Exploring Food Systems and Migration in Oaxaca

By Hailey Grohman

Telling my friends and family that I’d be spending my winter break in Mexico studying mezcal, an agave spirit much like tequila, didn’t exactly earn me the scholastic respect I might have wanted. Nervous aunts warned me against drinking the water, or eating anything at all, while younger cousins begged me to bring them back some of that “cool booze with the worm in it.”

Thankfully, my experience was very different from what my family had anticipated—there’s no worm in real mezcal, for one—and proved to be an incredible learning experience in food systems, migration, and one cool spirit.

Photo by Dennis Brekke/Flickr

Mexican Workers and the American Food System

I came to the state of Oaxaca as part of a graduate-level food systems class to experience how food systems are affected by migratory patterns. Mexican-US migration patterns are a contemporary political debate, though not a new phenomenon: Mexican workers were first encouraged to fill American agricultural jobs during World War II, due to labor shortages, according to Transborder Lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon, by Lynn Stephen.

Even after the war ended, however, Mexican workers remained integrated into the American food system. Economic crises in Mexico combined with free-trade agreements like NAFTA, forcing Mexican workers into low-paid US jobs on farms, in fields, and with restaurants. Because of this, American immigration and agricultural policy became intricately linked, weaving the concerns of feeding America’s people with the task of keeping others out.

Studying the Oaxaca Food System

To study contemporary food systems, one must study migration, and so we hauled off for 10 days in Oaxaca.

Our class centered around several critical Mexican products, one of which was mezcal, which has a centuries-old history of production in Mexico. The profile of this spirit is rising, particularly among American consumers (see the New Yorker’s food issue!), but much of its production remains small scale and family owned. We had the privilege of a hands-on mezcal education through tastings, readings, and one incredible day visiting a unique mezcal producer in the rural Mixteca region of Oaxaca.

Our trip to the town of Santa Maria del Ixcatlan required a three-hour van ride chartered by a jovial Oaxacan, Ramon, who deftly navigated a passageway that quickly devolved further and further from a road in any traditional sense. Highway suddenly became paved street, then rocky throughway, until we seemed to be forging our own path across the hillside before arriving in Santa Maria del Ixcatlan.

Along our path on the way to town, Andrea, our guide and a UVM alumni, pointed out dozens of different agave plants: unassuming shrubbery lining the hillside, providing both an important product and a livelihood to the surrounding town. We were in the land of mezcal, no doubt about it.

Our tourist visas for mezcal country were clear shot glasses. When we arrived at the home of Armandito, a 24-year-old mezcal producer, and his family, we were immediately greeted and welcomed with some morning mezcal. With glasses and bottle in hand, we set back out on a journey to tour the area. We viewed Armandito’s mezcal production through the places used for each step in the process: fields for harvesting the agave, huge man-made pits for roasting the hearts (imparting that famous smoky flavor), and, most unique, his calfskin sacks for fermenting the agave mash.

As mezcal has become more popular, both globally and domestically, it has become subject to stricter governmental regulations that can discourage traditional methods like the calfskin fermentation practiced by Armandito. The agave, mashed by hand in a few hours by two stocky Oaxacan men, sits in the hide to ferment for several days, forming an alcoholic mash called pulque before it is distilled into mezcal. When we asked whether the calfskin is cured before being used for mezcal production, Armandito told us that it isn’t, which makes the first batch “a little greasy.” That’s about as traditional as it gets.

Traditional Products in Rural Communities

In Santa Maria del Ixcatlan, we were also able to observe how mezcal production affected and was affected by the migration of people from the town. Armandito told us, via Andrea’s translation, that he was one of only 10 young men left. Most had moved to look for work, to Mexican cities or to the United States. Even fewer women remained of eligible marrying age. Mezcal provides a steady income for Armandito to remain in the town, but there isn’t much room in the market for more than one producer. It was a stark reminder of the role of traditional products in rural economies.

The revitalization of those economies is one goal of Mezcaloteca, a tasting room, mezcal marketing service, and nonprofit run by Andrea. Partnerships between middlemen like Andrea and rural producers of mezcal help keep traditional production styles viable, because Andrea can sell mezcal to tourists and aficionados from all over.

The question of whether partnerships like this are enough to maintain or revitalize rural livelihoods is one that I find myself pondering in Vermont as well as in Oaxaca. Do the food systems of all artisanal products need people like Andrea to keep them alive? Does it take an outsider to see the value of something as special as mezcal? And as more people, particularly in the United States, demand mezcal, how will this food system change?

For a great blog on all things mezcal, and a list of places to try mezcal north of the border, visit http://mezcalistas.com.

-Hailey Grohman is a graduate student in food systems, with research interests in food communication and media.

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