Day One in Donald Trump’s New World

By Alec Jacobson | 1/20/17

Day laborers walk to work in San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca, Mexico, a primarily subsistence farming village.

Day laborers walk to work in San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca, Mexico, a primarily subsistence farming village.

On the night that votes were being tallied in America, I was eating mole on a rooftop in Oaxaca. Across the patio, a Mexican in a thick red sweater that I envied flirted with an exchange student. I sat alone, refreshing maps and twitter feeds that switched from smug to shock. The wind was cold, so I drained my beer and went to bed.

Overnight, both the US State Department and my mom had raised their travel warnings for Mexico a notch, but the only anti-American sentiment I saw in a month of driving was from a group of ex-pats in San Miguel de Allende – aging artists with anti-Trump signs and badly translated flyers. Diego, in Mexico City, was angry at Enrique Pena Nieto, his own president, for sitting down with a candidate who so clearly lacked respect for Mexico. A hotel owner in Oaxaca City who had studied in Oregon said that maybe it would be good for America to feel a little shame.

A friend wrote on Facebook, “If we win, champagne and then we get to work. If we lose, tequila and then we get to work.”

And so, in the morning, I drove south to a mezcal distillery in Tlacolula.

Augustin Guendulain harvests agave from his field near Amatlan, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Augustin Guendulain harvests agave from his field near Amatlan, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Like tequila, mezcal is made from agave, but unlike the skull jarring shots you take and immediately regret, it’s typically pure plant with no additives and takes advantage of the vast diversity of the species that encapsulates nearly 200 varietals in Mexico. It’s like backroads scotch.

The mezcal tradition goes back centuries, but it’s found a recent niche in hip bars bumping production up by more than 100% in a few years. I was driving distillery to distillery to understand the impacts of that market shift on traditional producers and ecology.

Americans have long consumed the majority of the world’s agave spirits, adding millions of dollars every year to the Mexican economy but, through tequila, tending to concentrate them in only a few hands. The same could be said about most globalized business success, but the gap feels particularly poignant between Carlos Slim and subsistence farmers.

Teresa Raymundo cooks stew at her home in San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Teresa Raymundo cooks stew at her home in San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Fortunate Angeles wipes his brow after breaking up roasted agave to prepare it for milling at his palenque in San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Fortunate Angeles wipes his brow after breaking up roasted agave to prepare it for milling at his palenque in San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca, Mexico.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States,” said dictator Porfiro Diaz at the end of the 19th century. He was thinking about a war, but neoliberal machinations tambien.

Mezcal offers a chance for a more democratic distilling future, with small-batch artisanal varieties leading the market from some of the country’s poorest places.

In Tlacolula, a dusty highway-side town, I met Santiago Suarez, founder of Mezcal Amores, and a team of social impact investors who were analyzing the company’s process. Amores is one of the largest mezcal companies but works with 15 maestro mezcaleros, each making their own distinct spirits, to keep quality high and profits distributed. “It’s very easy for me to build a big palenque and produce everything ourselves, but that’s not the philosophy,” said Suarez.

Tlacolula is a new site where Amores is building a sort of mezcal academy to study tradition scientifically and spread the knowledge among the next generation of mezcaleros.

A team from Mezcal Amores tours the construction of a new facility for research and production of their Verde line in Tlacolula, Oaxaca, Mexico,

A team from Mezcal Amores tours the construction of a new facility for research and production of their Verde line in Tlacolula, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Augustin Guendulain drive his truck through the hills outside Amatlan, Oaxaca after harvesting wild agave. The crack in his windshield is from an accident in which, after drinking mezcal all day, his friend's head hit the glass.

Augustin Guendulain drive his truck through the hills outside Amatlan, Oaxaca after harvesting wild agave. The crack in his windshield is from an accident in which, after drinking mezcal all day, his friend’s head hit the glass.

After a tour of a construction site and a nursery full of rare – typically wild – agaves, we packed our cars off to the next palenque in Mitla where the maestro mezcalerohas sold enough booze to buy an Audi. As we tasted sample after sample, Canadian analyst with the team worried how often he might be perceived as “Trumpain.” What if he looked at a woman?

