Friday, November 4, 2016

Yerba Mate: Argentina's Conversation Beverage

  “Mate is exactly the opposite of television. It makes you talk if you’re with someone and think when you’re alone. When someone comes to your house, the first thing you say is ‘hi’ followed by ‘should we drink a few mates?’
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
 By Sabrina Hernández

Yerba Mate, an infusion beverage touted as having the strength of coffee, the health benefits of tea, and the euphoria of chocolate, is a drink ubiquitous in Argentina and as of late, embroiled in controversy because of the labor law violations in the almost slave-like conditions workers are subjected to in its harvest and production. An article in the Oct. 7 edition of NotiSur drew new attention to labor law violations in Argentina and to the persistence of child labor in almost slave-like conditions, especially in rural areas.

The labor violations resonate with Argentine citizens in a way that other similar situations have not. This is perhaps because these violations are centered around yerba mate. It is important to understand that yerba mate is an inextricable part of Argentine culture.

Yerba mate and the gourds they are served in are as quintessentially Argentinian as soccer, gauchos, flamenco, and Pope Francis. Mate consumption is Argentina’s favorite pastime and is a social tradition that foments togetherness through the custom where a a group of people enjoy the same mate cup and filtered straw. The deeply entrenched aversion to “cooties” and thus, straw sharing, would inhibit this practice here in the United States.

Photo:  Sabrina Hernández
Yerba mate at a Mexican hostel
My own travel experiences have confirmed that Argentines are never being too far from their mate. Just this last April, I checked into a hostel in Puebla, Mexico, and upon arriving I was shown to my room where a woman was seated on the couch in the common area. She had in front of her a mate cup and straw. Without knowing anything about her, I made a very low risk gamble and began conversation by asking if she was from Argentina. “How did you know?” she responded, her genuine curiosity apparent. I told her that it was by her mate, of course, to which she smiled and asked if I wanted to share her mate.

Another example of the importance of yerba mate is the 2011 critically acclaimed Argentine drama film "Las Acacias" directed by Pablo Giorgelli.The film follows a lonely Argentine truck driver named Rubén,who has been taking the motorway from Asunción, Paraguay, to Buenos Aires, Argentina for years, carrying wood. Even though the movie focuses on the relationship between the trucker and a passenger, yerba mate becomes a powerful symbol. Throughout the film, the viewer sees Rubén sipping the mate, which he is able to prepare quickly with the water he keeps in a large thermos. In a film that accentuates the loneliness of Ruben’s daily life, his mate is personified as the only reprieve from his solitude.

 In a 2005 Radio Mitre interview, Lalo Mir captured the cultural significance of mate. “Mate is exactly the opposite of television. It makes you talk if you’re with someone and think when you’re alone. When someone comes to your house, the first thing you say is ‘hi’ followed by ‘should we drink a few mates?’ Keyboards in Argentina are full of little pieces of yerba mate. Mate is the only thing that every house has all the time. Always. Amidst inflation, when there´s hunger, under a military regime, with democracy, during whichever of our eternal curses we are suffering. If one day you run out of yerba mate, a neighbor will give you some. Nobody is ever denied mate.”

The campaign against child labor
It is this prominence and importance of mate that caused these labor violations to strike a chord among Argentines. An NGO, Un Sueño Para Misiones, is working to raise visibility and pressure the Argentine government to take action against the labor violations that are occurring in the harvesting of Argentina’s culturally ubiquitous yerba mate in Misiones. Here is a 30-minute documentary about the work of the NGO to combat child labor in the yerba mate fields.  The documentary is  entitled “Me Gusta el Mate Sin Trabajo Infantil. (I like it Without Child Labor)."

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