The below post is by contributing author Joahna Hernandez who is based in CDMX. She is the founder of Manos de Maiz, a binational company that provides fresh ground masa to restaurants in D.C. and corn based foods in CDMX.

Doña Delia Vargas was born in a family of farmers and mezcaleros in the south of Michoacan. At the age of seven she learned the tradition of mezcal from her grandfather who taught her how to cut the piñas on every visit to his vinata. Intrigued by the flavors and aromas of the spirit, she would secretly try her mom’s personal reserve of mezcal while she waited for the next visit to her grandpa’s house. When she married José Emilio Vieyra, also a fifth generation mezcalero, she got the opportunity to learn more and dedicate her time entirely to the elaboration of mezcal. “My husband was always supportive and included me in most activities from cutting the magueyes, to crushing them, to fixing the fire (for distillation), we always worked as a team.” 

In recent years, we have seen more and more articles talking about female professionals standing out in their industries, in particular in the agave spirits world. We find more brands led by women, oftentimes with an all-female staff, a trend we want to see more of. As a born and raised Mexicana, I wanted to find out what it takes for women producers to step out and lead in this male dominated industry and what makes them step back and be the force behind scenes. I spoke with America Delgado, an independent researcher who works very closely with Red de Manejadores de Maguey Forestal in different regions of Puebla, Oaxaca, Jalisco, and Michoacán. She specializes in issues related to sustainable management of non-timber products such as wild magueyes. During her 14-year career, she has seen the evolution of women in the mezcal making process, specifically how local customs and habits are changing and adapting to the current needs of the market.

A movement takes shape

These past several weeks, Mexicans all over the country have been deeply reflecting on the role of women in society and the urgent need to change the culture of silence and machismo. The rise in violence against women, femicidio in Mexican Spanish, in Mexico in 2019 is alarming — 1,010 women were reported murdered in Mexico by the local authorities, more than double the number reported in 2015. On International Women’s Day, women from all over Mexico irregardless of class or social status, joined together to demand gender equality, a thorough prosecution of criminals committing femicides, increased efforts to keep women secure and alive, and a vindication of reproductive rights. 

Organizations of women called for a massive strike called “A Day Without Women” on March 9th so it would be possible to measure what a day would look like if women disappeared. The goal of all of these actions was to create a new paradigm for women and their role in society, one that cuts out the deep roots of machismo and the normalized behavior of abuse passed from one generation to another. Such protests have been centered in larger urban areas such as Mexico City which gave a greater visibility to the movement nationally and abroad. However, sometimes the situation in other parts of the country do not get as much attention. 

According to Fundacion Semillas, a non-profit organization focused on improving women’s lives in Mexico, over eight million indigenous women in Mexico suffer some kind of violence. But given how much of the March 9th action was focused in urban areas, how much involvement do indigenous women have in this movement? Are they asking for changes within rural areas and their indigenous communities? While it is not clear just how extensive actions are in rural, indigenous communities, it is clear that things are happening: On the same day, March 9th, a group of one hundred Mixe women from Istmo de Tehuantepec, blocked the roads to demand better job opportunities for female artisans and farmers, as well as prosecution of crimes committed against women. Theirs is the region with the greatest number of femicidios in Oaxaca. Other groups joined the protests in Chiapas, one of the poorest states in the country, and were criticized by the Mayor of Cintalapa, an example on how authorities still don’t understand the extent of the problem.  

In Mexico, only 61% of women living in rural areas are economically active and according to the Frente Auténtico del Campo (FAC) an organization that represents 6,000 women and indigenous farmers, only 3 out of 10 female farmers get paid for their work. Every year, more organizations around the world and within communities in Mexico recognize the need to reduce the gender inequality gap. A study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) showed that if women in Latin American countries had the same job opportunities as men, their economies would grow around 39%, and specifically in Mexico, the GDP would increase at least 7% if women and men were paid equally. 

Is there a role for Mezcal in creating more equity?

Can the mezcal industry help reduce this gender gap and walk rural communities through a path of  economic and social progress? It is a complicated question and likely will only work if there is recognition of the family unit within the production cycle and the labor of women as key in distilling mezcal. As Dr. Delgado told me, most women are involved in every step of production, for example, at tavernas in northern Zacatecas and Tamaulipas, women work as mayordomos (stewards or foreman), without the official title. They are basically in charge of managing the production process with duties such as overseeing maguey deliveries, supervising storage, knowing when it is ready to cook and for how long. They are also the accountants, keeping track of expenses and managing maguey transactions. And they manage human resources by organizing the staff (usually cousins, nephews, neighbors or relatives from their extended families) that assist their husbands in the production of mezcal. 