The women of the house served lunch, laying out platters of grilled meat, strings of Oaxacan cheese and bowls of spicy sauce and then we loaded off to San Juan del Rio, turning off the road onto a dirt track into the mountains.

The heart of mezcal country is in farming towns where the craft extends back as moonshine. Agave is harvested by hand – the spines carefully trimmed off with machetes – roasted in a pit for days, milled by a mule and a big stone, naturally fermented and distilled in copper. That boutique process is drawing a global cosmopolitan elite to the backroads to make what Suarez calls, “a contemporary story of Mexico.”

A day of the dead rave party at Le 58 in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico where the bar had a special festival mezcal.

A day of the dead rave party at Le 58 in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico where the bar had a special festival mezcal.

Arnulfo de los Angeles and Rodolfo Hernandez sit at the palenque that they share with Fortunate Angeles in San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Arnulfo de los Angeles and Rodolfo Hernandez sit at the palenque that they share with Fortunate Angeles in San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca, Mexico.

San Juan del Rio is at once a relic – a Zapotec-speaking village with a historic cathedral at its heart and donkeys roaming the streets full of subsistence farmers – and also globalized – it’s economy driven by remittances from America and agave. Everyone I met has a relative abroad, mostly in Los Angeles, and most asked what might happen to them. Will Trump deport my uncle? Will he hurt my daughter?

I had never thought about what might happen if Donald Trump became president. Anything was possible, I apologized.

I asked if there was a hotel in town where I could rent a room for a few days. Nothing like that, no, I was told, but Toribio Hernandez welcomed me into his home. Every day, his granddaughter-in-law woke with the sun to grind masa and make tortillas, offering me a cup of hot chocolate and bowls of soup. I followed Hernandez up the hill to his agave fields and passed the days with his fellow mezcal makers.

“They say that people in America like mezcal a lot,” said Fortunato Angeles one afternoon, leaning on a fermenting tank, “I like it because it puts food on the table.” He had lived in a California for a few years and, despite the money, girls and bars, missed home where he could walk to work, longed for his wife’s cooking. Here in the village, life was pleasantly more “tranquilo.”

Fortunate Angeles and his brother-in-law, Raul Marin eat pozole and fresh tortillas after a day at the palenque in San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca. They share a small home with their wives, Jacquelina Antonio and Maria Elena, Raul's daughter, Alondra, and their aunt and uncle, Arnulfo de los angeles and Teresa Raymundo.

Fortunate Angeles and his brother-in-law, Raul Marin eat pozole and fresh tortillas after a day at the palenque in San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca. They share a small home with their wives, Jacquelina Antonio and Maria Elena, Raul’s daughter, Alondra, and their aunt and uncle, Arnulfo de los angeles and Teresa Raymundo.

Adalbert Bravo tours construction of a new palenque he's building in near Atlixo in Puebla, where maestro mezcalero Fernando Lecama will produce for Huichichique mezcal.

Adalbert Bravo tours construction of a new palenque he’s building in near Atlixo in Puebla, where maestro mezcalero Fernando Lecama will produce for Huichichique mezcal.

Fernando Mejia Lecama, another, older mezcalero in Puebla explained, “You have to be realistic in life. We will die one day but I’m thinking about my grandchildren. We don’t have a chance, but right now we have a really big chance. I have a mule and a crappy truck, but maybe they can have a horse and a nice truck. Right now, we are trying to change the world. So many kids go to America, but, maybe with mezcal, they can stay here.”

Weeks later, I drove across the northern border. “I never stopped the car going south, so there might not be a record…” I told the guard. “I don’t think they care that much over there,” gesturing and tossing back my papers. I must not look very threatening because I barely stopped then either.

A wild agave grows near Atlixo in Puebla, Mexico.

A wild agave grows near Atlixo in Puebla, Mexico.

 

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About the Author

Alec Jacobson

Alec Jacobson has worked as a photographer around the world and was recently selected as a National Geographic Young Explorer. Before moving to Telluride, he was the Editor in Chief of ArtsRiot.com, building the site from a blog into an online culture magazine. He graduated from Amherst College in 2012, where he studied Anthropology, French and Arabic.