By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
It is inaccurate to suggest that mezcal production in Oaxaca is by and large a man’s job or trade and that there are very few palenqueras, that is, artisanal mezcal distillers who are women. The female of the species makes mezcal. Women’s involvement in the process is essentially determined by the same criteria used to understand sex roles in other vocations in rural Oaxaca: strength and stamina, traditional child-rearing, and other household responsibilities.
Palenqueros (using the more generic term for male and female producers of the spirit) typically do not read books or watch YouTube videos to learn how to make the iconic Mexican spirit. They learn from their fathers, their uncles and their grandfathers, just as their relatives before them, over generations. Young girls, just as young boys, begin learning the trade virtually from infancy; watching, helping, and fantasizing their futures as palenqueros while in the course of interacting with their friends and siblings. I frequently witness this acquisition of knowledge.
Customarily women raise families, dating to the hunter and gatherer division of labor in humankind. Mothers remained close to home with the children, gathering fruits, nuts, berries, etc., and preparing meals, while their male partners were off on extended hunting expeditions, requiring that they be fleet of foot, and at times requiring more physical fortitude than women can muster.
With mezcal production, often the fields of agave under cultivation are far from home, and if wild maguey is sought, the palenquero is frequently required to walk a couple of hours into the hills before encountering his bounty. The same holds true for sourcing firewood to fuel ovens and stills. Furthermore, lifting the piñas (heart of the succulent used in production) can require more strength than women exhibit. Although the palenquero will sometimes cut the pinas into smaller pieces while still in the field, whether whole or halved they can weigh hundreds of pounds and must be lifted into trucks or onto donkeys or mules.
Once back at the palenque (the artisanal mezcal distillery), which often adjoins the homestead, women’s work making mezcal begins in earnest, although still subject to their priority obligation of preparing meals and tending to the children. Women are often an integral part of the baking, crushing, fermenting and distilling processes, working alongside and even directing men.
Back at the palenque, the task of cutting the agave into appropriately sized pieces for baking usually falls to men, once again for reasons relating to stamina and strength. Splitting logs and loading the oven with large, heavy tree trunks is typically men’s work as well. But when it comes to filling the oven with stones, wet bagazo (waste fiber from distillation), piñas, tarpaulins and earth, women participate as equals to men.
Even in the face of whatever remnants persist of the perceived macho mexicano, once the rocks in the oven have been sufficiently heated, it is important to second as many helpers both male and female to get the work of filling and sealing the oven so it is airtight.
Women as well as men remove the piñas from the oven once the carbohydrates have been converted to sugars, or caramelized. Later on, in preparation for a subsequent bake, once again individuals of both sexes empty the chamber. The women are the daughters, daughters-in-law, mothers, partners, nieces and granddaughters. I regularly see them all participating. They are as much a part of the process as their male counterparts, including being charged with decision-making.
When crushing the baked agave is done by hand, then yes, almost exclusively it is men who attend to this most arduous task. But the remaining tasks are often shared equally: working the horse; determining when the pieces of maguey have been sufficiently pulverized; loading the receptacles for fermenting, whether they be wooden slat tanks, in-ground lined pits, bovine skins, or something else; and distilling. Women can decide upon the optimum ABV (alcohol by volume) and how to achieve the best possible flavor.
But let’s assume that the palenquera is also charged with typical household chores. including family meal preparation and raising the children, including attending to their health, education and general welfare. She cannot, of course, be reasonably expected to look after all this, as well as partner with her husband in directing and attending to all of the tasks required in mezcal production. However upon hearing the shout or receiving the phone call from her male partner, cousin, son or father, she’s there, as needed.
In addition, she is the one remaining at home in charge of sales. She typically also prepares comida for the men, and in fact it is customary, when the home is not alongside the palenque, for women to bring food and drink for those (men) who are at some stage of producing the spirit.
Economic necessity on occasion dictates that a woman, to almost the complete exclusion of men, might become a palenquera. She plants, tends, cuts and harvests maguey; splits logs’ and crushes by hand. In one case a husband/palenquero died suddenly in a car accident, leaving his wife and four young children. She became a palenquera in the traditional sense, doing everything previously done by her late husband, in addition to raising the children.
In another case a single mother’s two children left home for the US in their late teens, leaving her and her mother as the householders. She had learned mezcal production from her grandfather. Currently she has a reputation for being one of the very few palenqueras who does it all, producing one of the finest mezcals in Oaxaca. She directs her underlings, that is, male cousins and neighbors, as to how to produce mezcal based on her exacting recipe. The foregoing are two exceptions to the tradition of both men and women working together, cooperatively with members of their families and communities.
A shift in paradigm is both warranted and strongly suggested when it comes to our perception of the industry being mainly within the purview of men. Women deserve to have their proper and important place acknowledged in the world of Oaxacan mezcal production.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).