For the Tarahumara, the astringent, homemade corn beer is a sacred social lubricant – and during Easter week, or “semana santa,” the entire town of Norogachi turns into a giant brewpub. Corn kernels are soaked, ground up, boiled and spiked with a local grass to help the mixture ferment.
The Tarahumara (who refer to themselves as the Raramuri) are a linguistic group of 120,000 who share a common language and have preserved their culture through isolation and resistance. For them, beer is an elixir for healing, a barter item and a divine beverage.
“God taught the Raramuri how to make corn beer,” says Guadalupe Espino Palma, the traditional governor of the Norogachi district. “We make offerings of tesguino to God himself, and He drinks it also. We use tesguino for dancing, and we enjoy drinking it.” Even getting drunk is a spiritual act, he explains.
Bill Merrill, a Smithsonian Institution anthropologist who’s spent 30 years studying and working with the Tarahumara, says the tesguino chases out the “large souls” within, leaving only the “little souls.” “And so when people get drunk that’s why they act like children,” he says. “Because the souls that are controlling their actions are the little souls, like little children.”
Paradoxically, by keeping to their traditional customs, the Tarahumara – like the Yaqui and several other indigenous peoples of Mexico – have preserved what was also the Medieval and Renaissance European way of celebrating major religious holidays. The Jesuits who originally missionized among them, beginning in the late 16th century, introduced elements of Old World village religion, but were also generally tolerant of syncretism. And putting on communal pageants and brewing various types of beer are customs with ancient pedigrees in the region, so it’s hard to know how much innovation the missionaries were really responsible for.
It’s a shame that drinking alcohol has become such a thoroughly profane activity in modern times. Only since the Industrial Revolution has it become cheap and practicable for ordinary people to obtain alcohol at any time and to drink in private – essential preconditions for the spread of alcoholism. Even among contemporary Tarahumara,
“It’s easier to get drunk on a couple of beers or a bottle of tequila than to make tesguino and share it with everyone,” says Carlos Palma Batista, director of the Raramuri Education Initiative, a Ford Foundation project to help preserve native language and knowledge.
The Easter celebrations of the Raramuri are a big draw for tourists. By custom, participants will drink, dance, drum and carouse for as long as the tesguino holds out, whether two days or two weeks. Spring planting will wait.
And during this corn beer communion, in place of “happy Easter,” the Raramuri will say to one another “bosasa” – “fill up, be satisfied, be contented.”
I celebrated Easter by bottling my latest batch of homebrew. I’ll admit I’m still brewing with malted barley; my friend Crystal Dave, who sent me the link to this story, said I should try making tesguino.
Maybe I will. After all, brewing corn beer is an age-old Appalachian custom. The problem is, the damn Scotch-Irish always insisted on distilling it into whiskey. And I don’t think they ever shared any of it with Jesus.