Culturescapes of Agave & Mezcal

| | ,

How a beloved plant and its spirit foster culture, character, and identity in Mexico and beyond.

by Luis E. Coronado Guel

In the 1968 film Por mis pistolas, set in the wild west, Cantinflas—the most celebrated Mexican comedian—called bacanora “the remedy for all ills.”  This miraculous and crisp “water,” as Cantinflas called it, made from agave in the state of Sonora, Mexico, has become one of the most popular alcoholic spirits of the Arizona-Sonora border region. Like other agave spirits, it symbolizes a natural, historical, and cultural connection between Mexico and the United States.  

In the US Southwest and throughout Mexico, the agave plant—and its many derivatives—has been extensively represented in art, cuisine, architecture, literary narratives, cinema, and music. These “culturescapes” offer a prismatic lens through which to observe and understand this plant and its relationship with people across time. The symbolic and historical representations of agave in popular culture reflect how culture, nature, and identity converge in the constructed identity narratives of both Mexico and the United States.

Three men in a movie still from the 1960s.
Mario Moreno “Cantinflas” drinking Bacanora in the 1968 film Por mis pistolas.
Agave and Mezcal Historical Landscapes 

From the United States to the tropical areas of South America, some 200 agave species grow. Seventy five percent of them—150 species—are found in Mexico, mostly in the southern mountainous regions of central Mexico, Sierra Madre Occidental, the Mexican Altiplano, Baja California and Sierra Madre Oriental. The states with the highest agave diversity are Oaxaca, Puebla, Sonora, Queretaro, Durango, and Sinaloa.[1] Agaves are also found in Mexico’s northern borderlands and into the US Southwest.

Indigenous people have used agave for millennia, making utensils and clothing from its fibers, using its leaves for building houses or cooking, and fermenting or distilling it into alcohol to make beverages such as pulque or mezcal.

As a fermented beverage, pulque is attributed to early people of central Mexico. Explicit evidence of this is recorded in scenes from various codex painted before the arrival of Europeans.

But the origin of mezcal has unleashed much debate. As a distilled hard liquor, some evidence suggests it originated when Spaniards brought their distillation methods to Mexico, making it a “mestizo” product, a mix of Indigenous and Spanish traditions. Other historians argue it was brought by Chinese or Filipino sailors. Filipinos arrived in Mexico around 1570 and arguably introduced a distillation technique for processing coconut nectar, specifically in Colima and other areas of Mexico’s Pacific coast where coconuts are abundant.

Four clay pitchers for agave distillation.
Ancestral distillation process in clay. These rudimentary materials and technology are still used in remote regions of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, and elsewhere.

However, recent research has challenged outside introduction of the distillation process. Discoveries made by Mexican archeologists and anthropologists Mari Carmen Serra Puche, Jesus Carlos Lazcano, and Manuel de la Torre, from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), suggest mezcal might have also pre-dated the conquest.[2] In 1994 archaeological excavations in Tlaxcala and Oaxaca revealed ovens and even burned agave remains dating between 600 and 400 years BC.

Language itself might offer more clues. The word mezcal derives from the Nahuatl words “metl” for maguey or agave and “ixcalli,” meaning cocido or cooked, which describes the process required to produce the spirit.

Nahuatl legend has it that both pulque and mezcal come from Mayahuel, the goddess of fertility. When Mayahuel was turned into a maguey (Agave pulquero or Agave salmiana), her main aim was to give people the necessary gifts to survive. This explains the many uses of agaves in pre-colonial cultures.

According to Aztec-Mexica cosmology, Mayahuel is the mother of four hundred rabbits, the gods of drunkenness, and had four hundred breasts to be able to feed them. Once, during a big storm, lightning struck a field of agaves, cooking the hearts of the plants and creating the liquor from the burned starches. Some versions suggest Mayahuel herself sent the thunderbolts in order to offer the liquor to her children.

A depiction of the Mexica Goddess Mayahuel painted in the Codex Borgia from the Sixteenth Century.
Mexica (Aztec) Goddess Mayahuel painted in the Codex Borgia, Sixteenth Century.

