20 April 2005

Pulque tradition fades in Mexico City

Story by : David Agren

A toothless waiter, wearing a blue puma T-shirt, in La Elegancia, a pulqueria in Mexico City's historic center, dropped a large glass containing a smelly, milky, alcoholic liquid on the rustic wooden table, charging 20 pesos. It smelled like an armpit, tasted astringent -- even with the peanut flavouring mixed in - and had a texture like spit. An old-timer standing at the bar dipped his fingers into his drink, pulling out long strands of gooey liquid, akin to egg whites.

Pulque, a 2,000-year-old beverage made from fermented maguey (a type of cactus) juice, once fueled the Aztec elites. The governing classes strictly forbade commoners from drinking it, punishing offenders with cruel beatings. Preferring stronger drinks, the conquering Spanish introduced distilling methods, producing mezcal —- and later tequila —- from the maguey plant.

Despite its noble origins, pulque has been steadily falling in popularity. More than 1,000 watering holes, known as pulquerias, blanked Mexico City a century ago. Large haciendas sent fresh pulque by the trainload from the central Mexican states of Hidalgo, Tlaxcala and Morelos into the capital, creating a pulque aristocracy. Nowadays less than 100 pulquerias remain, catering to mostly older crowds in rather seedy settings. Freshly harvested agua miel (honey water), the non-fermented version of pulque, is still fairly common in rural communities.

"Not many people drink pulque anymore," said Juan Vaca (the name he gave), a somewhat loaded patron in La Elegancia, wearing a Don Quixote T-shirt and Superman cap, who had trouble staying coherent with his answers.

"It was a tradition before."

Young Mexicans have moved on to other alcoholic drinks like beer, wine and tequila. Besides its offensive taste, rumors of using a sack full of human feces to speed up the fermentation process also dampened pulque's appeal. For many, it has simply become a novelty beverage.

"I hate pulque," said Juancho Nuñez, 29, a deejay who spins records in Mexico City's trendy Condesa neighborhood, adding some of his friends occasionally imbibe in rundown establishments like La Elegancia to be "cool.

"The style in Mexico is to be naco (tacky or lacking class)."

Despite its name, La Elegancia is anything but classy, selling only pulque trucked in daily from nearby Tlaxcala state.

A stench, reminiscent of an old hockey bag, wafts into the street. Behind a pair of swinging doors -- the kind from a western movie -- inebriated men standing by the bar call out a friendly, if not alcohol-induced, welcome. The bartender ladles glasses of pulque out of white barrels. Inside, shoes stick to the floor. A shrine to the Virgin Mary sits directly across from the bar. Pancho Villa and Bob Marley pictures cover the dated off-white tiled walls. A corner jukebox cranks out banda music and romantic ballads. A steel trough-style urinal runs along the side wall, where customers relieve themselves in plain sight of their fellow drinkers.

La Elegancia sells natural pulque for a mere eight pesos per glass. Equally viscous, but somewhat more palatable flavours include pineapple, tomato, oat, nut and peanut.
Most pulquerias open early in the day. By Noon, ten tipplers held court in La Elegancia, paying no attention to the smelly atmosphere. Others, however, popped in for a quick pick-me-up.

Jesus Garcia, a rail-thin employee at a taco stand downwind from the stench, loads up on pulque three times daily.

"It's refreshing," he said, finishing the final gulp, his jaw shaking the entire time.

A supposedly healthful drink, legend has it pulque boosts libido and is beneficial for nursing mothers.

"Pulque is much better than Viagra," said Celia Peña, a vendor selling kites in the Zocolo district with her husband Marcos, who flashed a shy grin.

"Pulque is natural. Viagra is a chemical."

She lamented though that the pulquerias sell such an awful product, saying homemade pulque from her pueblo in the State of Mexico tastes so much better.

With the alcohol content ranging from two to eight percent, it takes some serious drinking to get a good pulque buzz.

