Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Preserving Pulque

Francesco Taboada Tabone makes movies to preserve oral memory long after those who lived it have
died. With his recent film, “Maguey,” he goes a step further, breathing new life into ancient practices.

Taboada’s (b 1973) award-winning first film, “The Last Zapatistas: Forgotten Heroes,” told the powerful story of the Mexican Revolution through the eyes of 10 centenarian survivors of the Southern Front. One survivor actually died on camera while being interviewed.

Taboada followed this 1998 film with another about survivors of Pancho Villa’s División del Norte, as well as short videos on various important social issues. In 2008 his feature film, “13 Villages in Defense of Water, Air and Earth” about a Morelos peasant environmental movement, received numerous prizes.

His most recent film, “Maguey: A Documentary,” is about the century plant, whose sap is harvested as “agua miel” (honey water) and fermented to become pulque, an alcoholic beverage of pre-Hispanic origin.

In a recent interview I asked Francesco why he’d chosen this topic, seemingly so different from his previous films. Francesco saw no break.

“Images are a tool to transmit communication in the way it was done by the great majority of ancient Mesoamericans. They preserved knowledge in an oral way. I preserve it in film. Maguey and pulque are also part of ancient Mexico, Mexico Profundo (Profound Mexico), it’s very roots.”

Before the conquest of Mexico pulque was consumed for rituals, by the nobility, warriors, the elderly, and pregnant women. Codices depict the importance of both the plant and the drink. After the conquest, pulque became a cheap source of alcohol for all classes.

It also became a major source of tax revenue. Then in the early 20th century European beer companies began to denigrate pulque in favor of beer. By implication pulque was relegated to the lower rural class. By the 1990s, for the most part, even they switched to beer.

Francesco described it as “The War Against Pulque,” with the government taking part by shutting down pulquerías (pulque bars). “Pulque was attacked after the Revolution because it was associated with México Profundo, Indigenous Mexico, the Mexico linked to ancestral traditions.

“The Revolutionary ideal was the creation of a single ethnicity — a mestizo state. Using education as an example, Francesco continued, “Mexico’s educational system attempted to blend the many Indigenous groups into one nation. In the process, Indigenous languages and customs were often sacrificed. Only recently have we, as a nation, started speaking about cultural diversity.”

To better understand that process, Francesco started learning Nahuatl in 2000. He is now conversant — “if the conversation isn’t too complicated.” I asked about his most recent conversation in Náhuatl.

“Moments ago, outside this coffee shop, I was asked ‘What’s going on there with all those dancers – where did they come from?’ Indigenous people see me and speak to me in Nahuatl. They know I’ll answer them.”

Three years ago Francesco was entrusted with a Morelos state government project to recuperate the Náhuatl language. “People told me ‘you’re not going to be successful. There’s no reason to do that.’ There are now 1,600 people studying Náhuatl.

“In Hueyapan, Morelos, Náhuatl was spoken but young people were ashamed of it. The shame barrier is broken; they’ve started speaking it openly. The townspeople set up a Náhuatl Academy and in less than three years the language has been mostly recovered.”

When asked which languages he speaks, Francesco lists Náhuatl first. “Not because I speak it the best, but because it is the one I’m proudest of speaking.” Spanish, French, Italian, English, and Portuguese are the others. Francesco finds only English has similarity with Náhuatl. And that’s only in its succinctness. Romance languages say ‘yo estoy caminando’ verse English’s ‘I’m walking.’ In Náhuatl it’s ‘mecnemi’ — ‘walking.’

After completion of “Maguey: A Documentary,” Francesco and seven friends opened a pulquería a block from Cuernavaca’s Cathedral. La Guayaba serves pulque and accompanying indigenous foods. This interesting new restaurant hosts art exhibits as well as Thursday evening lectures at 7 p.m. on the history of pulque, the maguey plant, and other related subjects.

When asked why he’s undertaken such an unusual project, Francesco replied, “México Profundo has a link with maguey, an endangered plant and pulque production is equally threatened. In the early 20th century, Hidalgo was the principal producer of maguey. Today its second most important crop — after corn — is barley.”

La Guayaba’s clientele spans social classes. Indigenous vendors who ply their crafts in Cuernavaca’s Zócalo stop in. Elders who grew up during The War Against Pulque are regulars. A lot of college students make it a meeting place in downtown Cuernavaca.

As far as I can tell, La Guayaba is the only pulquería in Cuernavaca. Stop in for a glimpse into México Profundo. If you — like me — don’t care for alcoholic beverages, you’ll be welcome ordering agua miel. La Guayaba, at Ruíz de Alarcón #4, is open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. – closed Mondays.

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