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Pulquerías (or pulcherías) are a type of tavern in Mexico that specialize in serving pulque. Established since early colonial rule, pulquerías remained popular venues for Mexican socializing until the mid-20th century; they were characterized by extravagant decorations and names, drinking, music, dancing, gambling, fighting, crime, and sexual promiscuity. Central to daily life and culture in Mexico, government authorities throughout history generally saw them as threats to the social order and the progress of the nation. Numerous restrictions were later put on pulquerías and sale of pulque. Today, there are very few pulquerías left operating in Mexico.
Pulque is a milky, foamy, alcoholic beverage native to central Mexico made from the fermentation of maguey sap, similar to tequila and mescal but with a much lower alcohol content, between 3 and 4%. The maguey plant flourishes in hot climates with little to no water, as the plant stores water very well, much like a cactus. The maguey grows slowly and the sap must be removed shortly before the plant flowers. Once the tapping begins, the plant produces "about a half gallon [of sap] a day for three months." A tlachiquero "scrapes off the center of the plant to extract the liquid previously mentioned, with a tool that looks like a spoon called a tlaquiche. He then collects it in a hollow bowl called an acocote, to then be placed in a container called an odre." The containers used for the fermentation process are usually made from animal skins, usually from cow leather. Leather is often used because of their ability to thermoregulate; they also provide the sap with necessary beneficial bacteria cultures that improve taste and consistency. It naturally ferments in less than twenty-four hours. Because pulque will spoil quickly after this period, every step in the process must be done in close in proximity. The maguey plants, the production and distribution facilities, and the places where the pulque is distributed to must all be relatively close together geographically. The taste has been described as slightly sour. Often, straight pulque is mixed with fruit juices and other foods to create different flavors.
Pulque in pre-Spanish conquest
Pulque has been drunk in the lands of central Mexico and other parts of Mesoamerica since before the times of the Aztecs, who regarded the maguey plant as a divine gift. Although the natives originally had many uses for the maguey plant, the sap became the most sacred and important part of the plant because of its intoxicating qualities. The Aztecs strictly controlled the consumption of the drink, regulating who could drink, when people could drink, how much people could drink, and even how people could drink. Priests and warriors of status were the only ones allowed to drink the "gods' beverage" on any day other than very special occasions. Many times, prisoners about to be sacrificed were given pulque to further please the gods. Other more "ordinary" people who drank pulque more frequently were the elderly, the sick, and pregnant women, because of the belief that the drink had healing powers. People were not allowed to drink in excess, as drunkenness was highly looked down on and only allowed for specific rituals and their priests. Because of this "Aztecs permitted four cups at the most and controlled the size according to age and gender." When drinking pulque during Aztec times, it was also required to pour some of the beverage on the ground, typically in the four sides of the room a person was in. Pulque has a place in some Aztec legends. As one myth goes, the god Quetzalcoatl was tricked into getting intoxicated by drinking pulque and had sexual relations with a celibate priestess (in other tellings, his sister goddess Quetzalpetlatl). Embarrassed, Quetzalcoatl banished himself to the sea, saying he would return one day to get his revenge. The year he was said to return coincided with the year Hernán_Cortés landed on the shores of Mexico in 1519. The Mural of the Drinkers found in the Great Pyramid of Cholula also depicts the pulque drinking during the time of the Aztecs. The Mural of the Drinkers "portrays a feasting scene with figures wearing elaborate turbans and masks, drinking pulque and performing other ritual activities. It has been suggested that the scene portrays pulque deities."
Pulque in colonial Mexico: The beginning of Pulquerias
The Spanish conquest of Mexico and the Aztec people changed every aspect of the native population's lives. The Spanish attempted to modernize and develop Mexico, focusing a lot of their attention on what would become Mexico City. This conquest and the technology with it provided a lot of the native population with new types of work and leisure activity. Buildings with modern construction methods and other infrastructure brought a lot of immigration to the city. Along with industrial development and modernization, the Spanish also brought with them Catholicism. With Catholicism there came a lot of festivals and celebrations in which pulque was the drink du jour. Unlike the Aztec reverence for the sacred drink, the Spanish conquistadors did not prohibit excess consumption. Common people were allowed to drink as much pulque as they wished; with the increase in urban jobs, as well as money and leisure time, consumption and sales of pulque began to rise. By the 1530s, commoners were selling pulque in the streets and at least twelve pulque stands operated regularly in the city. By the 1550s the number of stands had more than doubled. Petitions eventually allowed for stands to become permanent instead of mobile carts. With the implementation of the stands (both fixed and mobile), pulque consumption, especially in Mexico City, skyrocketed. Well over 100 stands, both licensed and unlicensed, operated throughout Mexico City by the middle of next century. Pulque and these first primitive pulquerias were firmly establishing themselves as a mainstay in the urban popular culture. As the outdoor stands evolved to serve more customers, they built walls and ceilings to protect them from the elements, and later to help hide them from public view. "Some had already the form of taverns where patrons could take a seat and interact with each other." The drink was also spreading among the array of classes and ethnicities that had sprung up during this time. Everyone from low-class Spaniards, criollos, blacks, and castas would drink their share of the pulque. The pulque taverns eventually began to serve food and employ attractive women to serve it. The addition of seats and live music would become a permanent fixture. However, for the elite upper classes, the government, and the Church, the popularity of the pulqueria was seen as a "threat to the social order and the status quo" of the cities. For these groups of higher social status, pulquerias represented laziness, animalistic sexuality, and general degenerative behavior that prohibits societal progress. The Spanish authorities enacted new rules and regulations in the late 1600s to limit the number of pulquerias, to allow for less storage rooms for extra pulque, and to completely eliminate seating. However these restrictions did not do much to reduce their popularity, and their patrons continued to frequent them. Pulquerias and what they represented continued to be a major source of contention between the Spanish ruling class and the urban masses throughout the Bourbon period until Mexico gained independence in 1821.
