Another South American Staple Bringing Us Closer
By: Iván Brave, MA in Writing, @ivanbrave_
Last month, The New Schools' Observatory on Latin America in New York City hosted the President of the Housing Department of the City of Buenos Aires. Big names. Big topics. For example, the biggest challenge facing the Southern city has been integrating its numerous slum or slum-leaning neighborhoods into the main grid -- not just electrically, but socially, and economically too.
Add two parts government corruption (sorry, three), one part citizen mistrust, a tablespoon of apathy, and two quarts of hopelessness (in liters, though?), and what do you get?
A messy urban environment and little progress.
Luckily, thanks to the ingenuity of Juan Manquierya, the department's president, a young and vital participant in the city's innovative wave of practical administrators, change came. Today, many of the city's previously unsupported neighborhoods, like the once impoverished Barrio 20, are experiencing a renaissance. The solution came in an unlikely, yet painfully obvious way. "El barrio por delante"--the neighborhood comes first--says Manquierya. His team sat neighbors together, with city officials, and construction companies, and had them working together, agreeing on topics long ignored or deemed pointless to change. How?
The chance came when Maquieyra put something in the middle of the table: a mate gourd.
Since the time of Jose Hernandez's Martin Fierro, the old gauchos, the missions from Spain to the jungles of Southern Amazon, to the explorations of la Patagonia, and the founding of Buenos Aires five-hundred years ago, there has been one herb (yerba) that united them all.
Francisco Canaro, a notorious tango composer and mate addict from the last century, called it the Creole's vice (El vicio criollo). It's rumored that the indigenous peoples of the upper Paraná called it "The Drink of the Gods." It has over twenty vitamins and minerals depending on the source. And enough caffeine to get you through a full day of activity, without the jitters. According to the authoritative Wikipedia, "Yerba mate translates to "mate herb", where mate is originally from the Quechua mati, a complex word with multiple meanings. Mati means "container for a drink", "infusion of an herb", as well as "gourd". In English, "mate" is occasionally written "maté" to distinguish it from other meanings of the word mate. However, this spelling is incorrect in Spanish and Portuguese, as it would put the stress in the second syllable, while the word is pronounced with stress in the first. Indeed, the word maté in Spanish has a completely different meaning ("I killed").
This wonderful drink does more than join disparate folks in the city of Buenos Aires. Cross the Silver River into Montevideo and there you will see even the elderly mothers pouring themselves a cup on a moving bus. You can go to Syria, and order a mate, and you will be welcomed. You can go into a Lebanese shop in the Upper West Side in New York City, and buy mate.
I mentioned this to my brother Axel the other day, the bit about the Housing Department uniting folks over a mate, and he beamed. "This is perfect for the journal."
Of course. His brand is always looking for ways to bring people closer together. Food can do that. The capital city of a whole nation does it. But that's because we know its value (and not just scientifically, the minerals and such). But because of our deep-seeded tradition of opening our homes to anyone.
When an Argentine puts a mate gourd in front of you, he or she is inviting you physically to share a straw, a liquid, an herb, an experience.
This is more than "sharing is caring."
This is how both cultured and uncultured, young and old, rich and poor folks come together, this is how anyone no matter what your background can share: a little spit, a little love, and a whole lot of conversation.
There must be a million videos and articles on how to serve an impeccable mate, how to drink with style, how to add orange peels or lemon zest to your gourd, how to add artificial sugar to the hot water... but I will end instead on a story our uncle, Martin of Adrogué, told me the day he taught me how to prepare a mate for the family.
They were out on a ranch, a group of rugby boys, playing. When a field hand on a horse, with a satchel and a kettle, approached the youth.
"Any of you have a light?" the gaucho asked.
"Yeah," said one.
"You want some mate?" the gaucho asked.
"Yeah," said Martin.
He got a fire going, heated the water, and poured it into the gourd. The boys watched as the man served himself one, two, three big healthy gourd-fulls of the stuff, sucking out pound after pound of the bitter infusion.
It's impolite to rush the person drinking, especially the one who is supposed to serve everyone, el cebador, in this case the gaucho.
The boys got thirsty. But after a fourth serving, the man poured one out for our uncle.
"Tomá," said the man, handing Martin the gourd.
Martin put the straw to his lips, went for it. And completely burnt his tongue. It was hot as hell. Everyone laughed, even the gaucho with his leather tongue.
... Wow, this is making me thirsty. Anyone got some mate?