Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D., photos courtesy of Spike Mafford Photography
Visitors who come to Oaxaca for the purpose of sampling and buying mezcal, for learning about the culture of palenqueros and their families, and for a plethora of other reasons, periodically comment on changes observed over the past several years. Things are rather different today from what they experienced on an earlier visit or from what they have been told. However, a dramatic difference from just 15 years ago, perhaps less, which largely goes un-noticed, has been in the psyche or spirit of many agave distillers and their brethren.
One of the two differences which does jump out is prices charged for mezcal in the villages near the city of Oaxaca. A dozen years ago a liter of espadín cost as little as 20 pesos, and now it’s upwards of 300 pesos.
The other main difference upon which many of the clients of our Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca comment, is in the installations at the palenques: more ovens, stills and fermentation vats; added and up-graded distillation and bottling facilities; relatively modern and/or updated concrete homes where previously much more simple adobe abodes existed; and newer vehicles. That’s all fine, and certainly welcomed by the families of palenqueros, but it’s merely “stuff.” A much more important change began to take hold. Material possessions can do only so much for the soul of a people.
Prior to the mid-1990s commencement of what I term the modern era of mezcal, very few people were interested in the spirit. In the US that gut-wrenching hooch was drank mainly in shots, by youths who couldn´t afford anything better, with all manner of myth about who gets the worm. In urban Mexico it was shunned, a drink for poor village folk.
Then the pilgrimage began.
Along with those wanting to learn, buy and sample, came the rest; the entrepreneurs interested in starting their own brands, the professional photographers, the documentary film makers and other media sorts.
And so a transformation began, not merely bringing more revenue into family coffers, but something much more profound and “needed,” I would suggest; a dramatic change in the self-esteem and sense of self-worth of the palenqueros, their partners, sons, daughters, parents and grandparents.
Although my introduction to the world of mezcal began with my travels to the state in the late 1960s, I must confess that my memory of visits to palenques and to the homes of the makers of mezcal is vague at best. But my witnessing of the noted metamorphosis, beginning in the early 1990s, does indeed afford me an opportunity to comment on change ushered in which began in earnest with the beginning of mezcal’s modern era.
In previous years, palenqueros and their family members were extremely meek, modest, and at times interacted with visitors from abroad with literally their heads bowed down. It was as if they were close to being embarrassed about what they did for a living; “Try it, I have two or three kinds of mezcal which might interest you.”
Today there’s a rather discernable sense of self-pride in their craft, in how they make their distillate. Even without a request being made they are anxious to illustrate each stage of production. There is a sense of self-worth, and confidence that you will want to learn from them and have them and their partners and their children have you sample their mezcal.
Of course each wants to make a sale. But now there’s something more, in their affect, in their interactions with those from outside of their world. Heads are now high, smiles peek through, “Come and let me show you this.”
If you buy, that’s great, but if not, the palenquero has nevertheless obtained something equally if not more important for himself and his family members, a shot in the arm of self-respect, dignity, and sense of worth which money cannot buy.
And now, when the photographer shows up at the palenque, there’s no longer the retort that he doesn’t want his soul to be stolen. He wants to be pictured online and in magazines. He wants to be one of the subjects in a documentary.
I personally detect the pride, the enthusiasm, the courageousness, all shining through at every turn; perhaps not as much when interacting with middle class urban Mexicans who in recent memory would not even venture into the villages beyond just passing through along a highway to somewhere else. But still, even then, there’s a glimmer of difference in self-image, as if to say “Now what do you think about what I do?”
And so come for a visit to rural Oaxaca armed with cameras and video equipment. Don’t feel like you are intruding into their worlds and will be perceived as mere gawkers; nor embarrassed that you might not buy enough or any at all. Understand that you’re doing your part to help the palenquero and his family.
Money buys a little, but more importantly, sampling agave distillates from the source is like serving chicken soup … it’s good for the soul.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). He and Spike Mafford, photographer, collaborated on the recently published book, Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances, Third Expanded Edition with Portraits.