Can Pulque Fight Capitalism?
When you drink pulque, Joél tells me, you’re under the influence of the rabbit god. You drink to communicate with the god and to become him. Mira, he points to me, ahora eres un conejo. I look at myself. See! He says. You’re a rabbit. He points towards himself. I’m a rabbit. And then to everyone in the bar. Todos somos conejos. It’s a good thing, but if you drink more than you can handle, you’ll get consumed, the legend goes, by a flock of 400 rabbits. According to Aztec rule, the first time you got caught drunk outside of a social context, shaming yourself and your community, you got your hair cut off. Second time, death.
Pulque isn’t protected by global trade agreements like tequila and mezcal. There are several reasons for this. One is physical. Pulque essentially produces itself. A pulque grower barely has to harvest the sap from the maguey cactus and put it in a bucket before it starts to ferment. After a few days, the substance reaches its highest point of alcohol content and then it becomes undrinkable. It can’t easily be canned and shipped, though some companies have tried and some cities in the US do serve pulque. Generally, pulque is produced rurally and either drunk rurally, sold in public outdoor settings like parks and parking lots, or distributed to pulquerías—pulque bars for the most part located in Mexico City. Mezcal, which has become trendy and expensive, also has an acquired taste, but at the end of the day it goes down easy and gets you efficiently good and drunk. Pulque, on the other hand, has a lower alcohol content than beer, is often very thick, nearly the texture of pancake batter—a semenlike, opaque white substance with an intensely yeasty, sour smell. Aside from its physical properties, pulque also has deep associations with indigenous culture, which has made it, at different times in Mexico’s history, popular and very unpopular.
The drink has been produced for centuries and since the Spanish conquest has been threatened by colonization and gentrification. It takes a relatively large quantity of pulque to get a person drunk. To get drunk off pulque requires a commitment to time and place in opposition to the forces of capitalism and the energy, in people, that these forces generate. There is power in the relative unmarketability of this product. In economic terms, pulque is generally produced locally, sold cheaply and does not have an upper-class market. It does not need to participate in the global economy in order to survive. In historical and temporal terms, pulque has a strong cultural connection to the past, as well as a short lifespan. It dies as quickly as it produced, like a rabbit.
The bar is damp and yeasty. Reminds me of a public bathhouse, swimming pool or gym locker room. Chipped tiles, wet floors, a moat around the bar where the slop of half empty pitchers gets tossed. There are about 20 tables in the whole setup. It’s 4pm and about two thirds of the room is full, mostly with men. There’s one female patron here besides me and my girlfriend, sitting with a group of men—she tells me in English where the light switch to the bathroom is without my asking. I’ve already caused a scene almost entering the wrong bathroom—the bartender nearly leapt over the bar to correct me: por aquí! There’s one other woman in the room, selling nuts and hardboiled eggs in the corner. She looks like she’s in a good mood. Most of the men here are older, probably in their 70s or 80s—drinking and eating, exchanging pesos for mariachi songs at the jukebox.
Joél hands me a glass of a thick, bright orange drink. The pure stuff is in a giant barrel, cloudy white liquid with an intense smell, and what I’m tasting is a fruit flavored version. I grimace. Joél asks me how I like it and I shake my head. It’s too sweet. The other stuff’s better—rough, but honest. He frowns in agreement, seems relieved that we share a taste. He takes my glass and hurls the remaining content onto the blue-tiled floor of the bar. I expect something to happen in the room but none of the other patrons lift their heads up out of their glasses or turn away from their conversations. Joél is a regular here—is that why this behavior isn’t a problem? Or are boundaries between glass and floor less defined than I’m used to, or defined by rules I don't understand.
