Sunday, April 17, 2016

Wha' Happened in Oaxaca: Day 3

From March 10th until the 20th, I was part of a delegation of Land Stewardship Project members, organized by Witness for Peace, who met with farmers and non-governmental organizations (NGO's) in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. I'll be posting a recap of each day on this blog.

Agave plants at Real Minero
That morning's Check-In featured the first official outbreak of tears on the trip, which was a relief to me. I'd been waiting for someone to break the emotional seal. It made me more comfortable about opening up thereafter.

That day’s program began at the Real Minero mezcal distillery (palenque) and farm, located in a village out in the boonies. Our bus pulled up to a park next to the distillery, where a pickup basketball game was going on. When one of the teams scored, we cheered from the bus. The players didn’t react, so I wasn’t sure if they didn’t hear us or they were just trying to play it cool.

There were chickens on the grounds, and the ground was mostly dirt and liberally populated with agave plants, big ones. The buildings were either new and pristine or traditional and elaborate. According to our guide, there's a prejudice against rural people living well, but she said it's worth the hostility to make a nice space for their work.

The woman in charge of the distillery, Graciela, led the tour. Her grandfather made the unusual decision to leave his farm to her instead of a male relation. The only way to buy land in this place is to be born here. This custom is meant to preserve the sanctity of the land.
Liz with Graciela and Santiago

Land is sacred to the indigenous communities of Oaxaca. The earth is a living being, part of the family. On the way there, we saw stone-and-brick pedestals in the fields, placed in seemingly random spots. Graciela said those are where people perform rituals to ask for water or give thanks. Many rituals have disappeared, but some have survived. There are also 15 different ethno-linguistic groups in this area, essentially 15 countries in one territory. This leads to conflict over sacred spots.

Land belongs to everyone and no one. The community gives one day’s worth of planting to people who want to farm, approximately one hectare. Most farmers have around ¾ hectare. Where agave grows wild, the indigenous people who belong to that forest or mountain can harvest and sell it, but others can't. This farm only grows about 2% of the agave they use in the distillery.

The agave is native to Central America. Linnaeus named it after the Latin word for “admirable.” Maguey is the common name in Spanish. There's enough room for annual crops in between the plants, making it ideal for polycultures. Agave both gives seed and reproduces through the roots. They plant it by seed in small rows before moving it to its final field at the beginning of the rainy season.

Nolan at Real Minero
There are many varieties of agave, 200 total and 156 in Mexico, about 30% of which are in Oaxaca. The different varieties grow in different microclimates. The American agave takes 20 years to reach maturity and weighs up to 400 kg. Other types are much smaller, but most take at least 7 years to reach maturity. Some are good for putting on fences; others are best planted in circles in the fields.

Every part of the plant can be used. The flowers and stems are edible. Fibers can be extracted from the leaves and sugar from the heart. (Hidalgo is the state in Mexico where agave fibers are still used.) The leaves are also used as house roofs and the stems as house beams.

There are drinks derived from agave other than mezcal. Agua miel is the freshly extracted agave juice, full of vitamins like B-12. Pulque is a fermented beer-like beverage, mostly from the state of Puebla. Before the Spanish arrived, there was no milk, and pulque served a similar function. The arrival of beer killed the pulque industry in Mexico.

Pit where agave hearts are roasted.
Now corporations from Jalisco are buying all the agave they can find for miel de agave (agave nectar), which is not sustainable. In Jalisco, corporations also rent land to monocrop agave. (Monocultures showed up in Mexico in the 1940s.) The system is more tecnificado (mechanized). There are intermediaries (coyotes) now, so small farmers don't control prices.

Mezcal production was illegal until 30 years ago; various laws prohibited native drinks. Graciela's grandfather went house-to-house, selling in bulk. It takes 5 years to learn how to make mezcal, like going to college. This distillery started in 2006. They had to find work for women in the process as well as men.

The most valued agaves for mezcal are complex in flavor and aroma. There are usually mixed varieties of agave in each batch.

I smell El Dos ("The Two"). (Not poop.)
To make mezcal, the agave is always harvested at biological maturity. Six months after cutting the flower stalk, the heart is harvested. What is not used for mezcal can be used as fuel, leaving no waste.

The roasting oven is pre-Hispanic (pre-Columbian) technology. Rocks and coal are placed at the bottom of the dug-out cone. The rocks can absorb a lot of heat. They use large pieces of wood to make a hot fire. The wood they use is often donated or left over from forest management.

The rocks go over the fire, taking 10 hours to reach the desired temperature. Then they put fiber over the stones for insulation and agave on and around the fibers. Their oven has a capacity of 13 tons of agave hearts.

Graciela with distillation pot
The roasting agave is covered with a tarp (which can be made of palm leaves) and soil, with some water under the tarp. It cooks in five days. This process turns the starch to sugar and gives the mezcal a smoky flavor. It takes 5-8 people when done by hand. Since it takes about a month to make a batch of mezcal, they fire about twice a month to keep it flowing. The goal is to have constant work throughout the year.