Pulquerias after Independence
The beginning of modern Mexico saw a decrease in the regulations imposed on pulquerias. This was because of the lack of strong central government in the newly independent state, as well as political and economic advantages that local governors saw in it. The second half of the 19th Century saw another jump in pulquerias, especially in Mexico City, because of this lack of regulations and further urban growth. Previously, established pulquerias remained on the outskirts of the city, but during this time they forged their way into the cities' hearts. By 1900 the number of pulquerias in Mexico City had ballooned to nearly a thousand, nearly one on every corner. This time is also when pulquerias gained the character that they are known for today. This was the beginning of the elaborate décor and the unique names associated with them. Both inside and out the pulquerias were being decorated with vibrant, extravagant murals (commonly of the Virgin of Guadalupe) and the extravagant names of the pulquerias competed to attract customers. The names of pulquerias are considered quite important to their identity and often are representative of contemporary popular culture in Mexico. The names not only told the customers what they could expect from that particular establishment, but also made references to popular literature, the theater, as well as international figures or events. Opera titles such as Norma, Semiramide, or La Traviata were in use, as were literary figures Don Quixote and The Hunchback of Notre Dame among others. More romantic militant names like The Great Napoleon and Mexico's Former Glories were also common. Some names included Get out if you Can and The Assault Barrels of pulque were also given different names depending on flavor or alcoholic strength, such as the "pulque of the tough ones" or the "whining female"
Many of the names written on the walls of the outside of the pulquerias were misspelled, thought to be a testament to the low literacy rates in Mexico at the time.
Daytime in the Pulqueria
The day's delivery of pig skin sacks of pulque in carts pulled by donkeys or mules would arrive at the pulquerias by eight or nine in the morning. The workers would clean the pulqueria and then put the newly bought drink into its the respective barrels. After that, the cooks would start preparing for the food customers would order later that day, including a variety of different dishes: enchiladas, quesadillas, tacos, tostados, sopes, mole poblano, chalupas, and more. Starting around ten, the customers would begin to shuffle in. The first customers, from around ten to eleven, were usually natives coming in from outside the city. After they sold their fruits and vegetables in the morning they would come in to enjoy some food and pulque. "After noon, chinas [girls wearing the traditional dress], charros, artisans, and many other invaded." Throughout the day and into the evening the pulquerias would serve all members of society: "Crowds of maids, servants, butchers, artisans, vendors, kids, thieves, guards, prostitutes, and honorable members of the 'gente decente' appeared in dappled skin colors and clothing styles." Customers would eat, drink, dance, sing, gamble, fight, perhaps take part in a little crime, and do everything imaginable. One could see people from all walks of life when entering a pulqueria. The day in the pulqueria usually ended sometime after sunset. Customers gradually filtered out to go home or to other jobs. Some were so drunk that they slept in the entryway or on the street nearby.
Pulquerias and the liberal reform during the Porfiriato (1876–1911)
Porfirio Díaz's regime as leader of Mexico was from 1876 to 1911 and its main goal in the country was that of order and progress. In particular, Díaz wanted to bring Mexico into the industrial world. Vices such as drunkenness, laziness, and promiscuity were all things that were seen as holding the country back. The era of the Porfiriato wanted its people to be productive, upstanding members of society. Much like the Spanish authority, the Porfirian government and elites saw pulquerias a main source of things retarding the beneficial progress of the city and the nation. Because of this view, around the turn of the twentieth century there was an increase in various reforms and regulations centered upon the limiting distribution of pulque, and the use and role of pulquerias. Pulquerias had to be licensed and be located at least 60 m (200 ft) from each other. Opening hours were restricted to between 6.00 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., thus forcing them to close before most workers left their jobs. There were also many restrictions on the location of pulquerias. There were certain areas of the city that were forbidden to pulquerias. In particular, these restricted areas were those surrounding the Alameda central park, because the Mexican authority did not want the beauty of this area spoiled by what they considered were undesirable things that were associated with pulquerias. Overall, the Porfirian reforms enacted to directly limit the influence of pulquerias during the Porfiriato did not do much to reduce the popularity of the pulquerias within Mexico City and the rest of the country. The Porfiriato did, however, help start to push Mexico into more modern attitudes which indirectly led to the diminished popularity of pulquerias.
By the mid 1900s, as Mexico started to industrialize and become a more modern nation, the consumption of pulque and the popularity of pulquerias had greatly declined. This is directly related to the increase in production and popularity of beer in Mexico. As factories started to establish themselves, and migrants started to come into Mexico, the beer industry certainly started to greatly expand in the nation. Beer soon replaced pulque as the alcoholic drink of choice in the country. Because of this pulquerias became less and less popular, and were seen as a thing of the past. By the 1930s, there was a steep decline in the number of pulquerias in Mexico City, and today there are very few of them left.
There are very few pulquerias found within Mexico City today. Today they are there more for nostalgia than anything else. It is a way to remind the people of the Mexican past. Today, pulquerias are described as places that young hipsters like to attend. Even though pulquerias still have a small group of people that enjoy the old style Mexican tavern, the pulqueria is really a thing of the past. "Pulqueria owners estimate that only 100 such places are left in Mexico."
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