Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

The Many Meanings of Yerba Mate

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

The Many Meanings of Yerba Mate

Article excerpt

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED YERBA MATE AS A Peace Corps volunteer in rural Paraguay. Everywhere I went, and at all times of the day, I saw small groups of people passing around a hollowed out cow's horn or gourd (guampa) filled with ground leaves and a single metal straw sticking out of the top. I had never thought of drinking from a cow's horn or gourd. Drinking out of the same metal straw (bombilla) was even more jarring. Wasn't anyone worried about germs? When I tried to refuse an offer of yerba mate from my neighbor because I had a cold, she responded that she had added some herbs especially for colds and so I had even more reason to share the mate with her. She wasn't at all concerned about catching a cold from me!

Drinking yerba mate is a communal activity. One person in the group (the server) pours some hot water (or cold water for tereré) into the guampa and passes it to a companion who dutifully sucks all of the liquid from the shared straw and returns the guampa. The server then refills the guampa with water and passes it to another person in the group. Conversation flows as the process repeats itself until the yerba mate loses its flavor-about thirty minutes. Peace Corps training taught me the cultural importance of mate; most Paraguayans cannot imagine anyone not drinking it-and I quickly learned that sharing mate was a great way to make friends and gain acceptance. Yerba mate's stimulating properties intensified my appreciation for the drink and soon I was consuming large quantities throughout the day...until I could no longer tolerate my mind racing every night for hours after everyone else had fallen asleep and I learned moderation.

Until recently, yerba mate was an exotic substance brought to the United States either by tourists returning from the Southern Cone or nostalgic expatriates wanting to maintain an important cultural practice from their homeland. Health food stores were the first to promote yerba mate and, as interest spread, enterprising websites materialized touting a long list of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and general health benefits associated with the plant. Companies like Guayakí (founded in San Luis Obispo, California, in 1996) began marketing yerba mate as a healthier alternative to coffee and tea. Now yerba mate tea bags and iced mate are sold in national chains like Safeway, Walgreens, and Walmart and Guayakí is installing automated brewing systems in university cafeterias to expand its appeal to young people. Yerba mate has also entered the trendy energy drink market. Such campaigns have largely been successful. In 2014, Guayakí reached $27 million in sales-primarily to United States consumers-and the amount is growing at over 26% per year.

Yerba mate has long been integral to the identity of Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and southern Brazil where it is ubiquitous. Walls of different yerba mate brands fill grocery store aisles and the telltale paraphernalia are found in homes, workplaces, schools, parks and automobiles-everywhere a group might convene. Yerba mate is different from other stimulants like coffee and tea because of the deep cultural meaning associated with the special manner in which it is drunk. Individuals staying up late for work might drink mate by themselves, but generally it is a communal, not a solitary, pastime.

As part of a grant from the Institute for Humanities Research at Arizona State University (ASU), I recently gathered a group of Argentines, Paraguayans, a Brazilian, an Uruguayan and a U.S.-born scholar of Latin American studies to discuss the cultural significance of yerba mate. All of the participants agreed that drinking yerba mate is much more than getting a caffeine fix; it is a cherished opportunity to relax and converse with friends, family, co-workers, or even strangers. As Milagros Zingoni originally from Nequen, Argentina described, "I wake up with this [yerba mate] and when I return from work at 5 or 6 my husband and I drink this again. …

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