Thursday, January 22, 2015

Cover story: "¡Tequila! Distilling the Spirit of Mexico"

Marie Sarita Gaytán is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Utah.

Her new book is ¡Tequila!: Distilling the Spirit of Mexico.

Here she explains the connection of the book's cover to the pages within:
Two iconic Mexican calaveras (skulls) gaze at a glass of tequila. The male figure, dressed in a suit, tie, and sombrero firmly holds a bottle of tequila with one hand, and confidently lifts a glass with the other. Smoking a cigar, this caballero (gentleman) has just poured a tequila as his female companion gently rests her chin on his shoulder. Perhaps she is about to ask him for a sip from his glass; or perhaps she is sneaking a peek at how the evening is going. He raises his glass to make a festive toast among friends as he savours his drink, eats posole, and plays cards. What does this scene reveal about tequila’s ties to Mexican identity?

Manuel Manilla’s Calavera Tapatía evokes a sense of nostalgia and other worldliness at the same time that it highlights the importance of everyday events—themes that play a central role in the story of how tequila became Mexico’s spirit, and by extension, a national symbol. As the cork on the left side of the table indicates, these calaveras are drinking a brand of tequila named “La Tapatía”—a term of endearment for people from the second largest city, Guadalajara, which is also located 45 kilometres from Tequila, the drink’s town of origin. Although made in the late 1800s, Manilla’s etching foreshadows the eventual importance of Guadalajara as the country’s most traditionally Mexican city, a reputation that would gain significant traction in comedia ranchera (ranch melodramas) films of the 1940s and 1950s. Tequila’s fame, as a drink for loyal and noble charros (Mexican cowboys), frequently played by beloved actors, including Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante, would also become solidified in these movies. Drinking in cantinas, at rodeos, and parties, on the big screen, charros showed Mexican audiences how tequila functioned as an emotive, patriotic, and “everyman” elixir.

As ¡Tequila! Distilling the Spirit of Mexico makes clear, paying attention to ordinary occasions matters—what, how, and with whom people consume can provide insight into the origins of how certain goods become associated with a nation’s customs. Although high-status individuals, including government officials and movie producers, unquestionably strengthened tequila’s ties to lo mexicano (Mexicanness), so too did members of the poor and working classes. Indeed, by the close of the nineteenth century, when Calavera Tapatía made, tequila was already becoming regarded as symbol of populist resistance to the Mexican elite, who favored European drinks like cognac and brandy.

Today in Mexico, tequila’s significance crosses class lines, and is widely seen as inclusive spirit, one that is often placed on the tables of weddings and one that can be purchased in cantinas and high-end bars across the country. Outside of Mexico, tequila, is the common drink of choice for rowdy college students and merrymaking tourists who liberally “shoot” or “slam” shots. Despite these raucous rituals, as the gentleman calavera in Manilla’s etching suggests, tequila is best sipped instead of slammed, so that it may be enjoyed among friends and family.
Learn more about ¡Tequila!: Distilling the Spirit of Mexico at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue