EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re long overdue for an interview about the superb new essay collection, Alcohol in Latin America: A Social and Cultural History (University of Arizona Press, 2014). The collection is edited by Gretchen Pierce, an Associate Professor of History at Shippensburg University (and a past contributor to Points) and Aurea Toxqui, an Associate Professor of History at Bradley University. Read on for an overview of this sweeping collection on the history of alcohol in Latin America.
Toxqui: This book is about how alcohol has been not only at the center of any celebration in Latin America, but also at the center of political, economic, social, and religious policies. It has locally and transnationally bonded people since the pre-Columbian times and continues doing so in the era of globalization.
Pierce: This is a book that has ten chapters. Each chapter is about one country in particular, but on the whole we have seven different countries or regions that are studied, and it spans a long time period from the pre-Columbian era (before Columbus arrived in the Americas) up through the present day. What the book attempts to do is use alcohol as a lens to study bigger topics within Latin American history.
For instance, one chapter looks at Brazil and talks about a native drink that indigenous people in Brazil consumed (cauim). This was a fermented beverage made from local plant matter. Then when the Portuguese arrived in Brazil they brought in very hard, distilled liquors that were more common in Europe at the time. The essay looks at relationships that are forged between native peoples and European explorers and commissioners and talks about how, as they’re changing from one beverage to another, they’re also changing customs. The colonizers attempt to Christianize the native people and to change them from their traditional polytheistic religion, and alcohol is seen as connected to their past religious tradition.
Another example is my chapter. I look at Mexico in the twentieth century as Mexico was attempting prohibition of alcohol. Prohibitionists were claiming that this was a very revolutionary thing to do; Mexico was in the middle of a revolution: “If you stop drinking you’ll be able to save your money and all those people who are exploiting you won’t be able to do so. You’ll be educated, healthy, and sober.” But strangely enough, the very people the revolutionaries were trying to help were continuing to sell alcohol at a small scale were very resistant to finding a new line of work. I use this to show revolutions are contested; even if the idea is to help working people, if you take away a source of income from them, they’re going to fight back. I use alcohol as a lens to understand how normal people become involved in the process of state-building.
Some of the bigger themes of the collection are gender relations, racial tensions, and nation-building.
What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
Toxqui: They will find how the same roles and processes in which alcohol and drugs have been involved in other regions of the world are repeated in Latin American countries, with their specific connotations. Also they will find interesting how alcohol has been central to the cultures of Latin America.
Pierce: I hope that since it’s about alcohol they would find the whole thing interesting! I think many alcohol and drug historians at Points tend to focus on the United States, so I’m hoping that looking at a new region will be meaningful for them. I think people will be interested because of the interdisciplinary nature of the book. We have mostly historians, but we also have an anthropologist, an archeologist, an ethnohistorian, and a literary scholar. We take a broad approach.
Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?
Toxqui: While editing the book, I truly enjoyed to see how no matter the landscape, the distance, the native groups to the region or if the area was colonized by Spaniards or by Portuguese or by French, alcohol has played pivotal roles in the development of Latin American societies throughout centuries. In the same way that food is an identity marker, the kind of beverage consumed by specific groups, which came in interaction as consequence of the European colonization, either indigenous, African slaves, poor white people, and their mixes or rich white colonizers, revealed a lot about how these people defined themselves within their community and in comparison to the rest of their society. I also found fascinating how in the effort of bringing modernization and progress to their Latin American nations, the white elites applied similar policies and reforms like those implemented in the United States or European nations.
Pierce: One of the surprising things is that alcohol is so central to so many different areas of history. One of the main things we argue is that alcohol history is not just a different type of history, but it’s central to political history, social history, economic history—and it’s integral to all of these other processes. I think often people think an alcohol history is going to be a laundry list— here’s how it was made, here’s who made it, that sort of thing. But it’s tied to the act of building a nation, it’s tied to modernization, it’s tied to traditional religious practices, it’s tied to how men and women interact, different racial groups. The way alcohol is central to other issues is interesting to me.
Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?
Toxqui: Originally, the project included a chapter on Cuban rum and a chapter on Brazilian beer and temperance campaigns. I would’ve loved to see those chapters made it to the end. There are a few works on Cuban rum, but they are not written by historians. In the case of temperance movements, there are a few studies for Latin American cases such as Mexico, done by my co-editor Gretchen Pierce among others, or Uruguay and Guatemala, but there is nothing on Brazil. Another topic that I would love to read about is Colombian aguardiente. We heard and read about drug production in Colombia, but what about alcohol? It is a topic that needs to be explored.
Pierce: One of the things we would have liked to do—and that we attempted to do—was to cover all of the major regions of Latin America. For various reasons, certain chapters ended up falling through. For instance, we didn’t end up with a chapter in the Carribean, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, or Puerto Rico; we would have really liked to include them. We also had another chapter that focused on African-descended people that didn’t end up in the final version. If we can do a second edition of the book, I’d like to find chapters to fill those gaps.
In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?
Pierce: The Dos Equis guy!
Toxqui: Of course the guy that advertises Dos Equis! As Gretchen told you. Just imagine him saying: “I don’t read too much, but when I do, I prefer Alcohol in Latin America. Stay thirsty my friends!”