Pulqueras, Mezcaleras Y Meseras: Women’s Resistance to Mexico’s Anti-Alcohol Campaigns, 1910-1940

We here at Points are very excited to present the next (though, unfortunately, final) installment of guest blogger Gretchen Pierce’s three-part series on the cultural of alcohol in early twentieth-century Mexico (parts one and two may be found here and here, respectively). Gretchen is an Assistant Professor of History at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. The work in this piece comes from Dr. Pierce’s extensive research in the Archivo General de la Nación, Archivo Histórico del Estado de Sonora, Archivo Histórico de la Secretaría de Educación Pública, Archivo Histórico de la Secretaría de Salubridad y Asistencia, the Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, and the Biblioteca Nacional and Hemeroteca Nacional, both found at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

The Comité Nacional de Lucha contra el Alcoholismo (CNLCA, National Committee of Struggle against Alcoholism), an institution organized by the federal government to promote temperance during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1940), called for women to aid in its campaign by joining temperance leagues and petitioning officials to close down bars in their neighborhoods.  As I mentioned in the second installment in this series, bureaucrats claimed that creating a sober society was not only in the women and their families’ best interests, but they would also be aiding the Revolution’s state-building project by helping to forge a healthy, modern populace.

On the surface, Camila Retes Vda. de García* would appear to be the antithesis of the CNLCA’s heroine.  This Alamos, Sonora, woman not only did not fight alcohol consumption, but she clandestinely sold mescal, a distilled beverage similar to tequila, from her home in 1929. Retes and other small-scale alcohol producers and vendors engaged in this line of work, however, precisely for their families.  Retes had three small grandchildren to support and she argued that she had no way to earn a living other than to sell alcohol.  She also understood that the Revolution was about social transformation, although she may have defined that transformation a little differently than did officials in the CNLCA.  Retes claimed to be a well-educated person from a respectable background who had simply fallen on hard times.  The Revolution was supposed to help the poor advance, and laws that restricted the sale of alcohol had the opposite effect for people like her.  Finally, Retes was not afraid to complain when her elected leaders seemed to fall short of revolutionary ideals, to that end, she did contribute to the state-building process.

Alcohol: An Opiate of the Masses?

Temperance advocates claimed that anti-alcohol measures were the height of revolutionary reform.  They argued that, for centuries, the rich and powerful had taken advantage of native peoples, peasants, and factory workers by supplying them with a beverage that weakened and impoverished them.  As my first two posts showed, excess alcohol consumption also supposedly contributed to the spread of disease, crime, and unhappy home lives, as well as a docile workforce.  These problems led the politician Dr. José Siurob Ramírez, to pronounce that getting rid of the alcoholic beverage pulque should be considered one of the main goals of the Revolution.

To reformers’ dismay, women continued working in a variety of positions in the alcohol industry, most of them small-scale, many of them clandestine.  As pulqueras and mezcaleras, women produced beverages such as pulque, the fermented drink made from the agave plant, or its distilled cousin, mezcal.  More commonly, women worked as meseras, or waitresses, in dispensaries like pulquerías, cantinas and small eateries called fondas.  Still others sold the beverage from their own homes.  Those from a slightly higher social position might own one of these small establishments.  More elite women (although they are not the subject of this post), might own the plantations that the maguey plants were grown on. 

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