The traditional story, as told on the back label of our bottles goes as follows:
Regarding the story of how the Tlacuache stole mezcal (and the reason why I chose this little guy as my logo), there is always more to a myth or folk tale than its ostensible contents. They almost always represent deeper truths or carry with them a cargo of profound meaning. In the case of this tale, I believe that the Tlacuache represents the Mexican people before colonial influence. This is not entirely (or even mostly) my idea. Writer Rober Diaz put me on this track when he suggests in his article,"El Tlacuache o el Dios Ladino que Robo el Fuego para los Antiguos Mexicanos" that the Tlacuache represents the national character of the Mexican people—smart, resourceful and (critically) underestimated.
Diaz points out:
“…el tlacuache y su leyenda pudieron filtrarse en la “economía de guerra” con la que el indígena sobrevivió –se calcula que un aproximado 25 millones de indígenas perecieron durante la conquista–: [sic] engañar en esa tierra ahora de conquistadores fue su forma de sobrevivir como lo fue para el tlacuache.”
“… the tlacuache and his legend were filtered through the “economy of war” with which the native people survived – it is estimated that an approximate 25 million indigenous people perished during the Conquest — to deceive in that land, now that of the Conquistadors, was their way of surviving, as it was for the tlacuache.”
Of course, Diaz’ article is concerned with the persistence of the diety and the character of the Tlacuache himself, who appears in several myths—including the one he recites in his article where the Tlacuache possesses the godlike power of regeneration, a power not lost on anyone who has read myth at any level. In that story, the Tlacuache has forgotten that he has invited a friend for dinner, and, upon the friend’s arrival, the Tlacuache quickly absconds to the river (away from the house) with his wife where he instructs her to flay him and cook his meat, after which event he self-regenerates, returning to the house with dinner. Not only does he regenerate, but he offers his body to his dinner guest—and this, remember, is pre-colonial, and therefore pre-Christian. Nonetheless, the character of the Tlacuache is what gives traction to all of the myths about him. Stealing from demons, serving the meat from his own bones to his dinner guest—a gesture that is generous, yes, but also deceptive and clever. Abundantly generous, clever, the ability to deceive when called-for. Mexico.
For the sake of the myth retold on Cuentacuentos’ bottles, I think we can safely read the story as entirely metaphorical (“filtered through the economy of war,” as it were)—that the demons represent Spanish colonialism, and that when you look at it that way, you can start to unpack the deeper meaning of the story. But first, a brief review of what the other animals in the story represent in Mexican folklore. The eagle, revered for his ability to move between two realms (earth and sky), represents foresight. The eagle, perched upon the cactus in Lake Texcoco, as prophesied by the god Huitzilpochtli, marked the spot for the Aztec empire of Tenochtitlan, now modern day Mexico City. The rabbit, a powerful character in Mexican myth, represents fecundity, intoxication, and chaos. He is the child of Mayahuel, the famous goddess who represents the agave itself, and, well, is a whole set of mezcal-related stories unto itself. The jaguar, represents ferocity, dark magic, and the ability to hunt. This animal is associated with kings and political leaders, who traditionally adorned themselves with jaguar teeth, claws, and skins to display their power.
Here’s how I read this story: The eagle refused his help, because foresight was not going to solve the problem of chaotic colonial rule; the jaguar declined to help because the colonial occupiers were mightier, more ferocious, and in power. The rabbit declined her help, because she represents intoxication, fecundity, and more chaos. The burro (introduced by the Spanish) represents hard work. What good is more work when you are already subjugated?
That left the Tlacuache—underestimated, often derided for his looks, cunning, with the ability to trick—an ability to conceal while appearing to be something else: playing ‘possum. The demons in the story refer to the Tlacuache as El Viejito, little old man, again suggesting that he represents those who first inhabited the land. The demons of course underestimate him, inviting him into the fiesta where he learns to distill, then they mock his inability to hold his alcohol (a head fake) and run him out. Out into the mountains and hills where the art of mezcal making was hidden, refined, and celebrated in secret for over 400 years. Ha! Something was stolen from the demons, and, it turns out, it’s a big deal.
Thank the Tlacuache next time you raise your copita.