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

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