Indigenous Women Working in Mezcal
When you think of Oaxaca, Mexico, you probably think about warm weather, gorgeous beaches, thriving culinary history and the center of the global mezcal industry. What’s not to love—especially from a tourist’s point of view?
But for an Oaxaqueña, a native Oaxacan woman, like Liliana Palma there is a different perspective. She says Oaxacan women producing mezcal are forced into the shadows of an industry that they helped build. Palma experienced this sentiment firsthand when delivering mezcal to a luxury hotel in Oaxaca City while wearing traditional clothing.
“Indigenous clothing isn’t seen as luxury, so when I arrive [at hotels dressed in indigenous clothing], it’s a ‘why are you coming in here?’ kind of situation,” she says. “I just wait right at the entrance. I don’t even try to go into the hotels [until my contact arrives], because of the fear of being stopped. There are so many stares and glances.”
Palma is the founder of Zapotec Travel, a tour company that’s sole purpose is to highlight the accomplishments of indigenous Oaxaqueñas in her community with a focus on women in the mezcal industry.
What is the true experience of the indigenous women in the mezcal industry? We talked to four women about their struggles and triumphs, and, most importantly, how we (non-indigenous mezcal enthusiasts) can help support them.
A Brief History of Mezcal
Mezcal is a fermented liquor made from the agave plant. Palma says, in her experience, many Indigenous women working in the mezcal industry have been subject to disadvantages
Juan Carlos Méndez, a descendant of the first Oaxaqueño-owned mezcal brand, El Cortijo, says there are two histories when it comes to mezcal. Though many believe the Spanish started distilling mezcal upon their arrival to Mexico, Méndez suggests there is also an unofficial history. He says indigenous people were making mezcal long before and it was a common drink for the royal and wealthy. Unfortunately, records of mezcal production in pre-Hispanic culture are mostly lost.
“The Spanish destroyed Tenochtitlan (the capital of the Aztec empire), and what could’ve been other sites of mezcal production, and that flows into our lost history,” Méndez says. “A lot of history was lost, not just in mezcal but also in astrology and medicine…We have no information about mezcal during that time.”
From the centuries of the Spanish production of mezcal to the later 1800s, it transitioned into a drink for the working class. “Mezcal was the drink of the mine worker and so it was considered a poor man’s drink for many generations until very recently,” says Palma.
In the 2010s, this long-standing beverage erupted in popularity, and many indigenous people who have been making this drink for generations were forced to take a back seat to highly financed, non-local brands.
Due to its murky history, it’s unclear how involved women were in mezcal production originally. We do know that throughout Spanish colonial rule, harvesting teams were composed of only men, with women holding other roles. It’s thought that they were highly involved behind the scenes, but recounts of their experiences say they didn’t get much attention or recognition
“In the [many distilleries], there’s [few] women and all the others are men. But the other parts of the process [like administrative and bottling] are all women,” Méndez says. “Now, there’s more interest in women wanting to venture into the fields. I’m of the mindset that if you can do it, then you’re more than welcome.”
Women Making Waves in the Mezcal Industry
Mezcal Desde la Eternidad
Hortensia Hernández Martínez ran a food stand before entering the mezcal industry. Her husband, Juan Hernández Méndez, was a Maestro Mezcalero, a title given to people born into the mezcal tradition who have taken on the mantle and mastered the craft of mezcal production. He ran and operated the family palenque (distillery).
When he suddenly passed away a few years ago, Martínez and her daughter, Lidia Hernández Hernández, decided to pick up his mantle and carry on the family tradition. Now, as a mother-daughter-owned brand and palenque, they have five farms, oversee workers and produce around 30 varieties of mezcal.
Hernández is a fifth-generation mezcal producer, and she’s in charge of the administrative side of the brand. She meets with the regulatory board who comes by the palenque to make sure all of their permits and paperwork are in order and up to date.
“Before my father passed away, I’d already been producing my own batches of mezcal alongside him, but I never wanted to say it out loud,” Hernández says she was afraid of the pushback from the men in the mezcal community. Instead, she figured that it was better to remain anonymous and to let her work gain attention, unattached to a woman’s name. Until recently.
“[Back then] I’d rather not say that I’m a Maestra Mezcalera because they would combat that and say, ‘what could she possibly know about mezcal?’” Hernández says. This puts Oaxaqueña producers in the position to lose everything if they stake their claim in mezcal. For example, those who support mezcal producers, like wild agave harvesters, may be less willing to work with a woman-led brand, she notes. But despite this, the mother-and-daughter duo have managed to build a team that respects their leadership as women—a rarity in this industry.
In looking toward the future, Martínez has already made a bold and non-traditional decision on Eternidad. “I have three daughters and one son, so I know that I have to distribute their inheritance. I have already chosen that by the hard work that Lidia has assumed in her role, that the palenque is Lidia’s,” she says.
Liberemos el Alma
When someone is born into a mezcal family it comes with an inheritance of sacred knowledge passed down through generations about the craft and science of making mezcal. Another part of that inheritance is land. Making mezcal requires a notable amount of land, not just for growing agaves, but also for milling, fermenting, bottling and roasting. But land inherited to be used as a palenque is traditionally reserved exclusively for sons.
Isabel Santiago Hernández comes from four generations of agave producers, but still accessing land to start her own label was challenging. Six years ago, Hernández’s father denied her inclusion in his mezcal business, so her grandfather allowed her use of his palenque, which is where Liberemos el Alma is made.
