You Are What You Drink? Tequila, Maguey, and Mexican Identity


Mexico has multiple and contradictory identities in the imaginations of both Mexicans and foreigners. Ads and popular media romanticize Mexico as the land of mariachis, beaches, and picturesque ruins of ancient civilizations. Increasing instability, however, due to the drug trade and loss of governmental control in many areas has replaced romance with images of bloodshed. These contradictory ideas about Mexico reflect and are constituted by ideas about race and ethnicity (particularly regarding Mexico’s native population and social hierarchy. For example, Mexico’s indigenous past is romanticized as Mexicans and others celebrate the achievements of the Maya, Aztec, and other native civilizations. Yet present-day indigenous populations are discriminated against in Mexico and beyond its borders. Indeed, a clear color and class hierarchy exists in which darker-skinned people with strong indigenous backgrounds are likely to be poor and marginalized. Racism often combines with actual events to increase fears about Mexicans and disorder. Tequila, and its relatives pulque and mezcal, may seem unlikely and even frivolous additions to the discussion of race and representation. Remarkably, the history of these beverages reveals important aspects of the Mexican past and present.

Tequila is closely associated with Mexican national identity inside and outside of Mexico. Movies and advertisements link tequila with landowning horsemen and a romanticized Spanish colonial past.1 The names of the more expensive and popular tequilas exported to the United States – including Don Julio, Don Pedro, and Patron – evoke images of high-status Spanish-descent landowning culture. “Don” is an honorific reserved for men of elevated class or achievement. The term “patrón” (patron) also calls up images of wealth, status, and patriarchal largesse. Yet tequila is also associated with less romantic stereotypes of Mexicans as drunken, uncontrolled, and irresponsible. While the cartoon mouse Speedy Gonzales, introduced in the U.S. in the 1950s, was full of energy, his fellow Mexican mice were depicted as drunk and lazy.2 Although the iconic image of a sleeping Mexican, leaning against a cactus with a wide-brimmed hat dipped over his eyes, does not explicitly reference drunkenness, one can imagine an empty bottle just outside of the frame.

Tequila is a mezcal (a spirit made from the agave plant, also called maguey), produced in the town of Tequila, in the state of Jalisco. Mezcal de tequila became an export commodity in 1893 when a Jaliscan distiller won an award for his product at the Chicago World’s Fair. Tequila’s importance to Mexican identity is partially due to status as a mestizo (mixed) product with roots in indigenous and Spanish culture. Mestizaje (race mixture) is a point of pride for Mexicans. As the intellectual José Vasconcelos wrote in his 1925 Raza Cósmica, the mixing of Iberian and indigenous qualities was the essential ingredient for future Mexican success – this is what made Mexicans the “cosmic race.” (He mentioned the African-descent population only to dismiss it.)3 Echoing this pride in mixture, a recent history described mescal as “puro mestizo, a hybrid with vigor all its own.”4 In contrast, pulque, a drink made by fermenting maguey sap, has usually been associated with the indigenous population.5 Like tequila, pulque has been characterized in positive ways — in the period just after the Mexican Revolution pulque was celebrated as Mexico’s national drink, prized precisely for its associations with indigeneity.6

Pulque has a long history in Mesoamerica; according to popular belief, it has been consumed for millennia. Whenever it originated, pulque certainly had multiple uses and meanings before Spanish colonization. For example, in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century Aztec healers and ritual specialists used pulque to treat stomach ailments, skin problems, infertility, and other disorders. They also drank pulque as a ritual intoxicant and may have administered it to sacrificial victims to make them more compliant as they went to their deaths.7 Pulque also seems to have been associated with warriors, a group of central importance to the conquering Aztecs, and also with agricultural and human fertility. Texts presumed to be pre-Columbian depict Mayahuel, the goddess of pulque, with four hundred breasts and show her nursing a baby while sitting in an agave plant.89 Theoretically Aztec law restricted pulque use to elites and religious authorities and limited the amount of pulque one could drink. The numerous prohibitions against its use by commoners and young people, however, suggest that pulque was more commonly consumed.10 Pulque regulations reflected class hierarchy yet its use blurred class boundaries, and this tension continued into the colonial period.