While we may never know the truth of these incidents, what remains for me is a fascination with how both agave and mezcal have become archetypes of Mexico’s character, culture, and identity.

Cultural Landscapes of Agave and Mezcal in New Spain

After Hernan Cortes’s conquest of Tenochtitlan, the Spanish extended their influence over the Mexica empire with a medieval productive system and Iberian social hierarchies. While many Indigenous spiritual traditions were replaced with Catholicism, in everyday life the extensive use of local products that had been fundamental sources of food, housing, and clothing continued. Among them were many species of agave.

Cardinal Fray Francisco Jimenez recorded the many uses of agave plants among the Indigenous people. In one chronicle he wrote: “This plant alone appears sufficient to provide the human race with all it needs to survive, and the benefits and vitalities that may be gleaned from it are almost infinite, because the plant as a whole serves as barrier and protection for landholdings. The leaves serve as tiles to protect the roofs from rain, the stalks serve as beams, and the leaves themselves as source of fiber for thread, from which they make slippers and fabric.”[3]

Uses of the agave plant in the Florentine Codex, Sixteenth Century, featuring people using a stick to collect plants and place them in a basket they are carrying on their backs.
Uses of the agave plant in the Florentine Codex, Sixteenth Century.

Fray Toribio de Benavente, called Motolinia by Indigenous people, also observed the use of agave for clothing, shoes, sandals, blankets, and cloaks. In his mention of the production of pulque, he was amazed by its curative properties. Motolinia also observed the production of a hard liquor made by cooking the heart of the maguey. The Spaniards liked this liquor, called “mexcalli,” and began to produce it on a larger scale in various regions during the colonial era. It became known as vino mezcal, or mezcal wine.[4]  According to Alberto Ruy Sanchez and Margarita Orellana, the earliest known mezcal factory was established in 1600 in what is now the state of Jalisco by Pedro de Tagle, Marquis of Altamira, and Knight of the Order of Calatrava.[5]

During the colonial era—or the viceregal period, as many Mexican historians call it, refusing the idea of New Spain being simply a colony— agave and mezcal became an indispensable feature of Mexican culture, identity, and imagery.

Hasta Ver la Cruz: The Spirituality of Agave Spirits

When Cortes arrived in Tenochtitlan to meet Moctezuma, emperor of the Mexicas, one of his men, a captain named Juan Rodriguez de Villafuerte, left a figurine of the Virgin of Remedios in the major temple, the planned site of the largest cathedral of the continent. [1] On June 30, 1520, when the Mexicas protested and fought back, the Spaniards fled, taking the figurine with them. In the town of Tlacopan, now Tacuba, they hid the virgin under a big agave plant. The Virgin of Remedios was a Spanish version of the Virgin Mary, usually associated with the peninsular Spaniards, not with Mexican people. When the hidden figurine was discovered under an agave in Tlalnepantla, in northern Mexico City, many years after Cortes’ soldiers left it there, the Virgin was recognized as the saint patron of that place. This amalgam—an icon of Spanish religion and an archetypical Mexican plant—inspired numerous paintings and images symbolizing the eternal union of Mexico and Spain.   

A 17th Century painting of a man kneeling, praying to a Spanish Virgina de los Remedios statue placed on an agave.
Painting by Miguel Cabrera, “Hallazgo de la Virgen de los Remedios por el Cacique Juan de Tovar” Seventeenth Century, Basilic of the Remedios, Tlalnepantla Mexico.

This combination of agave, mezcal, religious iconography, and national identity can be thought of as a culturescape, which D. Paul Schafer defines as: “an exposition of all the different cultural features—natural, historical, sensorial, social, economic, political, aesthetic, and human—of an environment. It is an environment assaulted by all the human faculties—an explorer’s curiosity set loose on the incredible panorama of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, institutions, activities, and events encountered in daily life.”[6]

Mexicans’ relationship with agave and mezcal embraces many the elements of Mexico’s culturescape. From industry to religion, architecture to cuisine, tradition to consumerism, agave and mezcal can be identified in different dimensions of Mexico’s history, spirituality, economy, identity, culture, and society.  

