Love Song of the Agave

THE MEN WHO WORK the agave fields around the town of Tequila, in the northern Mexican state of Jalisco, labor 364 days a year, resting only during the religious festival of El Día de La Virgen de Zapopan. A sixty-year-old laborer tells me that his whole family, going back generations, has worked at one particular tequila-making hacienda, fathers teaching sons the ways of blue agave. It is very hard work, he says, but it is the life they have. Nothing has ever changed here as far as he knows, and he says he believes it never will.

Until I read in a Salman Rushdie novel about naked men in vats of agave juice, making tequila, I thought I understood and knew Mexico. After all, I had traveled and photographed there for twenty years. I called my friend Andres Zamudio, a Mexican art director living in New York, to ask him about it. Over a bottle in a bar in SoHo, he explained that “to understand Mexico, you must understand something of tequila and tradition. Tequila was a gift from the gods to the Aztec, a sacrament to be respected, which it remains today.” He had not, however, heard of a technique for making tequila that involved naked men in vats. We concluded that if such a thing existed, it would be worth knowing about.

We did not realize how this curiosity would lead to a journey of rediscovery. Tequila opened our hearts to another Mexico.

Six months later, I had learned enough to know the story to be true, and so I traveled to a traditional distillery in Tequila. There, and nearby, I made these images between October 21, 2000, and December 6, 2004. By focusing my attention initially on the history and traditions around tequila, I entered the culture in a way that allowed me to see what I did not before. The history of Mexico twists and turns with breathtaking complexity, one strongman replacing the next. It is also unbearably tragic, brutal, and bathed in the blood of countless coups d’état, rebellions, religious wars, and the long and famous revolution. Through it all, and for more than nine thousand years, the blue agave has been cultivated and its juice fermented. And the Aztecs to whom the gods gave their gift of pulque are still with us — more than 3 million people still speak Nahuatl, the original language of many of the indigenous Mexican peoples.

Just as wine grapes capture the flavor of the land, over the course of the seven to ten years an agave plant takes to mature it gathers for tequila the incense of the red soil. Like cognac or champagne, tequila by law is place-specific, made from blue agave grown in Jalisco and some nearby states. And like wine in France, tequila sits at the center of family life.

The rituals and traditions here form a social contract, making life bearable and holding the country together in the face of much economic disparity. Beneath a serene, smooth surface, hard realities simmer in Mexico. Yet the knowledge that there is one correct and proper way to do a thing, any thing, from breaking a horse, to getting married, to making tequila, makes life easier. Handed down from father to son, mother to daughter, the logic of the old ways becomes irresistible, and so traditions continue on, pushing a people along.

God has a plan for you, and it might turn out to be nasty and brief. Best to savor the tequila slowly with your compadre and continue the conversation. The clichés of my former neighbors in northern California — about finding the balance in your life, living in the moment, and how “you won’t lie on your deathbed wishing you’d worked more” — they turn out to be true, as true as true can be.

Douglas Menuez has photographed stories for Time, Newsweek, Life, and Fortune. He is the author of Heaven, Earth, Tequila, recently released by Waterside Publishing. He lives in Woodstock, New York.