By Julie Etra
Magueys are monocots in the sub-family Agavoideae, previously classified in the family Agavaceae. Agave comes from the Greek word Agavo, which means magnificent, noble, admirable and was called the tree of miracles by the conquistadores. Other common names are sosquil, pita, cabuya, fique, mescal, toba (in Zapotec) and ki (Mayan). One of the 9 bays of Huatulco is named for this plant. They are abundant in the Mexican landscape and form a dominant portion of the vegetation in many parts of Mexico, especially in semi-arid regions. Distribution is from the Canadian-US border to Bolivia, including the Caribbean. The greatest diversity is in Mexico, home to 76% of the world’s population or 157 species of which 71% (111) are endemic, meaning they occur no where else. Fifty-two species occur in the state of Oaxaca. The origin of this group of plants dates to the Miocene or about 15 million years ago. They flower only once, after about 10-12 tears and also reproduce vegetatively which is how they are generally cultivated. They have lifespan of about 25years and are pollinated by bats and hummingbirds.
The maguey is sacred among the Mexica. Legend has it that Mayahuel, who became the goddess of pulque, was a beautiful young woman that lived in the heavens with her wicked grandmother, a type of star known as tizintimime who daily tried to impede the appearance of the sun with her ‘army’ of evil star soldiers. The beautiful young goddess fled with the god Quetzalcóatl to hide in a leafy, bi-furcated tree where they turned into branches. The grandmother discovered them and with her stars they cut her from the tree while the other branch, or Quetzalcóatl, survived. The star army devoured Mayahuel. Quetzalcóatl collected and buried her remains and from her grave emerged the first maguey plant, the very same plant that produces pulque.
Agaves are one of the most important groups of plants in terms of their cultural and economic ties to Mexico. No plant has had as much intertwined history with the people of Mexico. Archeological finds in a cave near Mitla in the Valley of Oaxaca indicate their use for fiber and food around 10,000 years ago. Well known is the extraction of mezcal as well as tequila, although these are from different plants and over 20 types of maguey are used just for mescal. Aguamiel is the sap or juice of certain species and is highly nutritious; it is also fermented and known as pulque and distilled for mescal. Bacanora is another distilled beverage with pre-colonial origins made in Sonora. Uses are multiple: rope, fiber, food, medicine, artisanal decorations, construction material such as roofing, live fencing, soap, baskets, fabric, needles, brushes, musical instruments, and livestock forage. The Mayans made pillows, clothes and shoes out of the fibers. Agave atrovirens, among others species of maguey, has a variety of medicinal uses including treatment for diabetes, pulmonary problems such as persistent coughing, and back pain. Escamoles are ant larvae that live in agave roots and are considered a Mexican delicacy as are meocuiles, a butterfly larvae, found on the leaves of Agave tequilana. Ayates are a type of pre-Hispanic woven basket made of agave fiber. The flowers of species of maguey can be simmered with onions, garlic, and other herbs to produce a ‘caldo’ or broth, or served raw in a salad as a substitute for other leafy greens.
Sisal or henequen was a common type of rope fiber until the advent of synthetic fibers in the 1950s, and along with its competitive cultivation outside of Mexico this lead to the collapse of the industry in Mexico. Sisal is actually the name of the port on the Yucatan from where the material was shipped in its heyday (as well as from the port town of Progreso). It comes from Agave sisalana, or A. fourcroydes and still grows in the Yucatan. Although it had been extensively used by pre-Hispanic cultures, it was not commercially produced until the mid 19th century following an interesting series of events.
The first haciendas cultivated by the Spanish conquerors in the Yucatan were in the south where soils were most fertile. Corn, cane sugar, and citrus production dominated this region. In 1847, the Caste War broke out, lasting until 1901. Mayan workers rebelled and demanded their land back. Plantation owners fled north to the less fertile limestone-derived soils and determined they could commercially cultivate only maguey, which does not require irrigation or fertilizer. The government, along with the plantation owners, began the development of a sisal industry and the ‘green gold’ era was born, lasting to mid 20th century. Up to around 1904 there were over a thousand henequen-producing haciendas, some of which were enormous and over 13,000 hectares. The owners were extremely wealthy and although Mexican born were of Spanish decent and considered almost a divine class while exploitation of Mayan workers of course continued. The haciendas were basically autonomous and had their own churches and schools with company stores. Today you still see and can visit some of the luxurious homes of the hacendados or owners that line the Paseo Montejo in Merida. Henequen completely transformed the region and centers like Merida boomed. Although there is a current movement to revive components of the industry, Brazil in particular as well as several African countries are now major a principal world exporters and Mexico actually has imported material from Brazil to meet the demand. In the US if you buy sisal from a chain hardware store it is most often from China. However, if you buy Oaxacan, Columbian, or other Latin American coffee at one of the gourmet roasters, the sacks, or costales, are usually made from sisal (or from jute, from India). Sacks of varying weaves, as well and products for interior decorating are still produced in the Yucatan. CICY (Centro de Investigaciones Científicas de Yucatán), located in Merida is currently investigating alternative uses of the fibers for construction material such as laminates and plywood as well as a plant growth medium in combination with coconut fiber for horticultural use.
The cost of production increased 45% from just from 1994 to 1995. Today production in the Yucatan is around 28,000 tons per year, cultivated over about 3,000 hectares.