Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Magic of Maguey

Pencas de maguey, San José del Pacifico, Oaxaca. 

The maguey is a kind of agent of history and time concentrated. It has been present as a silent witness to the all country's historic stages .... In Mexico, the culture of maguey constitutes a kind of wisdom, it has become a national emblem of the country
(Artes de Mexico, Número 51)

House in Atlanga with maguey in front
In 2006, Marie and I left to spend nine months in the small pueblo of Atlangatepec in the state of Tlaxcala. It was situated in the altiplano (high desert) region between Mexico City and Puebla, an area where maguey plants were plentiful and so were their potently popular by-products: pulque, tequila and mezcal.

One of the projects that we had in mind while in Tlaxcala was a young adult book about "el derecho de no migrar" the right to not migrate. Our storyline was a young boy who decides he does not want to go to the USA to work as all of his brothers had done. He loves his pueblo, his family, and his culture, and decides to stay in Tlaxcala and take over his father's maguey plantation and continue a life style that had been in his family for generations. So we began our research.

Fermin at work
Our friends, Paco and Alejandra, directed us to their neighbor, Don Fermin, a campesino who lived in the hills outside of Tlaxco. Fermin lived in an isolated, arid spot where little else grew except the maguey. He was alone and his children were not interested in staying on "el rancho" to care for the maguey and produce pulque, an age old fermented drink made from the sap that was extracted from the maguey. Pulque is a drink that dates back over 2000 years to the time of the Aztecs, who prized it for its healthful and aphrodisiac properties. It was still produced and consumed in Tlaxcala and Fermin had a small "pulqueria" on his land. He gladly took Marie and me around his land and showed us some of the many other uses for the maguey, from tiles for roofs to thread for making rope and baskets.

What Deek could have become!
But for Fermin, it was aguamiel (unfermented juice from the maguey used to make pulque) and his pulque that defined who he was. He took great pride in his product and as Marie sketched him, I got to sample the various stages of fermentation. As I sipped the milky substance, I wondered what would have become of me had I lived at the time when pulquerias were the gathering places for men to indulge in the vices that destroyed many of them. I decided that it was a blessing for me not to have been alive in that period of history!

We returned several times to Fermin's ranch and he was always more than willing to share his knowledge of the maguey with us. He took us out to see how the plant is "castrated" so its juice can be used for aquamiel and pulque.
Magueys, who live up to thirty five years, flower only once in their lifetime. If the quiote (flowering stalk) is cut, it will continue to produce the juice that is collected daily by the "pulquero".
Castrated maguey producing aguamiel
On one of our many ventures to "la laguna de Atlangatepec", we met José, another pulquero that befriended us. Again, we were invited to taste his creations and go with him to visit his plants and collect aguamiel. And once again, as I sampled what could have been my demise, Marie sketched José. Then she wandered off to sketch the quiote, the flower of the maguey (on the left hand side of the page) which shoots twenty five feet into the air! It seems to emerge right out of la Malinche!
José, el pulquero de Atlanga

 When we returned to Oregon in 2009, it was our intent to return to Tlaxcala the following fall and continue working on the book. That never happened. Life is like that sometimes.

As for our story, it is still fermenting in my mind. The need for something written to promote the "right not to migrate" is greater than ever as thousands of Latino children seek a safe haven in the US, a country that does not welcome them with open arms. Perhaps my next trip to Mexico will take me back to Fermin's or Jose´s magueys in search of the wisdom and inspiration that I need to move forward on the book. Much has changed since it was started six years ago. It is not just economic desperation that forces men and women to leave in search of work. It is now violence and fear that forces children to flee their families and homeland to stay alive. It seems that there are two parallel rights that need to be addressed here. The "right to not migrate" and still live a life with dignity and safety in your own country, and the "right to migrate" "al otro lado" in order to live a life free of violence and fear. Luckily I have the time to reflect on it more, and the good fortune to migrate myself, back to a country that does welcome me with open arms.And the maguey will still be there waiting to share their wisdom with me.
Maguey Fantasy
Decaying plant