[published in the London Guardian Weekly 2008]
On a concrete traffic island frequented by stray dogs and homeless people, under a highway overpass constantly rattled by heavy truck thru-traffic, one block from a minimum security prison, smack in the middle of one of the most heavily industrialized zones of Mexico City, in a make-shift bar with plastic buckets functioning as stools and old jars serving as glasses, fresh, delicious pulque is ladled out from large gasoline containers.
Pulque, a foamy, somewhat slimy beverage created by the natural fermentation of the milky sap of the agave plant, is one of the great cultural products of Mexico. In fact, people first joined together to settle in communities in the Mexico City Valley in order to cultivate this very special liquid. During pre-Hispanic times, people used pulque to help ease their pain, decrease inflammation, and heal wounds and venereal diseases. Women were allowed to drink pulque after childbirth to help them recover their strength and to increase the production of milk. During hard times, pulque supplemented people’s diet (packed as it is with proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins C, B-complex, D, and E, amino acids and minerals), substituted for water during droughts and doubled as mother’s milk when that was unavailable.
Since the beginnings of civilization in Mexico, pulque has always been considered an elixir of the gods, serving as an essential ingredient in all religious, spiritual, social and sport activities. During the Aztec empire, it was the drink of emperors and warriors, and imbibed by the high priests to communicate with the gods. Pulque helped steady the priest's hands and sedate the victim during human sacrifices. The ball players who were sacrificed after a game were messengers sent to ask the gods to supply more pulque. The Days of the Dead were celebrated with a five-day binge in which people were encouraged to drink ‘til they dropped, this being a means to communicate with the spirits of their dearly beloved. Tree bark, seeds, flowers, fruits and hallucinogenic mushrooms were often added to increase the potency of pulque, thus allowing the shamans and soothsayers greater insight into the future of the Aztec civilization.
Besides drinking it, indigenous people would often consume pulque by means of enemas, as the alcohol is absorbed quicker and more efficiently through the large intestine. Alcohol enemas leave no trace on one’s breath, so people could avoid detection (during the Aztec empire, being drunk in public was sometimes punished by being bludgeoned to death), and there was also a pleasurable element to the administration of the warm liquid with a ceramic enema handled by a loved one.
During the three hundred years of Colonial rule in Mexico, even after the Spanish began shipping in wine and aguardientes and distilling tequila, pulque nonetheless ruled supreme in Mexico. As all indigenous people could now consume to their hearts content what had previously been a very restricted product, alcohol abuse quickly overtook the indigenous population (pulquerias were constantly fined for the dead bodies that littered the sidewalk in front of their drinking establishments). The Church loudly condemned pulque for aiding the devil and stealing Christians’ souls, but at the same time many of the largest agave plantations were located on church property, and much of the money obtained from the sale of pulque went to build Mexico’s impressive cathedrals and convents. For more than a century, pulque provided the fourth most important source of revenue to the Mexican government.
Pulquerias in Mexico City were often elegant establishments with mahogany bars, large gilded mirrors and erotic paintings, though the floors were made of earth (people ritualistically spill pulque onto the floor as an offering to the Earth goddess). Gambling, music, dancing and prostitution enlivened the pulquerias, one of the few places where people of different classes and political persuasions could rub elbows and drink to each other’s health in a safe environment (women were always welcome, while men in uniforms, Church ministers and dogs were prohibited from entering). The names of the pulquerias were often nihilistic laments, My Life Ain’t Worth Nothing, Last Stop, Memories of the Future, Loneliness and Little Hell, offering poetry and perdition in equal measures.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were more than one thousand pulquerías in Mexico City alone, and the average consumption per person was around one liter a day. After the Revolution, many pulquerias were shut down, unjustly accused of fermenting their pulque with rag dolls stuffed with human feces. The clampdown on unhygienic drinking establishments was underwritten by national and international beer companies bent on usurping the place pulque had played for so many centuries. This inhospitable social climate forced pulque consumption to drop drastically, and its downward spiral of consumption continues.
Today, there are only a few dozen pulquerías within this city of millions of heavy drinkers, and pulque production is at an historic low. Pulquerias are now mostly hole-in-the-wall joints, for as pulque sells for less than any other alcohol it is increasingly hard to pay a decent rent. The fruits, nuts, grains or greens that have traditionally added flavor and nutrition to the drink are now used mostly to disguise the old pulque that a lack of customers creates (if pulque is not drunk within a couple of days it turns rancid and begins to stink, the origin of the word pulque).
Pulque, older than tequila, thicker than wine, stronger than beer, and tastier than mezcal, is now considered the bottom-of-the-barrel alcohol within Mexico City. Yet the production and consumption of pulque remains one of the very few surviving practices of pre-Hispanic culture. The story of pulque is the history of Mexico, and the gradual death of pulque over the last one hundred years graphically illustrates the demise of one of the most valuable products of Mexican culture.