Like maíz and chile, mezcal and agave have become prolific elements in popular culture. They are so embedded in Mexican identity that they appear in idiomatic expressions of life philosophies. For example, phrases like drinking “hasta ver la cruz,” which expresses a kind of Mexican spontaneity and intensity, comes from the cross etched in the bottom of common shot glasses for mezcal. These little glasses—early versions of “caballitos” for tequila shots—were originally used as votives to hold candles honoring saints or departed people. 

Four shot glasses. One is upside down, showing the cross at the glass' bottom.
Mezcal shot glass with a cross at the base.

While drinking “hasta ver la cruz” may mean drinking the entire pour, it may also mean drinking to death—even to the point of seeing Jesus Christ at the cross. Perhaps ironically, this intensity could be said to reflect a passion for life: life is so ephemeral that such moments—drinking mezcal and celebrating with friends and family—should be enjoyed to the fullest, as one never knows when is going to be so happy again.

Agave: Essential Imagery of Modern Mexico

One of most enduring legacies of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) was its cultural mark on Mexico’s identity. During the long rule of President Porfirio Diaz (1876-1911) life in Mexico was preponderantly Europe-centered. The revolutionaries challenged this, bringing together people of various classes and regions to create a diverse, multiracial, class-integrated, and democratic nation—at least in appearance.

José Vasconcelos, who was nicknamed the “cultural caudillo” of the revolution, believed in unifying Mexico under a mestizo or “mixed” racial and cultural umbrella. In his 1925 book, La Raza Cósmica, he argued that that all humans came from a single race that arrived from the cosmos onto planet Earth and that mixed races were closer to perfection than any “pure” races.

An engraving featuring five people kneeling, praying to a giant agave with the Virgin de Guadalupe at its center.
Engravement Sorprendente Milagro by José Guadalupe Posada (1893).

With the assistance of prominent intellectuals, scientists, and artists, Vasconcelos cemented the cultural project of the revolution, which the government then implemented through public policies and new institutions. The nation was represented through a series of images that showed its idyllic small towns, landscapes of agaves, colorful traditions and costumes, Indigenous people, pyramids, volcanoes, horses, and adobe houses. After 1920, these images appeared in public murals, paintings, textbooks, photographs, and calendars, and were widely circulated through radio and cinema.

A magazine cover from 1914 witha  Mexican soldier with an agave by him, holding a rifle in front of the Mexican flag.
Magazine Cover La Illustración Semanal (1914)

In iconic movies of this era, hillsides of cactus and agaves appeared as the quintessential Mexican landscape. Charros—Mexican cowboys—drinking mezcal de Tequila and listening to mariachi music became the model of masculinity on the big screen. These images were disseminated internationally through films like the 1936 Alla en el Rancho Grande, the country’s first massive-box-office hit, which marked the beginning of the “golden era” of Mexican cinema from 1936 to 1957.

This film featured an idealized bucolic life of Mexico’s countryside in Jalisco, a region famous for its high-quality mezcal. (What many North Americans call “tequila” is simply a mezcal specific to the region of Tequila, Jalisco.) Local people saw themselves mirrored on the big screen, singing and drinking in brotherhood around the handsome singer, Tito Guizar. For Mexican audiences, seeing people drinking shots of mezcal in a cantina symbolized social class reconciliation after the revolution. For foreign audiences, the movie was a form of propaganda; it showed a country ready for tourism and investment.

In 1931, Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein filmed some of the most iconic images of Mexico for Que Viva Mexico! The film celebrated the aesthetics of the revolution and the intimate relationships between culture, people, and nature in its opening scenes. Among these scenes were agave fields from the volcanic landscapes of central Mexico to the Mayan pyramids of the Yucatan. The film was influenced by renowned artists of the country’s muralist movement—Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jose Clemente Orozco, and Frida Kahlo,[7] who led Eisenstein and his crew on a tour of the country during the filming. Eisenstein’s wide and long-held shots along with his inclusion of detailed costumes, Indigenous cultures, and historical sites, were as “muralistic” as works by Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco. (Though Eisenstein never finished the film during his lifetime, it was completed by Grigori Aleksandrov in 1979.)

