The agave pulquero (Agave atrovirens, salmiana or americana), maguey in Spanish, is a Mexican plant, which the indigenous Mixtec people use to make pulque, a traditional sweet beverage.
Magueyes, or Yaavi ndidi, as they are known in the Mixtec language, grow in the semi-arid region of Mixteca in the state of Oaxaca, where the soil is lacking in organic matter, thin and eroded by the torrential rains that have hit the region in recent years. Mixtec maguey pulquero is grown in the so-called milpa system with other crops such as maize, beans and pumpkins. It performs a number of functions, reducing desertification, preserving soil nutrients and moisture, and ensuring food security for local communities. Sadly, however, due to sociocultural and economic factors, a number of local agave varieties are rapidly disappearing, as is the traditional knowledge associated with them.
In 2018, with a project entitled Empowering Indigenous Youth and their Communities to Defend and Promote their Food Heritage, Slow Food, with the support of the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), proposed creating a Presidium in collaboration with the Mujeres Milenarias organization. The main aim was to involve young people in the work of preserving the sustainable use of the Mixtec maguey of Oaxaca. Mujeres Milenarias is currently working to save different endemic agave varieties on the brink of extinction, to valorize millenary knowledge, to improve the production and management of processed foods, to promote a fair economy in the Mixteca region and the state of Oaxaca and to integrate with broader indigenous networks such as Indigenous Terra Madre.
With Horacio Torres de Ita, head of Slow Food Mexico projects, we interviewed Bibiana Bautista Gaitán, the young Mixtec woman who coordinates the Presidium, to find out more about the relationship between the product, the community and the opportunities the Presidium offers.
What does this product represent for your community?
The agave pulquero is our bond with Mother Earth and it is from its roots that we make pulque. It is part of the daily life of our community, providing sustenance for families and a spiritual bond between fathers, mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers. For everyone, pulque and aguamiel are an oasis in the desert, a substitute for water in times of drought.
Have you any stories to tell us about the product?
The growing of agaves for pulque production has been handed down from generation to generation, as it is possible to see from the Yutsa Tnoho or Apoala Codex or the Codex Vindobonensis (a detailed pictographic chronicle of the origin of the Mixtec peoples and gods). Pulque is never regarded as an intoxicating drink but, rather, as a divine nectar drunk by priests and persons of high degree.
What does it mean for the Presidium community to be part of the global Slow Food community?
For us, Slow Food is an opportunity to reevaluate our traditional knowledge of the artisan production of pulque and aguamiel. We always make sure that all our products are free of chemicals and sold at a fair price to growers and consumers.
Our global struggle is against the desertification of the Mizteca region as a result of human activities and climate change. In 2019 the aim of the Slow Food Community and Presidium is to plant 20,000 agave pulquero trees as living barriers.
Our ancestral technique of agave cultivation is to interpose the plant with the milpa system, avoiding the loss of soil nutrients, facilitating soil formation and residual moisture retention, and preserving local biodiversity, besides ensuring food security to families through the generation of staple foodstuffs and income through the sales of by-products.
Why is this form of resistance through food important for your community?
Pulque represents a symbol of identity for Mixtec communities that we have managed to preserve in the course of time. We have fought to ensure that this beverage does not disappear from family diets, despite the invasion of junk and industrial food. We love these drinks for their curative properties and high nutritional value (they contain minerals, amino-acids, proteins, enzymes and vitamins as well as probiotic potential). Thanks to the high presence of lattobacilli to regenerate gut flora, they are considered particularly effective in the treatment of gastric and duodenal ulcers and the management of cholesterol, and thus help solve cardiovascular problems. They are highly diuretic and the enzymes they contain are very effective in activating metabolism. For us, continuing to cultivate agave pulquero and involve young people thus means fighting to ensure food sovereignty and security for our communities, at the same time protecting and regenerating the soil of our region.