Five days after taking the agave out of the oven, they grind it. The burnt and bad-flavored parts have to be trimmed off. Then, either 2 men work it over with big pestles (One vat takes 8 hours.), or they send it through a mechanical grinder. Agave is pretty acidic; we can see the evidence where the grinding is done.

The ground agave spends 3-4 days in the first container. Water is added on the 4th day. It takes 8-10 days to ferment after that. Both the fiber and the juice ferment; more mechanized processes extract the juice first. “Our processes aren't domesticated,” Graciela explained. fermenting, there's about 8% alcohol, and it tastes like beer.

Distillation pot
For each barrel they light 3 stills. They have to start the distillation at the right time; otherwise, the liquid will turn to vinegar. Distilling takes 2-3 days and nights. The process is called Philippine distillation, with 2 clay pots and a copper round-bottomed lid with cold water in them to create the condensation, which drips into a wooden spoon leading out of the pots.

There are 4 parts to the extraction: the punta, which they throw out because it has the wrong kind of alcohol in it; the heart; the tail and the last bit, which they use only to wash the floor. They get 55 liters per ton of agave with a good yield. Their distillation ends up with 38-55% alcohol. Sometimes they distill a second time, such as with mezcal de pechuga, for which they put dried fruit and a raw chicken breast in the second distillation.

They use the left-over fibers to mix with earth and make adobe, or make paper, forage, compost or fuel.

They never took loans from a bank, and all the profit is reinvested in the project.

Lunch at Real Minero
During the tour, Graciela’s little boy, Santiago, was hovering on the edge of our group, trying to peel people away one at a time to play with him. I was never picked as a potential playmate, which was a little disappointing. But I wasn’t really interested in the lecture, so I probably didn’t look like much fun.

We sat at a long, L-shaped table for lunch. There were 4 different flavors of mezcal for us to sample, a shot at a time. I had to stop after the third.

After lunch we returned to the hostel and discussed immigration. I talked about getting pissed off by my former employer, a certain large, financial octopus bringing Indian clerks to Minneapolis. I’ve been very reluctant to tell people about that, as detailed in an old blog post, My Job Made Me Racist. Strangely enough, I'd told Charlie about it the night before in our room as we were getting ready for bed.

That evening I joined Paul, Sara, Hannah, Nolan and Andrew (I think) to climb the hill that the hostel was at the bottom of. Somebody wanted to see the big amphitheater at the top. We’d asked Maggie about it the first (or 2nd) morning. She said it lost its cover because the construction company used shoddy material. Without that background, it looked like a fancy observatory instead of a glaring example of government corruption.

We climbed some steep, cobblestone streets through a poor neighborhood. Later, Maggie said if she'd known we were going up there, she would've suggested a different route, because it's a rough part of town. On one of the steepest streets, I looked into an apartment; the curtain covering the door had been pulled to the side. It looked poor, but they had some nice audiovisual equipment.

I wondered about their priorities or what goods and services have access to, assuming it was all acquired legally. Electronics may be more easily purchased (or stolen) than other, more basic necessities of the Good Life.

We had to walk under the last street to get to the amphitheater. There were murals in the passage, but I didn't recognize any of the historical figures included therein. The amphitheater turned out to be Oaxaca City's Inspiration Point. We kept passing teenage couples, most of whom were not making out, but they appeared to be looking for the right spot to start making out or waiting for us to pass.

We circumnavigated the place and took a different route back, down a long line of stairs lined with street lights, which was helpful since the sun had just set. There was a woman working in a garden along the path, with whom we spoke. Hannah did most of the talking, since she was the strongest Spanish speaker in the group. After the stairs, we weaved our way down streets, passing a building with a loud gathering inside that looked like either an evangelical church service or a game show.

There was also a currency exchange (casa de cambio) on our way. It was closed, but I was curious about the exchange rate, so I crossed the street to look. They had a chalkboard out front with the dollar-to-peso rates. It showed 16.66 pesos to the dollar, which was about 2 fewer pesos than the day before. I was struck by the volatility and the occurrence of “666.”

For dinner, I joined Andrew, Alan, Nolan and Hannah at El Trompo, a little taco place near the hostel. There was a TV showing a Mexican soccer match with several young men gathered around. I was concerned about the wait staff wearing masks. It didn’t fill me with confidence, but it was a common sight on street vendors and waiters in the city. I ordered a large dish called the Matahambre ("It kills hunger."), a name that proved prophetic. It was very good, basically everything on their limited menu, chicken, peppers and cheese with tortillas.

I switched to the downstairs shower on Day 2, but it wasn't until Day 3 that I realized the water dials were for hot and cold, respectively, knowledge of which considerably enhanced my showering experience.

I went to bed quite peacefully that night, little suspecting what fiendish plot was being hatched by the Mexican microbes that had recently gained residency in my gastrointestinal system. (Don’t worry; it wasn’t that gross.)

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