Maguey, the Sacred Plant
By Jesús Aguado
Simple and pure is the beverage of the pre-Columbian gods. Aguamiel (maguey juice) and pulque (fermented maguey juice) were the beverages Mexicans inherited for masking, curing, and forgetting pain. The water of the green maguey plant emerges from the heart of the earth and flows straight to the heart of the plant. Locally, aguamiel is harvested at Rancho La Aurora.
After hearing the myth of the goddess Mayahuel, we at Atención decided to chase down a producer of the most deprecated beverage in Mexico, pulque, the liquid that, according to history, was just for the gods. We went to the countryside to find it and witness the extraction of aguamiel, as well as the process of turning it into pulque.
The myth states that one night, Quetzalcóatl—the pre-Hispanic god—went to heaven to visit Mayahuel, the Virgin Goddess. When Quetzalcóatl arrived, he found out that the goddess was sleeping with her two sisters and grandmother. He whispered in her ear and convinced her to go and play on earth. Once there they became a tree with bifurcated branches. When the grandmother awoke, she did not see Mayahuel and went to earth with some celestial demons. When she found out her granddaughter was a branch, she destroyed it and gave it to the demons. Quetzalcóatl planted the remains, and from them the maguey emerged—in more than 270 different varieties. Later, Mayahuel pinched the heart of the agaves so they could produce aguamiel to feed mortals. Mayahuel was represented in art by the natives as a woman with 400 breasts for feeding her children with the white, sweet and sour, and sometimes alcoholic, liquid. When the plant dies, new magueys grow from the roots, thus continuing to provide the beverage.
Rancho La Aurora
At Rancho La Aurora, we found Señora Santiaga López Mendoza working with some members of her family. There in the patio of her house, they were preparing typical Mexican food: corn gorditas, nopalitos, beans, and red salsa. She was making tortillas while on the other side of the room was daughter-in-law, Olga, was boiling aguamiel to extract the honey.
López Mendoza was born in the rural community of Cerritos in 1953. “I am a woman from the countryside,” she remarked to Atención. She arrived at La Aurora in the ejido (communal land) de Laguna Escondida with her husband in 1970. Her mother-in-law taught her how to plant maguey and how to cut into the trunk and get it ready for extracting aguamiel. She had 11 children. Some of them went to Texas and came back to take care of their heritage, the 12 hectares with maguey. Others decided to stay north. “I started working with the maguey because my husband’s parents taught me, and also because I saw the plant, and I thought it was very important to take care of it. I taught what I learned to my children, and now they are in charge. I did not want to let the tradition of making pulque die,” said López Mendoza while making tortillas.
There is a saying, “Those who wait get desperate.” For López Mendoza that was not a problem because when she arrived at La Aurora, there were all sizes of plants, and the process was a cycle. Some plants were ready to bear fruit while others were growing. She explained that the old magueys grow small “children” on the sides, and they are removed and planted in other rows, so “there is aguamiel the whole year.”
López Mendoza states that after 46 years, they still have several types of plants, like jilote pencón, fine green maguey. Nothing is wasted on the little farm because the aguamiel is used for making pulque, and the leaves are for barbacoa. After extracting the aguamiel, the fiber is fed to the poultry or the pigs. Finally, when the plant dries out, it is used as firewood for boiling the aguamiel that turns the pulque into colonche—a mixture of pulque and the juice of prickly pears (the round or pear-shaped fruit of cactus).
In the rows
López Mendoza remarked, “To understand the process, you have to visit the field,” so we walked there. On the way we found a turkey incubating its eggs and chubby pigs strolling through the maguey rows. Between the magueys there were nopales with lots of green prickly pears.
Finally, we arrived at the spot. There López Mendoza explained that it is very important to check the trunk of the magueys once in a while because if the flowers bloom, there will be no aguamiel. “The plant is ready to cut into the trunk when it is thinner on the top,” she said. When the maguey is ready, the growers have to choose the best entry to the center, or the best facet. When they find it, ten-centimeter cuts are made on the tops as well as on the sides. With a metal bar, the trunk is cut and a bowl is formed.
After a few days it is full of the liquid, which is collected three times a day. One plant can produce up to ten liters a day for three months. To extract the aguamiel, a rudimentary tool called a cocote is needed. López Mendoza extracted aguamiel. She uncovered the bowl of the maguey, which was under a leaf, introduced the cocote, and sucked out almost two liters of aguamiel. She covered the bottom part of the tool and moved the liquid to a container.
After the aguamiel is extracted, it has to be drained and stored in glass containers for 30 days. Then it must be transferred to a pot made of clay. From there, the pulque is harvested daily. The aguamiel or the pulque should be drunk in a clay cup, cold if possible, for a much better flavor.
The producer said that pulque goes with all Mexican food, especially with nopalitos, pico de gallo, and mole. She also said that people barely get drunk with pulque, but it also depends on one’s frame of mind as well as the combination with food or other activities. Pulque can be combined with all fruits, including avocados, as well as with vegetables.
To visit La Aurora, contact Rubén Urbina, 415 115 9899. He speaks English.
About the maguey
There are 274 kinds of maguey in Mexico. From them, mescal, pulque, and some textile products can be obtained. The campaign to discredit pulque that went on for a long time stated that cow and sometimes human excrement was added; however, after seeing the process, we can discard that theory.
With aguamiel people also make a hot corn beverage, that does not require sugar. Bread can be flavored with the liquid. From the plant, fibers are extracted and used for making fabric and rope.