Pulque: the prehispanic beverage to honor the dead in Mexico

By Roger Vela

The cempasuchil is not a fruit or a vegetable, it is a flower traditionally used to decorate the offerings that are placed in Mexico City each year, between November 1 and 2, to honor the dead. Yes, it’s that yellowish-orange colored flower whose beauty astonished everyone in Coco, Disney’s movie. From the end of October, that flower floods the streets, markets, houses, offices and Instagram posts in Mexico. It is perhaps the main element on altars that offer tribute to loved ones who are no longer with us.

The first time that you drink pulque you don’t get drunk, you get magical, at least that’s what those who know says. The certain thing is that since its birth, this prehispanic beverage has been associated with a mistic sense. It was the ancient Aztec settlers who, in their worldview of the world, named deity Mayahuel as “maguey goddess”, maguey is the plant from which the pulque is extracted. Nowadays, more than 500 years away, the pulque is considered “The Beverage of the Gods.” 

It is a bittersweet alcoholic concoction with a thick and foamy consistency that can be mixed with an infinite number of fruits, vegetables and other foods to give it different flavors. This mixture is called “curados”. There are curados of oats, celery, guava, orange, melon or pineapple. And other more exotic, such as curados of chili, Kinder Delice — a famous chocolate — , lemon pie and recently curados of cempasuchil.

“Here we elaborate this curado of cempasuchil as a tribute to those who have died, to achieve that line of communication between the living and the dead,” says Francisco Olvera, a master of pulque who created this original mixture. 

“El Templo de Diana”, Francisco’s pulqueria is located in the center of Xochimilco, a semi-rural area south of Mexico City, known for its trajineras, a kind of small boats that cross a wooded zone, through a series of waterways, with tourists or peasants on board. Large quantities of cempasuchil flowers are planted there from July, at the end of October it harvests and Xochimilco becomes the biggest point of sale of that flower in the entire city. 

Francisco came up with combining cempasuchil with pulque because it is a flower that represents his people and because “that mystical flavor represents a symbolism of death and life.” 

Every year dozens of national and foreign tourists come to El Templo de Diana to drink curado of cempasuchil, it is the most expected product of the season. After touring the waterways where the beautiful flower is planted, they can drink it in a delicious pulque. 

“Death is behind us, just as life is in front of us. These days we realize that our dead are waiting for us and us can be with them at every moment. That connection is a way to give them that offering of flowers, flavors, food, to continue preserving their memory,” Francisco says. 

But the cult of death is not something new in Mexico, it dates from prehispanic times, just like pulque. The cultures that inhabited before the Spanish Conquest had different ways of honoring their dead, although with the arrival of the Catholic religion things changed and an annual celebration was established to venerate the dead in the first days of November, dates on which Catholicism celebrates the days of ‘Todos los Santos’ and ‘Fieles Difuntos.’

For this reason, the offerings that adorn Mexican houses are a combination of prehispanic indigenous traditions and Catholic rituals. In them we can find copal, the incense used in Aztec rites, and also candles used in Christian masses. Photos of the deceased are also placed, cut paper of different colors with figures of skulls, portions of their favorite dishes, salt to purify the soul, skulls of sugar and chocolate, the traditional bread of the dead and of course their favorite drinks like pulque, all adorned by cempasuchil flowers. 

There is no doubt that pulque and the dead’s celebration go hand in hand, not only of its prehispanic origin, but also because of is roots among Mexicans and it growing influence in the world. 

In its beginnings, pulque became popular among the political and religious elite of the Aztec Empire, it was an almost exclusive drink of the upper class that ruled Tenochtitlan, the city built on a lake that over the centuries was transformed into Mexico City. 

With the arrival of the Spanish, pulque began to be sold in more and more places. It could be found on estates and small towns, and little by little more people had access to it. During the Mexican Revolution, at the beginning of the 20th century, it became the most popular drink among the rebel troops and their sympathizers. For some time its consumption was associated with the lower classes, but over the years, its flavor was conquering palates and breaking prejudices. Today we can find it in several states of the country, especially in Hidalgo, Tlaxcala, the State of Mexico, Puebla and the capital.

Although there are no exact data, it is estimated that there are about 50 pulquerias in Mexico City, almost all named with funny names associated with heartbreak and women. Its names in english could be translated as: “The Triumph’s Daughter”, “Just Don’t Cry”, “The Delights of Xochitl”, “The Daughter of the Apaches”, “The Bad Dear.” In them, liters and liters of the drink of the gods are drunk under a motto: “Blessed pulque, sweet torment. What are you doing outside? Let’s go inside!”

The pulque is one of the most traditional Mexican drinks and the Day of the Dead is perhaps the celebration made in Mexico that attracts most foreign tourists. During the celebration it is common to see the cemeteries filled with people listening to music and drinking alcohol next to their beloved ones tombs.  

For Francisco Olvera, pulque and the veneration of our dead works “for the new generations to see our traditions, to recover a little what is ours, and to see how the dead are honored and how to achieve that empathy with them.