by Laurie Coyle*
* This is the third in a series of dispatches by filmmaker Laurie Coyle and Chicana activist and former political prisoner Olga Talamante documenting their current trip to Argentina. Click on the “Previous” button at the top of the page to read the previous dispatches and learn more about Laurie and Olga’s travels.
Highly caffeinated and packed with anti-oxidants, Argentina’s national beverage mate is brewed by packing the pungent herb into a gourd and pouring boiled water over it, then passing the gourd around and sipping the tea through a silver straw…an informal social ritual like drinking cardamom-infused Arabic coffee…with the sacramental qualities of the Japanese tea ceremony. On this trip, we commenced the ritual of drinking mate as soon as we arrived, when Ruben brewed and served the traditional herb while we drove from the airport to Azul. Have mate will travel!
The custom of drinking mate comes from the Guarani Indians; the word mate comes from the Guarani word mati, the gourd in which the tea is brewed and served. Traditionally, the Guarani sipped their mate through a slender reed. After their arrival in the16th century, the Jesuits introduced the silver straw. The gauchos (cowboys) lived on a diet of roasted meat and mate in Argentina’s expansive and solitary pampas.
The serious practitioner considers mate an art: the person who brews the mate and serves it (cebador or cebadora) is held to a high standard. Being an excellent mate maker is a bit like rolling the best joint, being the high priestess of hanging out, having your own salon in a thermos. The good mate maker is a respected facilitator who nurtures the sharing of good stories, jokes, and elaborate word plays.
My own initiation into the mate ritual happened many years ago, when I was a student at UC Berkeley. I became friends with a student in exile from Argentina who found comfort in the mate ritual. It kept her company when she was homesick and full of anguish about friends who had not been so fortunate to leave, and were among the disappeared.
Mate, while in Argentina, you either love it or love it. When I first arrived in Azul in 1973, I was immediately intrigued and taken by the mysteries of the ritual: who was next in line, why did the cebador or cebadora spit out the first slurp, what was the perfect temperature, the ensuing commentary about it being too hot, too cold, muy lavado, and quickly learned that the less commentary the better … praise was reticent. While in prison, my motherly, caretaking instincts were manifested in becoming the cebadora. Prison life could be extremely routine, following strict schedules for getting up, meals, lights out, etc. But because of the ever-changing political situation, you never knew when there would be an impromptu prison-wide search, the suspension of basic amenities like books and radios, unexpected lockdowns, and so on. The mate ritual provided comfort and familiarity amid constant anxiety about what was coming next. It united us in a daily circle where we could talk, share, discuss, without actually calling a meeting.
Whether praised or maligned, the role of preparing the mate, keeping the circle going, maintaining the right water temperature, and keeping track of whose turn it was (oh my, battles could ensue if you skipped someone) was hard work. But it was also great fun and a perfect foil for the control freak in me. I became the official cebadora in our prison circle—an interesting position for the only non-Argentinian in the group. My friend Ruben teases me, commenting about what bad cebadoras the others must have been to cede me that post, and to this day he claims to be the better cebador. As I now prepare mate every morning and take it to Laurie to help her wake up, I am back in my glory, in control of the mate and the ritual. And giving Ruben some serious competition.
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