Joél takes an avocado out of his bag and asks the guy behind the bar for a knife. He cuts it into many slices, hands one to the barman and another to an old man I can see he’s laughing with. The man invites him to sit down but he points back to our table, explaining that he has friends here today. He returns with the avocado on a plate exclaiming in honest amazement that you can survive off this fruit. This is an important part of his passion for pulque. The drink is full of vitamins and calories and with some well-made tortillas, beans and salsa, you really can stave off hunger. In poor, rural communities, many people, including kids, will drink pulque instead of water. He heads back to the bar and brings us a plate of chicharrones with pico de gallo taken from a huge mortar made of porous stone that sits on the bar, next to which sits an old paint bucket where the tortillas stay warm. Patrons can help themselves to whatever is in the mortar for free, along with tortillas, to eat with their liters of pulque. The fried pork skin is tender from the wetness of tomato and onion—I bite into the sensation of my head resting on a soft belly. The richness is cut with the bitter, flowery cilantro, sour and salt.
Joél has been guiding us around through the late afternoon and evening, from bar to bar, through subway stations we’ve been navigating ourselves for weeks. He ushers us in front of him where he can see us. Like a dad, moving his kids through a crowd. Before finishing our barrel, Joél gets up and we follow him out into the evening. Waning sun and pink smoggy light behind slack, crisscrossing telephone wires, buildings of dull colored, chipping paint. There is a man leaning against the wall with one good, red eye, the other tucked halfway behind a swollen lid. His mouth is stuck, I think for good, in a downward facing pout against his remaining bottom teeth. One of his arms is bent inwards and with the other one he’s holding the end of a wet joint. He smells and sucks on it vigorously and passes it to my friend, then another man walking by, to my girl, and then to me. We shake hands, all of us, and go back inside. I’m drunk now, but in a strange way, concentrated in my legs. My thoughts are lucid but my vision is a little blurry. I don’t feel sluggish or nauseous at all. I’m sated and awake.
I live with Joél, and sometimes he shits with the door open. At first I thought it was a mistake, and that I could attribute his lack of alarm when he saw me see him to his coolness or maybe he was a little high. The second time, and all the times after, I realized this is something else. Some physicalization of a political stance, the same force behind his tossing the unsavory pulque onto the floor of the bar and with which he jumps over turnstiles and stares at the walls in the metro station, squinting with his permanent marker in his hand, plotting his tag. Joél doesn’t leave traces to claim space for himself, to say this is mine—but, rather this is not yours, or, ownership is not sacred. What is sacred is what is shared.
My girlfriend and I talk to strangers in pulquerías, always men, and if we are not dancing with them our conversations turn to politics. We are told without asking what it means to drink pulque as a Mexican and asked what we could possibility be doing in this bar. One man asks me, with a look of honest confusion, “But didn’t they tell you pulque was made of shit?” We talk to two boys, somewhere between high school and college age. We’re happy they don’t hit on us and then feel weird when we realize they must be really young. Full cheeks speckled with acne I can only see when we move to the window seat. Pulque is the anti-Malinche, the fast talking boy tells me as he cracks open his second 40oz of Corona. He explains the other guy’s question about shit. In the beginning of the 20th century, Cardenas’ government campaigned to push Mexico towards industrialization. In the 1930s European beer companies issued a propaganda campaign against pulque. They claimed that all pulque was made with human feces and associated the drink with the indigenous people who first produced it, who represented a past that Mexico was trying to overcome. Beer was associated with Europe, purity, advancement and industry. The shit scare turns out to be an overblown reference to a practice that some pulque producers may or may not have used hundreds of years ago, of placing a small bag of animal excrement into the maguey sap to speed up the fermentation process. Whether or not this was ever in fact done, the real shit of industry won out over the hypothetical shit of ancient human practices. By the end of the 20th century, pulque was effectively replaced by beer and the number of pulquerías in Mexico City plummeted.
In the past decade, there’s been an upsurge of younger pulquería scenes, some trendier and some less so. When I visit thes bars, I try to distinguish between authenticity and mimicry but find it difficult to draw a hard line between a commitment to the past and the fast road to gentrification. In addition to new-wave pulquerías, there are also hipster tortillerías, neverías, carnecerías opening up in gentrifying neighborhoods. The suffix “-ías" indicates a place where a product is made and consumed locally, and pretty much only sells one specific thing. In most of these newer establishments, however, “-ía” is a fantasy rather than an expression of a lifestyle, not connected to anything besides its vision of itself.