Under Spanish rule beginning in the 1520s pulque retained many of its uses even as its cultural context changed. Christian evangelizers taught the Catholic doctrine to Nahuas and other native groups in Mexico and tried to eradicate native religious traditions and beliefs. Yet indigenous Mesoamericans continued to view pulque as sacred. Although Mayahuel could no longer be venerated publically, Nahuas associated the Virgin of Guadalupe, now Mexico’s patron saint, with maguey. Healers, Afro-Mexican as well as indigenous, continued to used pulque to treat gastrointestinal disorders and they used it as a medium to convey other medicines.11 Colonial residents also continued to drink pulque recreationally, and its use and abuse increased as colonized people turned to it as solace for the suffering caused by Spanish tribute and labor demands. Meanwhile, Spaniards began distilling mezcal from maguey, likely sometime in the sixteenth century when rum production began as well.12 Mezcal was probably developed as a substitute for products that were difficult to import from Spain. By the eighteenth century colonial officials compared it to Spanish wine and spirits, emphasizing the way the cheaper mezcal undercut imported drinks.13

Although all members of the population drank pulque and mescal, these drinks were often manufactured and sold by indigenous vendors, particularly in Oaxaca and Mexico City, the main colonial production areas. Spaniards in late eighteenth-century Mexico City eventually took over the trade, noting the opportunities presented by increasingly wealthy Indian consumers. Elsewhere, however, indigenous sellers were still the norm.14 Because pulquerías (pulque taverns) were often the sites of violence and even riots, Spanish and later national authorities were as eager as their Aztec predecessors to control pulque consumption and its disorderly potential. Authorities issued numerous decrees regulating the pulquerías: authorities specified the hours they could be open, where they could be located, how they would be arranged, whether food would or would not be sold alongside the beverage, whether pulque could be mixed with other elements, and other details.

There were racial undertones to the attempts to regulate pulquerías: although pulque and, to a lesser extent, mescal were associated with indigenous people long before the eighteenth century, the association became marked in the late eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century as Enlightenment-inspired reformers increased attempts to control consumption. Legislation, taxation records, and popular images show how associations of pulque with disorder were overlaid with racialized assumptions about the behavior and capabilities of different groups. Pulquerías were prohibited from the central areas of city centers, places where Spanish elites spent time, and were pushed into the margins of cities or into the often largely indigenous villages outside the city center.15 A few eighteenth-century paintings that portray people of indigenous and African ancestry as violent show them as drunk, with bottles appearing in scenes of domestic disorder.16 In some cases the same terms were used to describe racial categories and alcoholic drinks. For example, in a 1783 report, the term coyote, sometimes used to describe a person who was ¾ indigenous and ¼ Spanish, also described a “very noxious” beverage made from “inferior pulque” and dark honey.”17 Spanish authorities were very concerned with adulteration of drinks and with mixing of different ingredients. For example, in 1786 one Spanish official in New Vizcaya claimed that “pure mezcal, made from maguey, is not a noxious drink, nor is it dangerous to the health, as long as it is not mixed with any other ingredient.”18 Other reports, including that of 1783, warned against mixing ingredients. These warnings about mixing alcohol may be a faint echo of contemporary Spanish fears about race mixing as well.

Pulque and mezcal continued in popularity after Mexican independence in 1821, although the abolition of racial signifiers means that it is less easy to trace the racial identities of sellers and consumers in the nineteenth-century documentation. The associations of pulque with indigenous and lower class people continued and these associations have been emphasized through tourism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Although beer is now more popular than pulque, travelers hoping to experience indigenous traditions often sample pulque during their stay in Mexico. In contrast, tequila has had an increasing international impact. Beginning in the 1920s, José Cuervo and other tequila manufacturers mounted national and international marketing campaigns. Ads from the 1920s and 30s often show light-skinned Mexicans of European descent on horseback celebrating festive events such as weddings with toasts of tequila. These ads often modernize their depictions of a traditional wealthy ranching class with glimpses of modern automobiles and airplanes in the background.19 Romantic associations between tequila and Mexicanness were developed in the work of popular artists as well. José Alfredo Jiménez, usually depicted attired in the “typical” sombrero and serape of northern Mexico, often mixed references to tequila in his songs about the melancholy of lost love.20 Modern Mexican singers, including the internationally-recognized Lila Downs, continue this tradition, although when Downs sings that “as a good Mexican woman, I will suffer peaceful pain, after all is said and done tomorrow, I will have a drink of tequila” she is commenting on modern gender roles as well as traditional sorrows.21

Pulque has become sidelined in the 21st century, functioning more as a novelty item than an export commodity. (One reason is that pulque is consumed fresh and can’t be exported.) Mezcal producers, particularly those from the state of Oaxaca, are trying to break into the international market, although they have not been as successful as tequila producers in marketing their products broadly. Tequila, of course, has great influence and meaning outside of Mexico and has increased its market share in the United States steadily since the 1950s. Today high-end tequilas are marketed to luxury consumers around the world and Mexican producers are developing organic and flavored tequilas to appeal to an international audience with evolving tastes.

This brief foray into the history of pulque, tequila, and other mescals ends with a revealing and (I hope) illuminating paradox: although Mexico’s primary product is oil, it may be better known for its tequila. This contradiction invites us to look more closely at what maguey alcohol can tell us about representation, commerce, and Mexico’s identity on the international stage.

