This is a review of a really nice book, which I have spent my summer vacation reading. There is a lot of literature about tequila, mezcal and Mexico but there really are not that many, really good books with a broad perspective on the subjects. Most authors seem to be satisfied with colportation of more or less established myths mixed with margarita recipes and some nice pictures. This is different!
Marie Sarita Gaytán is the author of “¡Tequila! Distilling the Spirit of Mexico” published on Stanford University Press 2014. Over 6 chapters she writes on tequila from a broad cultural and historic perspective. Focus is, in her own words, on: “defining the process through which commodities acquire significance…” It is, at least in a European context, an established method with some roots in semiology, and she is using it with great flair. The book is easy to read and very inspiring.
First chapter Is about Pulque, Mezcal an Tequila, in which she explains the historic background for these beverages made from agave. While one may argue “why go back to the bloody stone age in order to explain this…” this is actually good. Mexican history is not my strong point and especially not prehispanic history but the inclusion of time before colonization makes good sense.
Second chapter is about the creation of tequila iconography. How Pancho Villa became a mexican macho figure and proponent for tequila – even if he never drank nor smoked. Interesting facts and utterly new to me.
Third chapter deals with the gendering of Mexicanidad and is about the changes and evolution in gender roles as seen In the perspective of consumption and marketing of tequila. VERY well written and the story of Lucha Reyes and the hit “la tequillera” is fascinating.
The fourth chapter is about tequila tourism, but deals also extensively with how the myths about the tequila “workforce” are built and takes an unsentimental look at the conditions of the international tequila industry.
The fifth chapter deals with the institutions and regulations surrounding, protectiong and supporting tequila. Once again these efforts are analyzed and described in the light of duality of their on the one side, commercial interests and on the other side their immaterial and mythgenerating aspects. The subchapter on the efforts to make the western part of Jalisco part of Unescos World Heritage program is really enlightening. Many countries struggle with the creation of stories and images which will help sell their countries on the international tourism market. Mexcios cultural heritage is enormous, and Marie Sarita Gaytán describes convincingly haw tequila is used as a tool to brand the country and its tequilaproducing region.
The sixth chapter is about how tequila is perceived as seen from outside of Mexico. This is more of a sociological chapter, but still very interesting.
¡Tequila! Distilling the Spirit of Mexico is an excellent book which really does hold enormous amounts of information despite its merely 210 pages. It is also an academic book – it is published on Stanford University Press – but here academia shines. I like the extensive notes, references and well thought index. A good index Is becoming increasingly rare to meet. I have read a good amount of tequila literature, but this is the first time that I read something which tries to give a broader and more coherent picture of the industry. Often lacking in other books is the ability to explain why exactly tequila (of all the agave spirits in Mexico) came out as the “winner”. I think the Marie Gaytáns explanations are credible and they certainly shed some light on the issue for me – who lives in Denmark on the other side of the globe. The part dealing with poverty, economic inequality and import of workers from Chiapas was also news to me.
Marie Sarita Gaytán is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Gender at the University of Utah.
Ph.D. in Sociology, University of California, Santa Cruz, 2008
M.A. in Sociology, University of California, Santa Cruz, 2005
B.A. (with honors) in Political Science and Sociology, University of California, Irvine, 1997
¡Tequila! Distilling the Spirit of Mexico. Stanford University Press. 2014. ISBN: 978-0-8047-9310-0