a brief description of the temperance and prohibition crusade that I didn’t write but wish I could have: the first paragraph of Symbolic Crusade.

For many observers of American life, the temperance movement is evidence for an excessive moral perfectionism and an overly legalistic bent to American culture. It seems the action of devoted sectarians who are unable to compromise with human impulse. The legal measures taken to enforce abstinence display the reputed American faith in the power of Law to correct all evils. This moralism and utopianism bring smiles to the cynical and fear to the sinner. Such a movement seems at once naive, intolerant, saintly and silly.

One of the difficulties of writing like that is that it involves discussing so many things at one time. Every sentence in that paragraph talks about the American temperance movement, and about topics other than the temperance movement. I propose that double or triple focus is part of Gusfield’s intellectual genius. For many years I could not even recognize that Joe was focusing on several things at once. I myself am often unable to see even one thing at a time. At first I usually only see part of one thing. Then, like Columbo, the rumpled detective played by Peter Falk, I return scratching my head, thumbing through my notes, and asking again about something that still confuses me.

I’ve been reading Gusfield’s books and articles for twenty-five years trying to understand how he produces his distinctive intellectual, emotional and perceptual effects on the page and in the reader. I would like to report a few things I have figured out about Joseph R. Gusfield’s sociology.     Continue reading

Challenging “The Great Disconnect”: The History and Changing Role of Psychiatry in Drug Use

(Editors Note: This post was written by Dr. Lucas Richert, a lecturer at the University of Saskatchewan.)

In recent years, the modification of marijuana laws in the United States, multiple doping scandals in professional sports (from Lance Armstrong to A-Rod), and the right-to-die debate have helped focus the public’s attention on drugs. At the same time, academia, policy-makers and interest groups all have a need for superior information about the complex role that recreational drugs and pharmaceutical products play in our lives.

According to Alan Leshner, “There is a unique disconnect between the scientific facts and the public’s perception about drug abuse and addiction. If we are going to make any progress, we need to overcome the ‘great disconnect.’”

Progress, whatever that meant for Leshner, will certainly be accompanied by a public discussion. And psychiatrists will continue to play a major role in shaping our understanding of drugs.

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Local vs. National Alcohol Policy: The UK Edition

Virginia Berridge, a professor of history and director of the Centre for History in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, recently alerted Points to a new briefing her organization published earlier this year. “Local and National Alcohol Policy: How Do They Interact?” is a concise and useful treatise on the difficulties of integrating local and national alcohol policies in the United Kingdom, with resonance for American scholars and those doing transnational work.

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A Personal Tribute: Ernie Kurtz, 1935-2015

Editor’s Note: This remembrance comes from William White, author of Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America (1998).

Ernest Kurtz, who made landmark contributions to the study of addiction recovery, died January 19, 2015, of pancreatic cancer. Following publication of Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1979, Kurtz focused his studies on the growing varieties of recovery experience, the healing of shame and guilt, and the role of spirituality in addiction recovery.  Ernie Kurtz Sphinx

Ernest Kurtz was born in Rochester, New York, on September 9, 1935–only two months after the meeting of two desperate alcoholics in Akron, Ohio, marked the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous. Kurtz attended St. Bernard’s Seminary and College and was then ordained as a Catholic Priest in 1961. Following five years of parish work, he began his graduate studies at Harvard University where he completed an M.A. in history and a Ph.D. in the history of American civilization. His Ph.D. dissertation on the history of A.A. marked a turning point in the scholarly study of A.A. and the larger arenas of addiction recovery and recovery mutual aid societies, both legitimizing such studies and setting a benchmark by which future studies would be evaluated.

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Capitalism Plus Dope Equals Genocide

Michael “Cetewayo” Tabor was born in Harlem in 1946. Like many young men of his time and place, Michael developed an Panther 21affection for heroin. A dope addict before the tender age of twenty, Tabor discovered the Black Panthers and turned away from a life of drug use and abuse. At the time of his wrongful arrest, Tabor had risen to Captain in the New York branch of the Panthers. Tabor and 21 others—soon to be known as the “Panther 21”—were arrested and charged with conspiracy to kill several police officers and bomb several government buildings, including four police stations and the Bronx Botanical Gardens.

