For a good time in Texas, few combinations beat the trio of Jose Cuervo, salt, and a dash of lime. While tequila has long been a staple in bars across the Lone Star State, most Texans probably aren’t familiar with the labor-intensive process that goes into making the liquor.
Writer and photographer Joel Salcido used to be one of them. He says his most recent book, The Spirit of Tequila, wasn’t just a photography project. Born in Juárez, Mexico, Salcido used the project to reconnect with his mestizo-Native American roots.
Salcido says that although it’s long been assumed that European Spaniards in Mexico were the first people to distill tequila, new evidence suggests that the process might stretch even further back in time. He says the mestizaje of cultures occurred when the Aztec culture of pulque was paired with distillation, which originated in the Arab world.
At the center of the story of tequila are the jimadores, the men who harvest the blue agave plant that’s used to make the liquor.
“The jimadores are the heroes of tequila,” Salcido says. “It’s a very risky harvest because the daggers from the agave are pretty brutal, but they navigate through those agaves poetically, almost seamlessly.”
Salcido says these men use a spear-like tool called a coa to de-leaf the agave in order to reach the core, known as the the piña, which holds the sugars that will eventually be made into tequila. He says watching these men work gave him a newfound appreciation and respect for the tequila-making process.
“The intensive labor that goes into this is pretty amazing,” Salcido says. “You’re dealing with 100-pound piña cores, and they’re literally hand-lifted and carried onto trucks.”
One of the most striking images in the book, titled “Lord of the Fire,” shows an Aztec dancer participating in one village’s celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
“I happened to be there twice during my visits during the week of the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe,” Salcido says. “I captured that image right as the Aztec dancers had come out of the church and they were watching the fireworks and all this smoke and all this light was coming through, and I thought that was very symbolic of Mexico itself, because literally it involves an Aztec figure symbol amongst this smoke, coming from fireworks.”
The book also offers a glimpse of a rural Mexican landscape that is seldom seen by those in the United States. In one photograph, a horse stands in a field of blue agave, framed by lines and lines of the plant that stretch all the way to the edge of the horizon.
Salcido says this depiction of Mexico is closely tied with his own background, which begins with his immigration to the United States at the age of seven.
“When I took on this project, which was strictly a personal project, I deliberately went out both to document this world of tequila, but also to see if I could relive my childhood memories, if I could find those special places that were unique and special to my childhood,” Salcido says. “As I dug into these beautiful towns in the state of Jalisco, I realized that it was all still there. This richness of culture, this richness of colors, and these beautiful people.”
Salcido says his own upbringing in a lower-class Mexican family informs the way he views poverty in Mexico today.
“I come from poverty, and I’m very sensitive to people, when I see poverty in Mexico I can connect immediately,” Salcido says.
He says the project has been as much a spiritual journey as it has been a work to understand the process of making tequila.
“It’s going back to my roots, going back to my Mexico, going back to everything that I value and that has been instilled by my family, especially my mother,” Salcido says. “You can’t escape that. It’s in your blood, and that’s your identity and it’s been an incredibly rewarding blind leap of faith.”
Salcido will be speaking and signing his book at BookPeople in Austin on November 28 and on December 7 at Hotel Emma in San Antonio.
Written by Rachel Zein.