It perhaps should come as no surprise in the face of this year’s outpouring of generosity within the context of COVID-19, that there exist entrepreneurs whose primary impetus for what they do is charitable. I recently had a virtual sit-down with Alvin Starkman, who together with Randall Stockton operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationalexcursions.com). I learned that the generosity of these two expatriates from Canada and the US respectively pre-dates the current pandemic by years, dating back about a decade in the case of its founder Alvin.
Back then no one in the state of Oaxaca had a business dedicated in its entirety to teaching about mezcal, agave and pulque, both current and historical manifestations. And so Alvin began his fledging Mexican business, having been an aficionado and student of mezcal since the early 1990s. But from the very beginning his motivation for starting the business, in addition to spreading the good word about Oaxacan agave distillates and fermented drinks, was to support small family owned and operated palenques, and bright young indigenous women.
Prior to beginning Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca, Alvin and his wife Arlene had been donating on an annual basis to the scholarship program of Fondo Guadalupe Musalem (www.fondoguadalupemusalem.org), a charitable organization which supports bright young motivated indigenous women through high school. In his previous life Alvin had been a litigation lawyer in Toronto until the couple moved permanently to Oaxaca in 2004, in retirement. For a few years they operated a small bed and breakfast, and that income enabled them to begin to contribute to the good work being done by Fondo Guadalupe Musalem. The couple states that it’s a priviledge not a right to be able to live in Mexico, and as such foreigners should feel an obligation to contribute to the betterment of their Mexican community.
Fondo Guadalupe Musalem is spearheaded by internationally renowned Oaxacan-American singer Lila Downs who annually holds a benefit concert in the city of Oaxaca to raise funds. A modest monthly sum ensures that these women obtain the education they would likely otherwise not receive due to no fault of their own. But the program does much more. The two dozen or so women from all corners of the state, converge on Oaxaca for one weekend per month. Through lectures, field trips, theater and more, they learn about the importance of education, maintaining self-esteem, how to deal with emotional, physical and sexual abuse personally and in their communities, about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases, and how to promote such values in their home villages.
Donations had traditionally been deductible in only Mexico and the US, but not in Canada. A few years ago Alvin together with a few other Canadians worked towards obtaining tax friendly status for donations to the scholarship program through Canada Revenue Agency. He was one of the founding directors of Canadian Friends of Oaxaca Inc. (www.canfro.ca). Today he is on the Board of Fondo Guadalupe Musalem.
Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca continues to support the scholarship program of Fondo Guadalupe Musalem, as well as Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education, and Development (www.sacred.org). However perhaps more significantly, a couple of years prior to the seed having been planted for Alvin to begin the mezcal excursion business, he and his wife had begun to develop a strong bond with a Zapotec family of extremely modest means in the terra cotta pottery village of San Marcos Tlapazola. The family consisted of two sisters-in-law at the time in their late 30s, and the son and daughter of one of them. The women had been earning a living making and selling red clay pottery as well as the pre-Hispanic drink tejate, mainly in the Sunday market in the town of Tlacolula. They also raised farm animals, grew crops for family consumption, and agave for sale to palenqueros.
It became obvious to Alvin that the young daughter, Lucina, was very bright, albeit extremely shy. She would flit across the earthen courtyard of the homestead, careful to avoid making eye contact with Alvin. Her mother would praise Lucina’s academic drive at every opportunity. The ice would begin to melt between Alvin and Lucina, somewhat, as a consequence of Alvin and Arlene being invited to village fiestas which included Lucina, and the young girl’s public school graduation. Then when the time came to graduate junior high, they were asked to be Lucina’s godparents, a prerequisite for her to graduate.
Several months earlier Lucina’s mother had been lamenting that the family could likely not afford to send her daughter to a quality high school, stating that two villages away there was a respected school. They lacked the money required for writing the entrance exam, for books, uniform and tuition. And on top of those expenses, Lucina would have to take four taxis daily to get to and from school.
Call it kismet or serendipity; Alvin was working towards getting his ducks in a row to begin Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca, at the same time that a decision had to be made about high school for Lucina. And so Alvin and Arlene committed to paying all expenses relating to high school for Lucina. The income from leading mezcal as well as pulque tours would look after Lucina, and still enable the Starkmans to continue to support Fondo Guadalupe Musalem.
But wait, there would actually be a connection between Lucina and Fondo Guadalupe Musalem. Lucina needed a little extra direction, to come out of her shell just a little more than had been the case. She could use a bit of being inculcated with what the program was doing for other indigenous students on those weekend retreats. Since Alvin had been a contributor to the charity, he made the bold move of asking the director if Lucina could attend those monthly weekend worshops. After all, she was bright and motivated. A prerequisite for program participation is maintaining a 9 or better GPA, and Lucina’s was in that range. And so for the better part of three years, when not working doing his excursions on Fridays, Alvin would drive to the high school at the end of class, pick up Lucina, and drive her to Oaxaca to participate with the rest of the group; Friday evenings, all day Saturday and Sunday morning. He would then pick her up and take her to reunite with her mother and aunt at the Sunday Tlacolula market where they would be selling their wares. Arlene vividly recalls dropping Lucina off at the Fondo Guadalupe Musalem weekend house for the first time, and all that stress and anxiety Lucina exhibited, she contemplating the first time ever being away from her mother for a night. Over those three years she thrived in that environment, like the rest of the scholarship students. In fact she graduated high school with the highest final year GPA of all 250 students.
