Dating from the earliest times in Latin America, alcohol has played a crucial social, economic, political, and cultural role. Often reserved for politico-religious leaders, alcohol was a conduit through which power flowed in many pre-contact indigenous societies; indigenous drinkways (production, commerce, and consumption habits) were associated with communal ritual events and social prestige. Introduced to the Americas by Europeans, distillation profoundly altered the potency of alcoholic drinks for people who were accustomed to fermentation. Even as the social and cultural practices of alcohol consumption changed over time, alcohol continued to have political and economic implications in the colonial and national periods in Latin America. Fearing that inebriation bred disorder and recognizing that moonshining undercut their own revenues, colonial and national governments alike sought to regulate, if not control, the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol. In nations as diverse as Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, and Guatemala, indigenous women came to play integral roles in the (oftentimes illicit) sale and production of alcohol. A cash nexus for moving labor and land and a crucial component of the economic system by which (often unscrupulous) labor brokers recruited workers, alcohol was a currency of local economies. As a commodity of local, national, and international significance, alcohol shaped the fate of nation-states. People’s class, ethnic, race, and gender identities all played into their access to alcohol. Although a person’s choice of libation could define their position, some of the more fascinating histories of alcohol are punctuated with women and men who used alcohol to disrupt social conventions. Through the consumption of alcohol, rituals and ceremonies created and reconstituted community both within and across ethnic groups. Imbibing could also divide people. Even while they sipped their cognacs and brandies, elites portrayed indigenous people, the poor, and other marginalized people getting drunk on moonshine to discount and denigrate them. Often associated with (particularly violent) crime, alcohol was seen as a vice by many and excoriated during temperance movements. Yet defendants across Latin America took advantage of judicial systems that considered alcohol a mitigating circumstance in many crimes. As 20th-century evangelical sects that preached abstinence as the route to wealth and marital bliss grew to unprecedented numbers, traditional healers and biomedical practitioners continued to tout alcohol’s medicinal value. In short, alcohol was a marker of social position and cultural identity, a crucial component in community and state building, and a commodity around which different cultural traditions, healing practices, and policing policies developed and evolved.
David Carey Jr.
Kevin M. Gosner
In the last decades of the 18th century, with the visit in 1784 of José Antonio Calderón to the Maya ruins at Palenque and the discovery in 1790 of the statue of Coatlicue and the Stone of the Sun in the central plaza of Mexico City, the study of ancient Mexico entered a new era. In the century that followed, teams of field surveyors, mapmakers, graphic artists, and artifact collectors worked across central and southern Mexico as well as in Guatemala. Some were commissioned by the Spanish Crown or later by national governments; many arrived from England, France, Germany, and eventually the United States. Early on they worked side by side with geologists, geographers, and field biologists as part of natural history expeditions, accumulating collections of artifacts that would be displayed in curiosity cabinets and early museums alongside trays of colorful butterflies and stuffed tropical birds. And then, as foreign travel books won popular audiences in Europe and the United States, and as international investors arrived in Mexico and Central America, archaeology also was taken up by enthusiastic amateurs looking to sell books, build private collections, or organize international trade fairs. For serious students of ancient history, field exploration and advances in archaeological record-keeping transformed a body of research and scientific speculation that since the 16th century had been dominated by theologians, historians, and philologists, who studied Spanish chronicles and native language annals but paid scant attention to the remnants of material culture. In the process, Aztecs and Maya were rediscovered as historical subjects, their histories disconnected from that of contemporary Indian peasants and recast as rivals to the great civilizations of the Old World. Ruins of monumental architecture, recovered artifacts in sculptured stone or finely crafted metals, and ancient texts inscribed on wooden lintels and bark cloth were reclaimed as part of national patrimonies to be protected by new state agencies and displayed in modern museums. On January 20, 1911, the International School for American Archaeology and Ethnology formally opened in Mexico City, and this formative period in the archaeological study of ancient peoples ended. Manuel Gamio introduced the study of stratigraphy to fieldwork practices in Mexico and the discipline was transformed once again.