PEOPLE AND PLANT
UNESCO’s definition of a cultural landscape includes: "…combined works of nature and humankind, they express a long and intimate relationship between peoples and their natural environment."
The Agave Cultural Landscape of Mexico is not celebrated for objects or architecture, but instead for the relationship between the people of the region and the natural environment. Agave products are sold worldwide and support the people in a sustainable way.
We know that agave (also called maguey), was domesticated around 3,500 years ago, and was most likely used even earlier as well, in its wild state. One regional story says that Tlacuache, or Possum, was responsible for assigning the course of rivers. Usually he would draw them straight, but when he drank the fermented pulque, the river would meander, wandering this way and that, like a drunken person.
The agave plant gave more than just an intoxicating drink. It provided the fiber for clothing, brushes, spoons, nets, fans, rope, and even paper. The central stems make musical instruments and are strong enough to be used for building, with leaves that provide roofing. Leaves can also be used for fuel. Sharp spines made pins and sewing needles, as well as arrowheads. The sap, called aquamiel or honeywater, makes a sweetener that is widely used today. Other juices can be used as medicines, and as soap. The relationship between the agave plant and the people of the region is long and intertwined. The people care for the plants, and the plants provide for the people.
There is evidence of agave ovens that date from 400 B.C.E., either used heat the agave heads to begin the fermentation process for creating alcoholic beverages, or to cook them to eat.
The plant is perfectly adapted to its rugged and dry environment. The thick leaves hold moisture. The plant grows large and, after 12 years it sends out a stalk to flower, just once. During this time, which can last for months, the plant drives moisture and nourishment up the stalk in the form of a rich, sweet sap that can ferment naturally inside the plant or outside. This fermented, alcoholic brew is called pulque, which was an ancient drink favored by the Aztecs and many others, but also considered sacred and therefore was reserved for priests and nobles. Because of its nourishing qualities, it was given to pregnant women and the elderly, regardless of status.
Pulque fermentation can occur naturally, or the sap can be scooped or drained out, and the pulque placed in casks. With the Spanish, agave was not only fermented, but distilled, leaving a stronger drink. Plantations began in the 17th century. When distilled or purified, the fermented drink from blue agave becomes tequila. The leaves are stripped off and the head or pina (pineapple) where the plant stores the sap and juices, is cut and roasted in ovens. The resulting liquid is fermented and distilled. Each head or pina can take 10 years to grow and weigh as much as 100 pounds.
The Spanish brought stills from the rum trade for distilleries and taxed the products.
In the 17th century the Camino Royale opened an easier route from the agave-growing areas to the larger cities like Guadalajara and Mexico City, as well as all the way to the Pacific Ocean, for shipping. Tequila and other forms of mescal shipped well, while pulque did not. So while pulque stayed popular with the local people, tequila became the major exported product of the region. Over time, the process became more mechanized, more industrial, and large distilleries in urban areas hurt the smaller local ones. In an effort to make up for this, more intensive cultivation began. Monoculture – or growing just one plant that comes from closely related sources - can leave plants susceptible to disease and start a cycle of chemical use, and must be considered as agave production thrives.
Although the Cultural Landscape of Agave is about cultivation and practices, objects tell stories about the long history of communities working together and with the natural environment.
Jalisco is the agave state of Mexico. Guadalajara is its capitol, a vibrant city that is the second largest in Mexico. In the 19th century, a Guadalajaran artist named Pantaleon Panduro used clay to make small figures of all types of people he saw around the city. They remain a vivid record of the common people of the time.
The Spanish did not enforce traditional controls on pulque until drunkenness became a problem. Still, they relied on the taxes for revenue, and even Jesuit priests made pulque and sold it to raise funds. Pulquerias were local social hubs, until beer imports outsold the traditional drink.
The ancient and sustainable practices of tequila production in Jalisco have blossomed into a worldwide love for tequila and a global market for local communities. This is a soft serve ice cream machine modified to make frozen margaritas.
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