“Women are always part of the process of making mezcal, they are always present, whenever I witness a distillation I like to ask the wives because they know every step of the way but they often shy away and hide behind their husbands. It’s not a bad or a good thing because that is part of their culture.” Delgado adds, “However, we need to support those women who voluntarily want to do more.” Some families recognize the work of their women like in Morelia where Dr. Delgado collaborates with Doña Delia at the Unión de Mujeres Mezcaleras de Michoacán in order to promote the recognition of female workers, among other duties. Most of them are intermediaries between growers and producers, some are producers and others specialize in marketing, sales, and supply chain management, which is why we have begun seeing more women at mezcal festivals and trade events. 

In the machista culture of Mexico, fathers are seen as the sole providers for the family and prefer to pass their farming knowledge to a son rather than to a daughter. However, the combination of a rapidly aging population in the pueblos coupled with young men moving away to cities for work, is forcing males to ignore gender prejudice and to be more inclusive. I can’t think of a better example of breaking with social conventions than Don Lorenzo Ángeles (RIP) who passed the torch of the family business at Real Minero to his daughter Graciela Ángeles.

A deeply rooted tradition of machismo among men and women often means preventing women from taking the lead or requiring the approval of men to participate. For most, the gender division of labor comes naturally as Luz Saavedra, Luz Saavedra, President of the Business Union of Maguey Producers in Michoacán and owner of Nanakutzin Mezcal explains. “Mezcal history is shaped by the work of men and women. My husband is a third generation of a mezcal family, ever since I met him, I have seen the active involvement of his mother and sisters in activities such as seeds collecting and agave transplant. Together we coordinate all the efforts involved in the production and management of the business.”

Luz notes that work in the vinata is assigned by gender, where women are usually highly concentrated in activities that require lesser physical skills. “My husband tells me ‘you’ll oversee inventory, production control and all administrative duties, I’ll be in charge of producing mezcal.’ I think we, as women, have better skills managing the money, it is a natural thing for our gender. But for companies like ours, it is important to know how to separate the family relationship with the business one, and to assign the correct value to our work so there are no resentments or arguments like ‘you made more money but you didn’t work as much as I did!’”.

For Berencie Muñiz, cofounder of brands like Ocho Víboras, Diestro y Siniestro, the mezcal boom has brought better opportunities to communities where the economy was lagging, and it has given more visibility to women in the industry. She also believes in gender division of labor as a strategy to optimize the capabilities of a palenque but recognizes that cultural traditions might inhibit a more active role of women. For Fernando and Lucía Damian, a couple in Sola de Vega who produce the Maguey Blanco expression of Siniestro, the benefits of such development are evident. Doña Lucía, the wife, manages the finances and accounts payable but according to Muñíz, it is clear that she is the power behind the brand, however she doesn’t mind her husband’s name to be the one showing on the label. 

There are also various examples of women taking the lead in the business, sometimes by choice, sometimes by life’s realities of a husband’s death or his migration to the U.S. Such is the case of Bertha Vázquez, a 65-year-old maestra mezcalera born and raised in the tradition of mezcal in San Baltazar Chichicapam, Oaxaca. In a series of short videos made by Maguey Melate, Doña Bertha tells her story. She grew up watching her grandfather distilling mezcal, and has been part of her family’s mezcal making tradition since she was a little girl. She married a mezcalero but didn’t become actively involved since women were only supposed to prepare the food and manage their households. After her husband passed away, and with four children to raise, she had no choice but to take over the palenque which her oldest son, 16 years old at the time, had inherited. This new endeavor represented quite a challenge because women were not accepted in the production process, and she also had to take on the hard work of going into the mountain to find the best magueyes and shaving off the piñas herself.  This was not a feminist statement, she had no choice as this was her only way to support her family.  

The work of female farmers goes largely unnoticed primarily because they have a double duty, one in the fields taking care of their crops and one in their homes making the food and managing the household, with only one of the jobs being paid and usually undervalued. According to a recent analysis by Oxfam, women’s unpaid labor globally is worth $10.9 trillion and in Mexico, women spend 6 hours a day doing domestic work and taking care of relatives. More technical support and education programs are important tools to use within the families of producers of mezcal. What if both men and women had a better knowledge of the value of their work and of their contribution to their communities? 

