Photo exhibit at MACC displays tequila production, culture in Mexico
When the master distiller of Tequila Don Julio invited professional photographer Joel Salcido to photograph the bulls at his friend’s ranch in Mexico — an animal that Salcido had already captured in Spain — he realized there was something else he needed to shoot, something about which he knew very little: tequila and how it’s made.
So he showed up at the Don Julio distillery instead about a month later and captured the process of making the agave-based spirit, from the plant’s harvest to the fermentation and beyond, enjoying a lunch of tacos with the workers in the agave fields. But he didn’t stop there. He traveled all along the Lowlands and Highlands of Jalisco, capturing with his camera the culture surrounding tequila, and he discovered much more than he had bargained for.
“It’s a very rich, very aunthentic history,” he said of tequila’s storied past. “I went to all the distilleries I could in the area and visited all the surrounding towns. It was a treat because I’m Mexican, I was born there, but I had forgotten the beauty of Mexico until I went back.”
The photographs he took are now on display as part of a traveling exhibit at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center through Nov. 29. A special opening reception will kick off the show, “Aliento a Tequila,” on Saturday.
Previously, the show debuted in Marfa, New Mexico and Houston, and the photographs also made an appearance in Texas Monthly’s December issue last year. But when Salcido was in Mexico during the week of La Virgen de Guadalupe celebrations two years ago, he had no idea what the images he was producing would become. Now, he believes they’re the most comprehensive body of work out there on tequila.
“Photography on tequila production is primarily staged and on the commercial level,” Salcido said. “This body of work captures the whole essence of the process, the soul. It’s the most representative and inclusive of all tequilas, from high-end to low.”
He noted, however, that he barely scratched the surface on his subject and wants to return to Mexico someday in the hopes of publishing a book.
Most tequila is made in the state of Jalisco — in the town named Tequila located in the Lowlands, where the agave spirit produced is more herbal, more vegetal, and in other towns like Atotonilco in the Highlands, where the clay soil, he said, makes the agave plant much sweeter. (Atotonilco is Don Julio’s home base.) Although tequila production might be centered primarily in one state, all of Mexico considers the spirit its own, he said.
“Tequila represents the mestizo world,” Salcido said. “Europeans brought the tools to make it on a more industrial level, but before that, the Aztecs had been drinking pulque, sort of a predecessor of tequila” made with fermented agave nectar. With those combined, tequila began to be mass-produced from the blue agave plant, so well-adapted to Jalisco’s volcanic soil, in the 1600s.
Salcido identifies as mestizo himself because his mother came from a Spanish family and his father from a Mexican family. That’s in part how his exploration into tequila became as much a photojournalistic project as a nostalgic return to his old country. He moved to the United States when he was 8, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen, but his Jalisco trip, he said, brought back memories of his childhood — “the corner stores, the colors. The taco stands where they serve simple tacos with six different salsas,” he said. “People invite you in for coffee. Kids play on the street. Seeing them helped me relive the days when you are innocent and carefree.”
A couple of the photographs he took for “Aliento a Tequila” are particularly significant and personal to him, he said, because of his long-time connection to Mexico. The man depicted in “El Jimador con Hijuelos” (“el jimador” is essentially a master agave harvester) reminds him of a relative of his father’s. “La Labranza” (the tillage), a photograph of a horse plowing agave fields near Atotonilco, feeds into his life-long love of horses.
To him, both images are transcendant and the very reason he developed his photography skills in the first place. “I hope for them to be the sort of photographs that someone, 100 years after they were taken, can still connect to and sense the emotion the artist was conveying,” he said.
“Aliento a Tequila.” Opening reception 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday. Free. Sam Z. Coronado Gallery, Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, 600 River St.