Still image from Sergei Eisenstein's for the 1932 film Que Viva Mexico. In the still, Indigenous people are carrying a body in a casket through a field of agave.
Still image from Sergei Eisenstein’s for the 1932 film Que Viva Mexico

Films from the golden era show the complexities of Mexican social life, where class, gender, and racial distinctions both clash and co-exist, and modernity and tradition collide. The stories and music in these films, whether set in urban areas or the countryside, often refer to agave, mezcal, and tequila. Singers such as Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante, Lucha Reyes, Chavela Vargas, and actors such as Mario Alfonso Moreno, aka “Cantinflas,” appeared in scenes drinking tequila, singing, and suffering for love. In so doing, they reaffirmed notions and traditions of social class, masculinity, femininity, race, and other identities, further cementing agave and its spirits with the Mexican collective imagination of identity and culture.  

Mario Moreno “Cantinflas” in the 1944 film Gran Hotel
Drunkenness: The Deep Human Connection with Mezcal

“Con un polvo y otro polvo se formó la polvadera, con un trago y otro trago se formó la borrachera.” These lyrics from the traditional song by Ruben Fuentes symbolize a particular philosophy of life. “With some dust and more dust, a dust cloud was formed; with a drink and another drink, drunkenness was formed.” Drunkenness is a casual, spontaneous, even unavoidable, and beautiful happening—just as life is. And death, when it comes.  

As a social practice in Mexico, drinking (and not drinking) alcohol carries with it many cultural implications. Refusing a drink, for example, can give someone the reputation of a coward or a bad friend. Depending on the context, drinking can foster honor or dishonor. A shot of mezcal (or many) can lead to the closing of a business deal, the serenading of a woman, the demonstration of friendship, a life-risking act, or a catharsis.

A still from a black and white film where a man wearing a large sombrero and a vest of bullets, has his arm around another man. An empty bottle of mezcal is on the table.
Scene from the 1934 film El Compadre Mendoza

The whole story revolves around the way the hacienda owner Mr. Mendoza, successfully negotiated his social status by drinking mezcal with revolutionary generals from contrary factions.

In the 1960s, José Alfredo Jimenez, one of the most significant composers of ranchero music, was fiercely criticized by the press and the public for his corrido “Llegó borracho el borracho” (The drunk arrived drunk). The song tells the story of an alcoholic getting drunk with a bartender until they fight and eventually kill each other, both offended over small things. It scandalized the country’s conservative society.

A songbook cover for "Llego borracho el boraccho" by Jose Alfredo Jimenez featuring a man in a sombrero playing a guitar in an orange tone.
Jose Alfredo Jimenez, song book cover

Long before these cinematic dramas, however, the Mexicas mythologized drunkenness through the Centzon Totochtin, the four hundred “rabbit lords.” Recognized as guardians of agave drinks, they animated the different personality traits a drunken person can exhibit—from joy to euphoria, aggression to sleep, sadness to crying. All these stages relate to a Mexican way of life, bridging identity, cosmogony, and the intense experiences of everyday reality.

The singer Chavela Vargas, known for her tender, yet fierce voice, became famous in Mexico for her versions of Mexican rancheras. Though born in Costa Rica, when asked by a journalist if she considered herself Mexican, responded. “We Mexicans are born wherever we damn want.”

A black and white photo of a laughing Frida Kahlo laying atop a laughing Chavela Vargas who has her hand on Frida's chest.
Frida Kahlo with Chavela Vargas, Photograph by Nickolas Muray

This fiery attitude was part of her persona and performance life, which included the romance—and pitfalls—of agave spirits. She associated—and partied heavily—with artists and intellectuals such Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Juan Rulfo, and José Alfredo Jimenez. One urban legend says that every time Vargas visited a bar or restaurant and was offered the best tequila, she’d say, “The best tequila of the world is extinct because I drank it all when I partied with my friend José Alfredo Jimenez.”