The resilience and persistence of Doña Bertha is admirable, because she didn’t give up when she was told making mezcal was hard and there was no money in it. She didn’t hesitate to step in and keep up with their family tradition, and years later, not even the loss of her son in an accident made her stop. On the contrary, she continued, selling door to door making her own mezcal together with her daughter in law. “She’s as strong as an oak and as arraigada as the magueyes and montes of our land” Doña Delia of Don Mateo Mezcal described Doña Bertha who she met recently at the Jornadas Nacionales de Mezcal celebrated in Oaxaca. 

Both shared experiences and knowledge from their positions of matriarchs, mezcaleras and keepers of their regional cuisine traditions, but Unlike Doña Bertha, Doña Delia didn’t have to wait until Don Emilio passed away to incorporate herself fully into the company, she was part of it from the beginning. She is the one who runs the sales and training department for Don Mateo Mezcal, and oversees every other part of the supply chain. Aware of her position, she shares her knowledge to empower other women so that together, they can create a collective brand of the Union de Mujeres Mezcaleras de Michoacan. 

The potential opportunity in Aguascalientes 

According to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), gender inequality extends to other regions of the country like Aguascalientes, one of the smallest Mexican states which represents only 0,01% of the national territory. Unemployment is greater among women, and only 38.6% of them are economically active, with 65.3% of those women receiving less than the  minimum wage. As previously reported, Aguascalientes has been fighting to be included in the Denomination of Origin (DO) of mezcal. Even though their application was approved by the Mexican Institute for Industrial Property (IMPI), the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM) which regulates the appellation of mezcal obtained a judicial brief freezing Aguascalientes’ application. They argued that Aguascalientes didn’t have a documented history of mezcal production or proof of a cultural tradition of mezcal. 

Aguascalientes shares borders with Zacatecas and Jalisco, two large producers of tequila and mezcal. They share a common history and have very similar ecosystems, and it’s very probably that mezcla was produced there traditionally. Opponents argue that Aguascalientes wants to join the DO solely to take advantage of the mezcal boom. But according to Wenceslao Bautista, President of the Product Maguey-Mezcal State Committee, Aguascalientes’ efforts to join the DO date back to 1994 when 12 regions in the state began focusing efforts that would lead to DO approval. It wasn’t until 2014 when the state government finally followed through and set up a team to complete the research and application requirements so they could apply for the extension of the DO in early 2015.

Bautista and his team found proof of the lost history, a contract from 1728 was found in the General Archive of Indies (Archivo General de Indias) where 500 barrels of mezcal were traded between Villa de Asientos, one of Aguascalientes current municipalities, and Sevilla, Spain. It is known that during Spanish rule, the production of wine and brandy was a priority for the Spanish Crown which resulted in a reduction of mezcal and pulque production, which was allowed only for personal consumption. When it ultimately became illegal, it was women who helped hide the containers of mezcal underneath the ground, or hide it among the merchandise that was shipped from Zacatecas to Mexico City throughout the Ruta de la Plata.

The state of Aguascalientes has proven it has the production capacity to join the mezcal market, with more than five different species and subspecies of agave, a current production capacity of 40 to 60 thousand liters per year and a projected production capacity of 200 thousand liters per year, without impacting the biodiversity of the area. They clearly see an economic development opportunity by bringing back jobs and activating the farmland by providing work to 410 small producers and ejidatarios who are committed to plant 5 to 10 agaves for each agave they harvest, in the same area where they harvest them.

The economy in regions like Asientos and Tepezala has been marginalized for decades and job opportunities are scarce. There is an urgent need to create economic viability for their communities for that reason, Mujeres del Mezcal opened a new chapter in January of 2019. Their goal is to maximize the use of agave not only for distillates but also to produce aguamiel, agave syrup, textiles and possibly cosmetics. The platform of Mujeres del Mezcal is working to provide local women with the tools for their employment in this industry. 

Seizing the moment

This is a crucial moment in Mexico which has long been serviced by institutions trapped in patriarchal policies and a concentration of power that has inhibited participation of different actors in the society, primarily women, and discouraged the creation of alternative institutions which can help regulate the economic activity and distribute the power among those with less representation. As non-governmental organizations such as the Consejo Civil Mexicano para la Silvicultura Sostenible CCMSS have concluded in different reports, when women have a major participation in the decision making process, governance of forests and sustainability of resources improves considerably. I hope that the movements we are seeing today are the prelude of future projects that create inclusive communities, ones who recognize the value of women and benefit their  well-being as well as their participation in the public life. The urgency in rural communities is to activate their local economy by creating a more inclusive system of production where opportunity is given to every single member of the family and where each individual value is recognized and included, not excluded.