Young consumers sense that there is something poisoning society. Capitalism uses and adapts to the needs of humans and says, ok, you want to be healthy? I can sell you health. Now there’s a market for gentrification. So people with some expendable income, craving something real, gravitate towards establishments that appear safe, clean and healthy. I hear that cafés once were places where people hung out and exchanged ideas, but now they are so cold and metallic. It’s hard for me to believe that anyone can get any inspiration in places like this. You need some bacteria to create culture, right? Ditto with ideas. There’s nothing in the air for them to catch onto. These places all seem to say, “you wont have any trouble here, you won’t have any kind of experience at all.”
Capitalism has disguised itself as the solution to a need for human connection to cultural traditions, family, history, the environment, death. Like most things that are feared, food is also fetishized. When something is fetishized its history is threatened. When people seek “clean food,” whether that cleanness is expressed in machine-sliced, plastic-packaged white bread or a carefully curated bowl of salad, they are seeking food whose origins are masked. And, so, what of this poison? I’ve heard the argument that overpriced smoothie cafes are trying to help fix real problems with health in cities.
So, is there a way to utilize this misguided intention? Can this sense—this market for healthiness and safety—be harvested, and redirected towards a vision that includes, rather than alienates people? I wonder if the seeds to some new phase of social interaction exist here already, somewhere in this mess. But as long as traditional products (el pulqlue, las tortillas) are commodified, they will be related to brutalizing forces: industry, war, political power. Can symbols of tradition be used as way to integrate, rather than isolate people who otherwise don’t come into contact, except that they live in the same city and drink the same drink? What would it look like, a new kind of production and consumption that is based on nourishment and connection, a relationship to the the self, to others and to the past?
My girlfriend is ready to leave the bar, exhausted by her own attractiveness. A young, blonde gringa. Hija de la conquista. Everyone wants to dance with her. A few men concede to dancing with me too, but only after she’s already been swept onto the dance floor. One of these guys comes up to me while my girl is dancing with someone else. He wants to get information about her. Man, she’s gorgeous! I nod and he speaks to me in perfect English, which surprises me. I’ve been hitting the boundaries of my Spanish tonight. He tells me he was just deported from Los Angeles, rolls up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo in bold script, covering his entire forearm: California. He was born there, deported one day when some cops approached him and his dad at a gas station when he was 15. He’s just moved to Mexico City. He’s 20 now, and I never learned where he’s been for the five years in between. He can’t find work because he can’t read or write very well in Spanish, though his conversational fluency in English and Spanish have landed him some kind of phone banking gig. He’s missing home like hell, but likes this joint. I say it must feel really fucked up, that his people and his place are separate. Yeah, he makes eye contact with me for the first time and lifts up his shirt to show me another tattoo: Los Angeles, across his heart.
Individualism is a myth. What happened 500 years ago is still inside of everyone. The other day, when a Spanish guy was harassing two of my friends giving lectures, one Brazilian and one Mexican, I was horrified. They weren’t at all surprised. Apparently this happens to them all the time. That their ideas are met with not only a white man's questions and doubts, but the white man’s sense of authority over these questions and doubts—anger plus entitlement. La mirada del colonialismo, my friend says. A gaze from the past.
The only freedom that money can buy me is the fantasy of freedom from the responsibility I have towards other people. People, most of whom I don’t know and some of whom I do, to whom I am attached. To whom my actions are attached. The tacos I had for dinner and then the beer I drank after. I’m consuming social information. Some information is hard to get down. Some facts I can’t taste and some feelings I wish I hadn’t swallowed. I am squinting at history. Can people live together without fucking each other over? Yes, my friend said to me tonight as we talked this over at the bar. He is studying towards a humanist economics and he is also, like me, convinced that something needs to die. He takes a sip of Coca-Cola and grins: Sí, la sangre negra del capitalismo. He is hopeful. There is a gap between you and me. This gap is a womb.