Friday, March 10, 2006

naked men in vats of agave juice

At Orion magazine, there is an article and photographs by Douglas Menuez, a piece entitled Love Song of the Agave. You know, years ago, when I was young and read, say, a National Geographic article on some fascinating place in the world, with a culture and tradition that rich and complex, it did not enter my mind then, that there was any danger it would disappear.
Now, it's the first thing that comes into my mind.

Tequila "by law is place-specific, made from blue agave grown in Jalisco and some nearby states". It is a gift given from the gods to the Aztecs. The knowledge of making tequila survived through the long, complicated, brutal history of Mexico and for more than nine thousand years, the blue agave has been cultivated and its juice fermented. The method is more than the manufacture of something as if in a factory. It's a way of life, it's a ritual, a tradition, a central underpinning of the social fabric that makes family life, and survival in a harsh place, bearable.

As I read about this, I was sad, because I know that already, agave is so rare, it takes so long for the agave to mature to the stage that the juice can be harvested, that 'artificial' tequila is being manufactured, instead. There was also some pest or disease that was decimating the agave, was there not? Also, recently, I discovered that a firm from South Africa is making tequila, as agave does grow in South Africa's climate. They are introducing it into North American markets as we speak!

Unfortunately, I'm thinking: did the Aztec gods give the gift of tequila to the South African company too? Was the right way to make tequila passed down from father to son in the Nahuatl tongue, the original language of the indigeneous Mexican people? What happens to "the way", "the window", and the love embodying the traditional world-view involved in the making of tequila in Mexico? Will there still be naked men in the vats of agave juice a hundred years from now?

There are some things we should not do, just because we can and make a buck. Would that there were more enlightened investors who could see the necessity of keeping the magic of some of our old traditions in this world alive! While I would wish for an easier and more peaceful life for the makers of tequila in Mexico, would there not be some imaginative way we could ensure the tradition does not die?


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