"It's not like tequila," said Jorge Menchaca, a Mexico City cab driver, who grew up drinking pulque.

"But if you drink a liter of it, you can't feel your legs."

Published in the Ottawa Citizen.

19 April 2005

Memo to dope smokers: Your vice stinks too

By David Agren

A person who dabbles in recreational drugs recently berated me at a party for stepping outside to light up a cigarette - a legal, expensive and increasingly socially-unacceptable vice in Canada. After her lecture on the ills of tobacco use, its impact on non-smokers and supposed burden on the social safety net, she toked from a marijuana pipe.

Smoking has become so vilified that many thrill-seekers who indulge in self-destructive vices, ranging from drug use to drinking alcohol to promiscuity, condemn tobacco users, parroting the harsh rhetoric of the anti-smoking lobby. Even worse, they downplay the health risks of their own behaviours and break out amusing libertarian rhetoric to quite accurately observe that the state has no business in prohibiting their bad habits - while castigating tobacco users at the same time.

Stranger still, a growing number of recreational drug users justify their habits by trumpeting the supposed health benefits and organic origins of cannabis.

Last fall, a Calgary Herald contributor recommended marijuana as an alternative to Vioxx, an anti-inflammatory drug recently pulled off the market. But medical marijuana is a red herring. While it offers relief to some, most proponents have no need for it. Instead of making moral arguments to justify their choices, an increasing number of healthy - if not slightly fuzzy headed - pot smokers make unsubstantiated medical claims for their drug of choice. Health Canada would crack down on any nutritional supplement manufacturer making such wild claims for a non-hallucinogenic herb.

Nowadays, much of the smoking criticism comes from the political left as high-minded liberals fret over binge-drinking, long buffet lines, pop machines in schools, caffeine consumption by children and, now, cigarette smoking. The detrimental effects of marijuana use hardly ever get mentioned. "For many left liberals, marijuana has a positive connotation," said Jacob Sullum, a syndicated columnist and the author of For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health. "It's a function of its legal status that makes marijuana cool. ... If tobacco were banned, it would become cool too." If marijuana is so helpful, what about tobacco use? Some tobacco users claim smoking heightens mental acuity and curbs their appetite. Many smokers gain weight upon quitting. Furthermore, a small body of research demonstrates a few surprising side-effects from smoking tobacco.

In a controversial letter published in The Daily Telegraph in 2003 titled: "Smoking is not all evil," Dr. K.W. E. Denson, a tobacco researcher, claimed cigarettes offered redeeming qualities to some. "Compared with non-smokers, smokers have half the risk of Parkinson's disease and a reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease. Women who smoke after their first full-term pregnancy have half the risk of developing breast cancer," he wrote. "Would it not be more honest to allow smokers the choice of an increased risk of lung cancer and heart disease, or an increased risk of Parkinson's or Alzheimer's diseases?"

And contrary to popular belief, smokers do not burden the social safety net the way anti-smoking groups claim. If anything, they may save the system money. Smokers usually die sooner and thus forfeit most pension plan contributions, underwriting the retirements of their non-smoking counterparts. "By their logic, the government should be encouraging smoking," Sullum said. As for evil cigarette companies, governments at all levels in Canada profit more from smoking than tobacco manufacturers - and not all of that money goes towards health care. Many of these same people who heap scorn on cigarette companies, laud their local drug dealer and electricity-stealing cultivator for supplying a quality product.

"Tobacco to them ... has connotations of big business," Sullum explained. "Of course, if marijuana were legal, it would be sold by big corporations." Unlike perfectly healthy and able-bodied pot users who promote their vice as a panacea for all sorts of ills, no cigarette smoker cites any kind of medical claim to justify his habit. Most smokers would probably concede claims of supposed benefits sound rather spurious. Instead of castigating smokers, could pot users and their ilk please respect the rights of others to pollute their bodies with equally foul things? Marijuana smokers should step back in rare moment of mental clarity and realize that their vice stinks too.

