A toast to history

MAY Alcohol in Latin Am A2Alcohol in Latin America: A Social and Cultural History
Edited by Gretchen Pierce and Aurea Toxqui
2014, University of Arizona Press
306 pages, hardback


IT IS EVERY book reviewer’s dream – a history of alcohol in Latin America, and like a sharp shot of Mexican tequila or a glass of Argentina’s finest wine, the potent cocktail of essays served up by Gretchen Pierce and Aurea Toxqui both excite the senses and, at times, blur the vision.

Let’s raise our glasses to this book: the study of alcohol production, consumption and regulation is closely intertwined with Latin American social and cultural history, making this field – if novel – potentially intoxicating.

In a fascinating examination of the historiography of this subject, the editors trace the way in which alcohol has been studied since the 1970s, from the period when consumption was associated with social rebellion to the role of production in consolidating the position of local elites.

If there has been anything consistent in this scholarship it is how academics have demonstrated that the political concerns generated by alcohol consumption have recurred in seeing it as a source of vice requiring regulation, but also in terms of social control.

More recently, interest has grown in the role of alcohol in identity formation and the subject has become less peripheral, bolstered by the study of narcotics and its undoubted geopolitical significance. The history of drugs in the region demonstrates many similarities with that of alcohol, with both substances sharing connections with religion, medicine, economics, gender and racial stereotypes.

Questions of gender have also formed an important theme of debate, with many studies of colonial history highlighting close links between machismo and alcohol consumption. Similarly, studies have considered the role of alcohol consumption among different ethnic and social groups. As the authors point out, the importance of alcoholic beverages to indigenous cultures in part led European colonisers to perceive of drunkenness as innate to natives’ identity.

As revealed by the book’s cover – the “Interior of a Pulquería in Mexico”, with its vat of pulque, barmaid, tortilla server and racially mixed poor hombres waiting to be served – alcohol offers a valuable lens with which to explore the larger social and cultural history of Latin America.

This excellent collection expands upon this theme, with essays that explore the enduring importance of traditional alcoholic drinks such as pluque, chicha and wine, and their role as cultural markers in the great experiment in identity that this region would become. The book also explores perceptions about alcohol consumptiopn and how these informed official policies towards this industry and wider questions of crime and public order.

But as Pierce and Toxqui’s collection suggests, and as has been explored in more traditional literature about the evolution of the public sphere in Europe, drinking as a pursuit has been of momentous importance in the development of political ideas and movements.

For example, many of the radical ideas of the 19th century, were formulated and refined through the hothouse debates that could be conducted where political actors came together most frequently – often bars and taverns. Jurgen Habermas has written about the role of coffee houses in the evolution of the public sphere. Wilhelm Liebknecht’s biographical memoir of Karl Marx even describes a boozy pub crawl with the great thinker in the late 1850s through the taverns of Tottenham Court Road.

While there is no doubt that the traditional drinking house of the working classes has declined precipitously in significance, the socialising habits of key actors at every social level remain of great significance to political history, and this book makes an important contribution to our understanding of them.