Joan Bristol is Associate Professor in the Department of History and Art History at Mason and is the author of Christians, Blasphemers, and Witches: Afro-Mexican Ritual Practice in the Seventeenth Century (University of New Mexico Press, Diálogos series, 2007).


  1. José Orozco, “Gabriel Espíndola Martínez: Tequila Master,” in The Human Tradition in Mexico, ed. Jeffery M. Pilcher, Scholarly Resources, 2003: 225-234. Ana G. Valenzuela-Zapata and Gary Paul Nabham, Tequila!: A Natural and Cultural History, University of Arizona Press, 2003: 13-14; Alfonso Alfaro, “El Agave Símbolico,” Artes de Mexico 27:11. For an example of this kind of romanticization see Enrique Martínez Limon, Tequila: The Spirit of Mexico, Abbeville Press, 2000. []
  2. Yet another example of sterotypization: in 2006 U.S. Supreme Court Justice Scalia, discussing whether a deported criminal was observing probation restrictions, remarked “Nobody thinks [he] is really, you know, abstaining from tequila down in Mexico because he is on supervised release in the United States.” See also Tim Mitchell, Intoxicated Identities: Alcohol and Power in Mexican History and Culture, Routledge, 2004. []
  3. José Vasconcelos, La Raza Cósmica: Misión de la Raza Iberoamericana (Barcelona: Agencia Mundial de Librería, 1958), 19. []
  4. Valenzuela-Zapata and Nabham describe mescal as “puro mestizo, a hybrid with vigor all its own.” Ibid. supra note 1: 13-14. []
  5. Juan Pedro Viquiera Albán, Propriety and Permissiveness in Bourbon Mexico trans. Sonya Lipsett-Rivera and Sergio Rivera Ayala (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1999), 130-144. For late colonial pulque licenses given almost entirely to indigenous sellers in the Mexico City, Puebla, and Durango see Archivo General de la Nación (hereafter AGN), Ramo Archivo Histórico de Hacienda; Ramo Ayuntamiento, and Ramo Alcabalas. []
  6. Amie Wright, “’La Bebida Nacional’: Pulque and Mexicanidad,” Canadian Journal of History, 44 (Spring 2009): 3. []
  7. Florentine Codex, trans. Arthur J.O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble, School of American Research, 1950-1955 (12 books in 13 parts) 4: 41-59, Codex Mendoza, edited by Frances Berdan, University of California Press, 1992, 2: 67-80, 233; Hernando Ruíz de Alarcón, Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions, trans. and ed. J. Richard Andrews and Ross Hassig, University of Oklahoma Press, 1984: 15, 215-217; Toribio de Benavente Motolinía, History of the Indians of New Spain, trans. and ed. Elizabeth Andras Foster, Cortés Society, 1950: 67-78. []
  8. Elizabeth Hill Boone, Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), 57-62; Codex Mendoza, 232-233. []
  9. Codex Borgia; Codices Selecti, v. 26 (Codex Fejervary-Mayer), Graz: Akademische Druck – u. Verlagsanstalt. []
  10. Florentine Codex, 6: 14, 67-77; Inga Clendinnen, Aztecs: An Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 48. []
  11. William B. Taylor, Drinking, Homicide, and Rebellion in Colonial Mexican Villages, Stanford University Press, 1979: 31; Ruiz de Alarcon: 184, 215-217. []
  12. Ibid. supra note 1: 9. While there is some evidence that pre-Columbian Mesoamericans knew about distillation, it was not commonly practiced. []
  13. Ibid. supra note 5, AGN, Ayuntamiento. Vol. 117, exp. 4. []
  14. John E. Kicza, “The Pulque Trade of Late Colonial Mexico City,” Americas v. 37, no. 2 (October, 1980): 193-194. []
  15. Viquiera Albán, 130-163. AGN, Ayuntamiento. Vol. 74, exp. 7; Ayuntamiento. v. 74, exp. 3, Ayuntamiento. vol. 68, exp. 16. []
  16. Ilona Katzew, Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004): 31, 119. []
  17. AGN Aguardiente de Caña. Vol. 1, exp. 1. []
  18. AGN. Ayuntamiento. Vol. 117, exp. 2. []
  19. The current exhibit (as of January 2011), Imágenes para la historia: estampas de lo popular mexicana at the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares in Mexico City contains several such ads for Cuervo tequila and El Aguila cigarettes. []
  20. See “Ella,” “El Último Trago.” Although it is not clear when he wrote and performed these songs, José Alfredo Jiménez (1926-1973) sang them frequently during his career and they appear on discs of his greatest hits released after his death. []
  21. Lila Downs, “La Tequilera,” from La Cantina, released 2006. []


Print This Post Print This Post

This entry was posted on Monday, March 28th, 2011 at 3:12 pm and is filed under Americas, History, Identity, Social Justice, Society. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.


Leave a Reply