Distilling the Influence of Alcohol: Aguardiente in Guatemalan History

Distilling the Influence of Alcohol: Aguardiente in Guatemalan History

Distilling the Influence of Alcohol: Aguardiente in Guatemalan History

Distilling the Influence of Alcohol: Aguardiente in Guatemalan History

Synopsis

Sugar, coffee, corn, and chocolate have long dominated the study of Central American commerce, and researchers tend to overlook one other equally significant commodity: alcohol. Often illicitly produced and consumed, aguardiente (distilled sugar cane spirits or rum) was central to Guatemalan daily life, though scholars have often neglected its fundamental role in the country's development.
Throughout world history, alcohol has helped build family livelihoods, boost local economies, and forge nations. The alcohol economy also helped shape Guatemala's turbulent categories of ethnicity, race, class, and gender, as these essays demonstrate. Established and emerging Guatemalan historians investigate aguardiente's role from the colonial era to the twentieth century, drawing from archival documents, oral histories, and ethnographic sources. Topics include women in the alcohol trade, taverns as places of social unrest, and tension between Maya and State authority.
By tracing Guatemala's past, people, and national development through the channel of an alcoholic beverage, Distilling the Influence of Alcohol opens new directions for Central American historical and anthropological research.

Excerpt

Close to fifty years ago I had a first glimmer of how important alcoholic beverages have been in the history of Mesoamerica when Juan the Chamula by Ricardo Pozas was recommended to me as a little book worth reading. Told in the first person, it is the artful, deceptively simple story of Juan Pérez Jolote from San Juan Chamula in the highlands of Chiapas from about 1900 to the 1940s. Juan fled the community as a boy because his father beat him—but only when he was sober, reports Juan—and was swept into the Mexican Revolution (1910–20) before returning in the 1920s, eager to be Chamula again.

Juan’s earnest efforts to gain acceptance become Pozas’s window onto community life. At every significant step in Juan’s remembered past, cane alcohol (aguardiente de caña) was in play, as a medium of exchange and obligation, as well as a convivial beverage. the zinacanteco couple that took him in when he ran away passed him on to a widow in their community in exchange for a bottle of aguardiente. When he went to work on a coffee plantation for the first time, he spent his advance on bread, peaches, brown sugar, and a bottle of aguardiente for his mother. in the community, a jug of aguardiente was always handy for sale, hospitality, and other ceremonial needs. When Juan returned to San Juan Chamula after the Mexican Revolution, he found that his father was about to move to town as an elected official and needed to take along three essentials: corn, firewood, and a jug of liquor. Juan, himself, would serve many times as a community official—becoming something of a super-Chamula. As he observed, “You can’t govern the village or settle disputes or give the people justice without drinking aguardiente. the authorities gather in the town hall, and whenever the Mayor takes a drink, they drink, too. If you want to make a complaint or if you’ve been caught doing something wrong, you bring the authorities a litre or two of aguardiente, and the Mayor takes a . . .

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