A black and white photo of Frida Kahlo waving her robozo while standing in front of a large agave.
Frida Kahlo. Photo by Toni Frissell

But the drinking caught up with her: Vargas stopped performing performance for 15 years because of alcoholism. Once she returned to the stage, her attitude and resilience inspired women and non-binary people who saw in her a courageous androgyny at a time when gender fluidity was not well tolerated.

Without a doubt, agave spirits can bring redemption or ruin. But as social barometers of euphoria and discontent, they seem to have a lasting hold in Mexico on everything from revolutions, business deals, and diplomatic entanglements.

And they continue to be celebrated via old movies and music, such as Lucha Reyes’s “La Tequilera:”[8]

“As a good Mexican woman
I will suffer pain serenely.
Anyways tomorrow
I will drink a good tequila.”

“[Como buena mexicana
Sufriré el dolor tranquila,
Al fin al cabo mañana
Tendré un trago de tequila]”

La última y nos vamos

Agave, and the spirit it produces, mezcal, have inspired a rich tradition of cultural expression throughout Mexico. This spirit reaches the US desert Southwest and beyond via both cultural and economic forces. As mezcal is poured in cantinas from Mexico City to Tucson to Chicago to Amsterdam, it carries with it a vast culturescape of heritage, popular culture, spiritualism, biodiversity, and Mexicanidad. At the center of this culturescape might be a simple expression of joy, an embrace of humanity in all its shadows and light, facilitated by a spirit made from the heart of the agave.  

As the toast goes, “Pa’ todo mal mezcal, pa’ todo bien también.” For all hardships, mezcal, for all wellness, as well.


[1] Lopez Romero, Julio & Ayala-Zavala, J. Fernando & Aguilar, Gustavo & Peña-Ramos, Etna & Ríos, Humberto. (2017). “Biological activities of Agave by-products and their possible applications in food and pharmaceuticals: Biological activities of Agave extracts.” Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. 98. 10.1002/jsfa.8738.

[2] Serra Puche, Mari Carmen, and Lazcano Arce Jesús Carlos. 2016. El Mezcal, Una Bebida Prehispánica : Estudios Etnoarqueológicos Primera edición ed. México, Distrito Federal: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas.

[3] Quoted in Ruy Sánchez Alberto, and Margarita de Orellana. Tequila : A Traditional Art of Mexico. México, D.F.: Artes de México, 2004. p. 51

[4] Ibid. p. 53

[5] Ibid. p. 54

[6] D.P. Schafer: “The culturescape: self-awareness of communities.” Culture and Community. 1978. Cultures, V. 5, No. 1. Paris: Unesco Press and La Baconnière. Pp. 189-190

[7] Geduld, Harry M, Ronald Gottesman, Sergei Eisenstein, and Upton Sinclair. Sergei Eisenstein and Upton Sinclair the Making & Unmaking of Que Viva Mexico! Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.

[8] Song La Tequilera by Alfredo D’Orsay.

__

Luis E. Coronado Guel is the Director of SBS Mexico Initiatives, and an adjunct professor at the History Department, affiliated faculty to the Department of Mexican American Studies, the Binational Migration Institute, and research associate at the Southwest Center. He holds a doctorate in Latin American History. His research interests include the cultural and intellectual history of nineteenth and twentieth century Mexico, specifically, its nation-state building processes by analyzing patriotic celebrations and public rituals. He is also interested in the history of mass media and technology’s development in Mexico as a result of 1910 Cultural Revolution. His first book, La Alameda Potosina ante la llegada del ferrocarril (2009, 2015) is an intellectual and cultural history on the impact of the railway on the region of San Luis Potosí.

2 thoughts on “Culturescapes of Agave & Mezcal”

  1. Thank you Luis for an engrossing article! I love the mix of history and popular culture! And I’ve sent it on to others who I know will appreciate it.

    Reply
  2. Loved it. Fascinating is the association of agave/mescal and Mexico, historically, visually, culturally, & esthetically. I am 81 and grew up in Texas where every one knew & loved Cantinflas. A plaster sculpture of him welcomed us in the best Mexican restaurants.
    Thanks for this enlightening article and a skip down memory lane!

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Skip to content