“It was really difficult entering the business full-time,” says Hernández. “First, I had to convince my dad that I could do it and, even after I convinced him and he was on board, my dad would have faced backlash from his family for defending me because [there’s a notion that] women can’t be in mezcal.”
She continued. “My dad and all of my uncles work in mezcal. My uncles gave their inheritance to their sons only. All of my other cousins [who are women] are homemakers,” she says. “As women in the mezcal industry, we have to start from zero.”
Hernández, along with all the other women interviewed for this story, is from the sovereign community in Mexico under usos y costumbres, which protects indigenous people’s sovereignty, allows the right to elect their own officials and recognizes forms of local indigenous self-governance. But it’s not without its difficulties.
“For a long time, women weren’t allowed to share their opinion [under usos y costumbres], let alone when it comes to mezcal…There’s a belief that women are to be married off, not to have their own brand or business. And, once you’re married, you’re supposed to stand behind your man,” she says.
After six years of growing from the ground up, Hernández and her husband will be breaking ground on their own palenque in 2023. “I’ve found a life partner [Eric] who’s going to work alongside me and be an addition to me, not try to take from me,” she says.
La Casa del Pulque
Reina Luisa Cortés Cortés is the owner of La Casa Del Pulque and her family has been in the pulque industry (unprocessed, fermented agave juice) for five generations. Though the distillery focuses mainly on pulque, many of the agaves she cultivates go to other brand’s mezcal producers and to her family’s soon-to-launch brand, Sin Frontera.
“Women were forbidden from touching agaves, until my grandma, in my community,” she says. Cortés explains her grandfather taught her grandmother how to extract aguamiel (an unprocessed, unfermented agave juice). Eventually, her grandmother was performing the entire harvest on her own and taught her daughters, debunking the long-held belief that harvesting of aguamiel and the production of pulque was too intense for women. Her example paved the way for Cortés.
Cortés says, today many people look to her in the community because she is one of the only full-time women working as a pulquera (a woman who sells and produces pulque). Because of her work, she inspires other women to take on roles in the production.
“I know another family who works in pulque. They lost their father, who was the harvester in their household, and now the daughters are more enthusiastic about harvesting aguamiel and are less shy about going out to the fields on their own,” she says.
Just down the street from La Casa Del Pulque is Lopez Real, a palenque run by Sabina Mateo. Mateo is a third-generation mezcalera who married Mario López, who also came from a mezcal family. They eventually inherited their palenque through her husband in 1984 and recently started selling internationally.
“We didn’t have anything back in the day (prior to inheriting the palenque); no roofing or palenque. So, we started working from zero. He always had the vision that one day we would have something even though, at the time, we had nothing,” she says.
Commonly, pruning and harvesting agaves is work typically assigned to men, because working the fields is particularly labor intensive and some agaves weigh upwards of 400 pounds. But when you don’t have any workers other than yourself and your husband, it’s all hands on deck for every part of the production, she says. On the grounds, leaning against the large bottling facilities sits a small shed (just four poles and a tin roof) that covers their freshly roasted agaves. That was the first roof Mateo and López ever had. She mentioned how proud she was that they finally had something of their own.
Unfortunately, López passed away a little over two years ago, and now the family brand is headed by Mateo. With the help of her sons working administrative, marketing and production roles, they have been able to find workers who respect her as a female mezcal producer.
How These Businesses Are Being Supported
As more tourists experience these mezcal production sites and local establishments purchase indigenous Oaxaqueña-owned mezcal, some of these women are finally seeing success and recognition in their brands. For example, Martínez of Mezcal Desde la Eternidad says she has clientele visiting her palenque from all over Mexico, and she works for a New York-based brand that pays her company well and highlights them on their social media.
Because of the growing international demand for mezcal, many larger brands are buying mezcal from Oaxaqueño producers and putting their own labels on it. Though this can help local producers fund their own growing brands and make money for their families, it also forces them to direct much of their resources to mass-market brands instead of their own. These relationships, while complex, can also be healthy.
“[Non-indigenous buyers] need to learn the process and see how the mezcal is made because it’s more than just making mezcal,” says Margarita Blas, a third-generation mezcal producer who works with brands, like Doce Mezcal, a woman-owned brand based in the U.S., and also produces for her family brand, Palomo. “It’s cultivating agaves, bringing the agave to the palenque. You’re exposed to lots of smoke and heat. They need to understand why mezcal is not something that we can sell cheaply.”
For Blas, receiving adequate pay for her mezcal production makes a big difference. “People have visited, shown respect for what we do, and paid us a good price [for our work]. Their brands are growing because they are growing in respect for us,” she says.
As a consumer, learning about mezcal production, visiting Matatlán, Mexico to hear the women’s stories and shopping indigenous brands locally, when possible, is key in supporting these women and their craft. Though going to Mexico isn’t an option for everyone, following the social media accounts of these women can help support their businesses. Followers can see when the women will be traveling to potentially more convenient destinations and learn more about mezcal production.
“If the brand is really small or if the distillery is run from their home, they’re probably indigenous-owned,” says Palma. “See their Instagram, see what their message is about so you can consume more responsibly.”
Additionally, researching and buying brands available in your area that work with indigenous female producers can help support from afar. Like any spirit, some mezcal products will label their bottles with this information while others may require more research.