The Spirit of Mexico

How Tequila Conquered North America

A plantation worker chops up an agave cactus on a plantation in Arandas in the Mexican state of Jalisco, May 18, 2004. Daniel Aguilar / Reuters

In a dusty field, under a high, hot sun, a man is working the land. He looks like a cowboy, wearing crisp blue jeans with a big-buckled belt, a clean white shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat curled up at each side. His mustache is epic: thick, black, and curved down around the corners of his mouth, framing it like a photograph. He doesn’t smile—or, if he does, the brim of his hat shadows it from sight. Squaring his hips and winding up like a batter, he grips the long rod of his primitive-looking instrument as he plunges its blade down into tough, fibrous flesh.

I am in an agave field in Jalisco, a state in central-western Mexico, surrounded by large spiky plants that look like aloes on steroids, the sun beating down like an audible presence. The instrument in question is called a coa de jima, a long-handled hoe designed specifically to harvest agave, the native succulent plant from which tequila is made. The coa, forged by a local blacksmith who specializes in the rustic tool, looks tarnished—antique, even—but it’s dangerously effective thanks to regular and careful whetting by its user. The rounded blade lops off several of the plant’s long, plump leaves as it sinks into the agave’s pale yellow heart: the pineapple-like core aptly called the piña. Each strike produces a satisfying thwack.

It’s hot. Inevitably, one’s thoughts turn to icy margaritas. But out here, in the agave fields in the heart of tequila country, there isn’t a frosted cocktail pitcher in sight. The work the man is doing is much harder than he makes it look. He is the latest in a long family line to do this for a living—that is, until his son or nephew gets inducted into the brotherhood of men who harvest agave for tequila production. It’s a highly skilled task, a job shrouded in lore, which for hundreds of years

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