In a courtroom circus that included a District Attorney reading from Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and a screening of The Battle of Algiers, eight months came and went. At the end of the longest and most expensive trial in New York State history to date, the jury foreman spoke the words “not guilty” 156 times. Those that stayed, were acquitted. Tabor and his comrade Richard Moore had already fled to Algeria during the trial to join Eldridge Cleaver. In 1972, Tabor moved to Zambia with his wife where he spent the rest of his life as a radio host and writer on politics and culture. Through his dying days in 2010, Tabor refused to again set foot on United States soil.

capitlasm plus dope pamphlet.Before Tabor fled, however, he published a pamphlet entitled: “Capitalism Plus Dope Equals Genocide.” The scathing, often prophetic critique of rising drug use in urban ghettos is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the complicated relationship between nonwhite urbanites, drugs, and policing. In sum, Tabor likens the heroin problem to other examples of the black community’s political oppression. To fight this reality, Tabor called for community development, self-determination, and self-help. Most importantly, Tabor demanded local control over policing. With respect to local control, Tabor lamented a sad reality: “It is a tragedy that in New York the greatest gains made in the realm of Black community control have been made by Black racketeers, numbers-game bankers and dope dealers, by the Black illegal capitalists.” Continue reading

In Memoriam: Ernie Kurtz, 1935-2015

All serious historians of alcohol and drugs will be saddened to hear of the passing, last week, of Ernest (“Ernie”) Kurtz, the first and foremost historian of Alcoholics Anonymous. Kurtz’s commanding Not-God: a History of Alcoholics Anonymous was published in 1979 by Hazelden.  Though Ernie often talked about how AA history in the decades since Not-God appeared had outstripped its claims, and in fact called from the pages of Points for a revised and updated history of AA, his book remains the definitive word on the fellowship’s founding and early growth.

Hazelden, 1979

Hazelden, 1979

Kurtz wrote Not-God as his dissertation; he earned a Phd in the American Civilization program at Harvard University (a fact that I don’t hold against him, even though I attended a different and really much better American Studies program down the road). The volume’s power arises from his ability to situate its founders and their fledgling organization within the context of American religious and cultural history.  Like two other compelling historians of AA,  Damien McElrath and Glenn Chesnutt, Kurtz was positioned well to inquire into the program’s spiritual foundations: after earning a BA in philosophy from St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester, New York, he entered the priesthood and served as a parish priest from 1961 to 1966.  I’ll leave it to better Catholics than myself to sort out whether it was Ernie’s seminary training or his departure from the church in the late 1970s that gave him such penetrating insight into the ways AA manifested what he came to call “the spirituality of imperfection.” Continue reading

The Strange and Complicated History of Patenting the E-Cigarette

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is brought to you by Camille Higham, a patent attorney in Jacksonville, Florida, with extensive experience researching e-cigarettes. 

About a year ago, I wrote about e-cigarettes in a blog that is woefully neglected now. At that time, I thought e-cigarettes may fall between a novelty and a passing fad. Now I am still skeptical that e-cigarettes will ever supplant traditional cigarettes, primarily because of how deeply tobacco is entrenched in our history, for better or worse. E-cigarettes are undeniably increasing in popularity, and if they do edge out tobacco-based cigarettes, ironically, it is the Big Tobacco companies, with their deep pockets and market influence, who may be best equipped to make that happen.

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Parallel to the Grain? Finding Recreational Users in the Archives

For cultural historians looking into the history of drugs, one of the more frustrating obstacles to our work comes from trying to find “the people,” those who used the drugs we are studying. In studies of more recent times, scholars are able to locate individuals, interviewing them about their experiences. But for someone who studies the history of cannabis in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the archives are understandably lacking in user voices. In working through this problem, I’ve begun to problematize our conception of drug user. I’d like to share my thoughts and to perhaps get a discussion going in the comments section below.

A drug user, according to Wikipedia.

A drug user, according to Wikipedia.

Who uses drugs? A simple Google search of “drug users” yields a sponsored link for Unity Recovery Center, a rehab chain based in Florida. The next four results link to an assortment of informational websites on drug abuse and addiction. Finally, after the image results that, not surprisingly, feature “the faces of meth,” our search takes us to the Wikipedia article “Drug User” which defines the user as “a person who uses drugs either legally or illegally. A drug user may or may not also be a drug abuser, and may or may not have one or more drug addictions.”

Implicit in this definition is the assumption that drug users are only those folks that smoke, sniff, ingest, shoot, or otherwise consume a substance into their bodies. This is confirmed by the image that accompanies the article. Continue reading

A Report from the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Society

Editor’s Note: Today contributing editor Bob Beach reports on several drug-related panels at this year’s annual meeting of the AHA, which took place in New York on January 2-5, 2015.

This year, the American Historical Society’s annual meeting was held in Times Square in New York City. Among the 1,500 presenters, a refreshing batch of young drug and alcohol historians (and some veterans) presented their research on addiction, addiction treatment, and the long drug war.

Calling all drug and alcohol historians

Calling all drug and alcohol historians

The historical significance of this time and place was not lost on your correspondent in his first foray into the world of the AHA annual meeting. Eric Schneider reminded us on the first day of the conference that the 100 year anniversary of the Harrison Act was coming into force. The law launched the national drug war in the United States and was, in many ways, on the minds of all of “our” presenters at the conference. Continue reading