The Mezcal Boom and Migration: Strange Bedfellows?

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

About a decade ago, beginning in the wake of the 2008-09 US economic crisis, the pattern of migration between the United States and the state of Oaxaca got turned on its head. To a significant extent, it was because of the initial stages of the global mezcal boom. 

Depending on which statistic one reads, Oaxaca is either the poorest or the second poorest state in Mexico, next to Chiapas. We have agriculture, and we have tourism. While exports of mangos, black beans, tomatoes and all the rest have been a relative constant over the years, tourism has not, and the state has relied on beach-going and culture-seeking visitors for much of its economic fortune. 

Tourists from diverse corners of the globe would flock to Oaxaca for its Pacific sun and sand, cuisine, craft villages, archaeological sites, colonial architecture and quaintness. But they would stop coming at the drop of a dime, especially from the US, due to State Department warnings and journalistic sensationalism: the (Mexican) swine flu epidemic, the 2006 Oaxacan civil unrest, drug cartel activity no matter where in the country, zika, and the list goes on. Prospective visitors would eventually forget and again select the state for vacationing … until the next scare; tourism’s economic impact has been characterized by peaks and valleys. 

To address this schizophrenia, Oaxacans, both skilled and otherwise, would leave the state, emigrating in search of the American dream, or simply relocating to Mexico City or other large commercial centers where work was always available. The American dream is elusive, and it became especially so when a decade ago both Americans and migrants began either losing their jobs or some of their week’s hours. It grew to be much more difficult for Mexicans to get by, let alone remit money home to family in Oaxaca. 

Enter the bold new era of mezcal. Over the past several years, both the agave spirit’s production and its popularity on the world stage have literally been increasing exponentially. Statistics bear this out. 

Reverse migration has addressed the first prong of the phenomenon, in part due to the American economic crisis. That is, Oaxacans who were losing their jobs in the US began returning to their rural homesteads to help their relatives make mezcal. In earlier times they were leaving towns and villages and they headed north, in droves. Now, with less work than before, or no work at all, they were coming home, and for good reason, given the spike in production and sales of the agave distillate. 

I personally know of three cases in the hinterland of Oaxaca where immigration into the US has changed to emigration back to Oaxaca:  Santiago Matalán, San Dionisio Ocotepec, and San Pablo Güilá. In two cases the direct motivation was to help the family produce mezcal for both domestic consumption and export since these Oaxacans were in need of good reliable labor.  In the third case it involved a construction worker who in his youth learned to make mezcal in Oaxaca.  He then lived in California as a laborer for 20 years, and now had an opportunity to return home and build and work at his very own traditional distillery, as well as construct a home.

Oaxacans in the lower classes and rural areas have always imbibed the spirit.  But a new phenomenon began around the beginning of this decade, with middle class urbanites suddenly jumping on the bandwagon. It was the early stages of the boom in the US, which has given Mexicans a sense of pride in mezcal as a quality sipping spirit much like a good bourbon or single malt scotch, rather than as a gut-wrenching way to get drunk quickly. Remember those college years?

Mezcal is now respected globally, and there is increasing worldwide demand for it. So more mezcal is being distilled for both national and international markets.  And with this popularity has come an influx of visitors to learn about it, either to increase personal knowledge or with a view to opening a mezcalería in their home cities, to film and photograph it for business purposes, to sample and buy it out of pure passion for the spirit, and to begin their own brands for export. 

These pilgrims, from as far away as Australia, are not as deterred as the normal tourist by the warnings of their governments or the media. Mezcal tourism is a constant, and growing. 

The actual production of mezcal is both causing the return of Oaxacans to their homeland, as we have noted, and keeping Oaxacans here. However. there is more; while the motivation of many travelers for visiting Oaxaca is for mezcal (i.e. learning, documenting and of course buying), the spirit is actually having a much broader positive impact on the state.  That is, when visitors come for mezcal, they also buy crafts, take cooking classes, dine in restaurants, stay in hotels, visit archaeological sites, and the list goes on, and on, and on. The dramatic impact is that emigration from the state has either halted, or at minimum, been significantly curtailed.  And this keeps families together, in all walks of life.  

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). He has been witnessing the metamorphosis from the beginning.

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