Originally published at the Calgary Herald Q blog.

07 April 2005

Political Drama Grips Mexico

Many Latin American nations, including Argentina, Brazil and most notably Venezuela, have drifted left in recent years, electing leaders with unfavourable views towards the United States and skeptical opinions on the liberal economic policies it advocates.

Until last week, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the populist mayor of Mexico City and the leading contender in next year's presidential election, stood poised to take Mexico in the same direction, capitalizing on discontent over years of meager economic growth and ineffective governance.

A four-member committee of federal deputies threw a potential roadblock in his path to power, recommending last Friday the mayor be stripped of his immunity from prosecution – a privilege enjoyed by most politicians – for his alleged tardiness in obeying a court order in a land expropriation case. Anyone facing criminal charges is
ineligible to pursue elected office. The Institutional Party of the Revolution (PRI)-dominated lower house of Congress votes on the recommendation later this week in a process known as desafuero(removing a privilege).

The emergence of a free-spending, left-leaning populist who could undo recent economic liberalization and stall necessary energy-sector reforms unsettles the Mexican business and political classes.

President Vicente Fox – himself ineligible to seek a second term in office – in an obvious reference to Lopez Obrador's populist tendencies, remarked: "Here come the messiahs who offer the earth and the sky … populists with magic recipes for everything.

"In the end they are only cheating people."

Emotions run high over the desafuero across Mexico. U.S. officials have even taken notice. CIA director Porter Goss cited unrest in Mexico resulting from a contentious 2006 election as a concern. President George W. Bush later clarified things, saying he would work with whoever was elected.

Since being elected in 2000, Lopez Obrador has spent generously on social programs and infrastructure projects, running up large budget deficits in the process. The Mexico City government now cuts each senior citizen a small cheque. To pacify the middle and upper classes, it constructed new viaducts to ease traffic gridlock. Large groups, bolstered by seniors and city employees, regularly flood the streets at Lopez Obrador's beckon, decrying legal and legislative verdicts against the mayor.

Aloof and tough to read, his antics confound many. He has made few policy announcements, spare expanding his social programs beyond the capital and keeping Pemex, the notoriously inefficient oil monopoly, in government hands. He lives in a modest apartment and drives a 1999 Nissan Sentra to work.

Lopez Obrador has accumulated enormous political capital and popularity through his governing style and enormous deficit spending. He currently tops virtually every opinion poll by at least ten points. In recent weeks, Mexicans have rallied across the Republic against the desafuero. Banners and pro-Lopez Obrador stickers blanket Mexico City. Even the Judas character in the country's biggest passion play (Easter
week re-enactments of Christ's crucifixion) wore an anti-desafuero ribbon.

Lopez Obrador's legal problems stem from land expropriated to build an access road to a hospital. He allegedly disregarded a court decision, ordering his government to address the original property owner's complaints. The attorney general has promised to charge Lopez Obrador the moment the mayor loses his immunity from prosecution.

For many Mexicans, the case against the mayor reeks of sleazy politics – especially in a country where many crimes go unsolved and justice is dispensed slowly. The desafuero also puts two of Mexico's major parties in awkward positions, appearing to sideline the presidential front-runner for purely political reasons.

The ironies are hard to ignore. The PRI, after decades of dirty tricks, now advocates enforcing the law. President Fox's National Action Party (PAN), which only recently toppled the PRI, is seen to be thwarting a rival. For Lopez Obrador's Democratic Party of the Revolution (PRD), it's falling short of power once again; it led the early returns in the 1988 election until a mysterious computer crash wiped out the results.

In the meantime, the desafuero has united the normally disparate PRD and buoyed the mayor's poll numbers.

Ultimately though, the campaign against Lopez Obrador could backfire.

If convicted, Lopez Obrador promised to campaign from behind bars, seemingly anxious to play a martyr's role. A spell in prison could work in his favour, making him a stronger and more sympathetic candidate.

Published in the Calgary Herald.