Prior to entering final year of high school students who do reasonably well typically think about university. Lucina was no different. Alvin and Arlene assumed she would want to enter the fine arts college of the state run university, so they committed to her complete university education. After all, Lucina was a talented potter/ceramicist, just like her mom and aunt. In fact, Lucina, at age eight, was the innovator of those small terra cotta mezcal cups, with a face on one side and agave on the other. The owner of a high end craft store in downtown Oaxaca once told Alvin that Lucina’s work is in his opinion better than that of her mother and aunt. Alvin at one point during that final high school year took Lucina and her mother on a tour of the fine arts college.
After the Starkmans had committed to university for Lucina, they learned that since a young child she had wanted to be a doctor, and thus had no interest in a career in fine arts, but rather in medicine; the most costly of all university degree programs.
Promise made, and promise kept. With the popularity of Alvin’s mezcal excursions growing, the Starkmans figured that the income from those tours would be sufficient to look after tuition, room & board, books, transportation, uniforms and medical equipment, and all the rest. And so that’s what happened. Lucina was accepted into faculties of medicine in private universities in both Puebla and Oaxaca. On four occasions Alvin traveled with her to Mexico City and Puebla to write entrance exams. Through family meetings a consensus was reached that Lucina would be best off attending medical school in Oaxaca. And since commuting between her village and the Oaxacan university would be too onerous, she should live with the Starkmans.
Over those five plus years of living with Alvin and Arlene, she became part of the family, as close to being an adopted daughter as can be imagined. She sometimes returned to her village on weekends, but usually not. Her mom and aunt every two or three weeks would come to Oaxaca and stay a night or two with Lucina and the Starkmans.
A few years ago Alvin gave a mezcal tour to Randall and his wife. They had been in bar businesses in Austin, Texas, for upwards of 20 years, and were both mezcal aficionados. At some point they decided they wanted to sell their businesses and live permanently in Oaxaca. One evening Alvin joked to Randall that he could use an apprentice. Randall replied “I’m in.” Even before their permanent move, Alvin began training Randall. While Randall had always been a voracious reader when it came to agave spirits, from then on and continuing to date he has been learning more and more. And now, he has developed a reputation as being a mezcal expert’s expert. In fact asked either of them for their comprehensive qualifications and testimonials, and they’ll be pleased to oblige.
Alvin is about 20 years’ Randall’s senior, and had wanted to slow down the number of days worked doing pulque and mezcal tours. And so as Alvin cut back to three days a week, Randall has been thrilled to pick up the slack and work 4 – 5 days a week. Between the two of them, they have ensured that Lucina does not miss a beat, and they continue to ensure that both of the two registered charities benefit from their work. And they want to ensure that as the business grows, they don’t have to turn away prospective touring clients. They want to promote the spirit, and help their palenquero friends, in some cases now compadres.
By all counts Alvin and Arlene have spoiled Lucina, and it seems to me they continue to do so. But to them, why not, as long as the agave distillation and fermented drink excursions income can support it. They bought her a car for getting to and from the university, and have taken her to Canada on four occasions, most recently last summer during which she was a bridesmaid at the wedding of Alvin and Arlene’s daughter. For that trip they also took Lucina’s mother and aunt.
Lucina completed her year as an intern this past June. She worked at an IMSS federal government insurance hospital in León, Guanajuato. She is now doing her year of social service, as resident doctor in charge of the IMSS medical clinic in a village a couple of hours outside of Oaxaca.
Next for Lucina? In a year’s time she’ll write exams to become a certified doctor able to work permanently in Mexico in the public sector and/or within the context of being a doctor at a privately owned medical clinic.
But Lucina wants to become a specialist. She will write further exams seeking entry into a specialty program, then spend anywhere from four to seven additional years working as a resident in her chosen specialty in a hospital out of state, though likely in Mexico. Her current leanings are in forensics and surgery.
In addition to the revenue earned from pulque and mezcal excursions supporting the foregoing endeavors, one of Alvin and Randall’s websites has a merchandizing page, with income generated supporting Oaxacan charities, and in the case of craft items with agave motifs engraved or embossed, all proceeds going to the artisan. Alvin’s most recent project in this regard, which came to fruition with my assistance, was the publication of a Mezcal Tasting Journal.
Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca will continue to fully financially and emotionally support Lucina until she is a specialist in her chosen field, and at the same time do their best to ensure that both Fondo Guadalupe Musalem and Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education, and Development benefit from the proceeds of the tours of Alvin Starkman and Randall Stockton.