Women Making Mezcal in Oaxaca: Division of Labour between the Sexes
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
It is inaccurate to suggest that mezcal production in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca is by and large a man’s job or trade, and that there are very few palenqueras, that is artisanal mezcal distillers who are women. The female of the specie makes mezcal. Women’s involvement in the processes is essentially determined by the same criteria used to understand sex roles in other vocations in rural Oaxaca; strength and stamina, traditional child-rearing and other household responsibilities.
As most mezcal aficionados know, palenqueros (using the more generic term for male and female producers of the agave based spirit) typically do not read books or watch youtube videos to learn how to make the iconic Mexican, typically high alcohol content drink. They learn from their fathers, their uncles and their grandfathers, just as their relatives before them, over the course of generations. Young girls, just as young boys, begin learning the trade, virtually from infancy; watching, helping, and fantasizing their futures as palenqueros while in the course of playing on their own or with their friends and siblings. I frequently bear witness to this acquisition of knowledge.
Customarily women raise families, dating to the hunter and gatherer division of labor in humankind. Mothers remained close to home with the children, gathering fruits, nuts, berries, etc., and preparing meals, while their male partners were off on extended hunting expeditions often requiring that they be fleet of foot, and at times requiring more physical fortitude than women could muster. With mezcal production, typically the fields of agave under cultivation are relatively far from home, and if wild maguey is sought, the palenquero is often required to walk a couple of hours into the hills before coming across his bounty. The same holds true for scrounging and cutting firewood to fuel ovens and stills. Furthermore, lifting the piñas (heart of the succulent used to produce mezcal) often requires more strength than traditionally exhibited by women. Although sometimes while the palenquero is still in the field the piñas are cut into smaller pieces for their eventual baking, whether whole or halved they can weigh hundreds of pounds and must be lifted into trucks or onto the sides of donkeys or mules.
Women in Mezcal: Meanwhile…Back at the Palenque
Once back at the palenque (artisanal mezcal distillery), which often adjoins the homestead proper or is in close proximity to it, women’s work making mezcal begins in earnest, of course subject to their priority obligation of preparing meals and tending to the children. They nevertheless are often, and customarily, an integral part of the baking, crushing, fermenting and distilling processes, working alongside and even dictating to men.
True enough, women much less than men are involved in cutting the agave into appropriately sized pieces back at the palenque in preparation for baking, again for reasons relating to stamina and strength required to wield machetes, axes and mallets. Similarly splitting logs and loading the oven with large, heavy tree trunks is typically men’s work. But then when it comes to filling the oven with stones, wet bagazo (waste fiber from distillation), piñas, tarpaulins and earth, women participate, typically as equals to men. Even in the face of whatever remnants persist of the perceived macho mexicano, once the rocks in the oven have been sufficiently heated, it is important to second as many helpers both male and female to get the rest of the work done as expeditiously as possible filling and then sealing the oven airtight.
Women as well as men remove the piñas from the oven once the carbohydrates have been converted to sugars, or caramelized. Later on, in preparation for a subsequent bake, once again individuals of both sexes empty the chamber of the bagazo, stones and charcoal remaining at the bottom. These women are the daughters, daughters-in-law, mothers, wives/partners, nieces and granddaughters. I see them all participating, not infrequently, and they are as much a part of the processes as their male counterparts, including actually being in charge of directing and decision-making.
When crushing the baked agave is done by hand, then yes, almost exclusively it is men who attend to this most arduous task. But working the horse, determining when the pieces of maguey have been sufficiently pulverized, loading the receptacles for fermenting whether into wooden slat tanks, in-ground lined pits, bovine skins, or otherwise, is often the work of men and women shared equally. Similarly women are often the ones who load up and tend the stills be they clay or copper, decide upon the optimum ABV (alcohol by volume), and determine the appropriate cuts of head, body and tail so as to result in best possible flavor of the resulting double distilled mezcal.
But now let’s assume that the palenquera is also charged with typical household chores including meal preparation for the family and raising the children including attending to their health, education and general welfare. She cannot of course be reasonably expected to look after all this, as well as partner with her husband for example, in terms of directing and attending to all of the foregoing tasks required in the spirit’s production. However upon hearing the shout or receiving the cellular phone call from her male partner, cousin, son or father, she’s there, as needed. In addition, she is the one remaining at home in charge of sales. She typically also prepares comida for the men, and in fact it is customary when the home is not alongside the palenque, for the woman to bring food and drink for those (men) who are at some stage of producing the spirit; all this, as well as making mezcal.
Women in Mezcal: Necessity Dictates Roles
Economic necessity on occasion dictates that a woman, to almost the complete exclusion of men except in a support role, become a palenquera. She plants, tends, cuts and harvests maguey; splits logs, and even crushes by hand. In one case a husband/palenquero died suddenly in a car accident, leaving his wife and four young children. She became a palenquera in the traditional sense, doing everything previously done by her late husband, and raising the children. In another case a single mother’s two children left home for the US in their late teens, leaving her and her mother as the householders. She had learned mezcal production from her grandfather. Currently she has a reputation for being one of the very few palenqueras who does it all and produces one of the finest mezcals produced in the entire state of Oaxaca. She directs her underlings, that is, male cousins and neighbors, as to how to produce mezcal based on her exacting recipe. The foregoing are two exceptions to the tradition of both men and women working together, cooperatively with members of their families and communities.
A shift in paradigm is both warranted and strongly suggested when it comes to our perception of the industry being mainly within the purview of men. Women deserve to have their proper and important place acknowledged in the world of mezcal production in rural Oaxaca.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).