Mezcal Agave Talks Like That
–An essay by Felipe Molina and Larry Evers
DON JESUS YOILO’I, a distinguished Yaqui deer singer, sang this song for us February 22. 1981, while we were visiting with him at his home in Potam, Río Yaqui, Sonora.
Yaqui people call themselves Yoemem (People). In the traditions of the Yoemem the whole of the Sonoran Desert world comes together as one living community. The Yoemem call this place the huya ania (the wilderness world).
Song is the common language of this wilderness world. Through song, all of the parts of the Sonoran Desert world are given a voice and listened to by the Yoemem. This includes not just humans and animals, but rocks, springs, and plants as well.
Thus Don Jesus commented about this song:
This is the mescal agave saying that. You see it is half green. Maybe, in places the leaves are dying and in places they are green. Like that, it is saying, “Still I am beautiful with green leaves sitting.” The mescal agave says that. “Toward the top I have black fruit standing.” The mescal agave itself says that. The mescal agave talks like that when it is almost dying.
The kuu’u (mescal agave) then speaks in the beauty of its maturity, in the moment just before its death. This moment is recognized as a time of special potency in Yaqui culture. It is a time commemorated in the great ritual drama that the Yoemem enact each year during Lent and in their ritual of the deer dance.
But this moment before the death of the mescal agave is special for another reason. It marks the time just before the end of the mescal agave’s life cycle, when Yoemem harvest the agave for food. The kuu’u blooms but once in its life-time—then it dies. The period just before it is ready to send up its flower stalk is when the Yoemem harvest the agave and roast the heart or the young stalk of the plant. The ku’u in this song speaks just before it gives itself up as food to the Yoemem. The power of this special time is thus translated into a very literal nourishment for the people.
During the turbulent years around 1920, Mexican soldiers pursued the Yaquis, determined to steal their lands and to destroy the Yoemem as a people.
Miguel“Miki” Romero, a yo’owe (elder) from Wivisim Pueblo, had vivid memories of those terrible times. The kuu’u (mescal agave) was an important food to the Yoemem during those times because it could be roasted and carried along as they moved around from watering place to watering place.
Miki Romero spoke about those times in this way:
So I always cut agave. When we arrived at a place, I cut agave.
Those little growing parts on top of the agaves, those little round cuts we had for a food reserve. So when they arrived at a place, they could already be eating them. Well, it is so painful, it is, man, so bad. Just so sad. Painful, it was pitiful.
The little children wanted to eat and they would cry. That is how little children are. But what did we have to give them to eat? Some people somewhere there carried a little agave. They gave a little bit of that to the children, but they only had little pieces of agave to suck. There was no other food.
There are other foods there in the mountains, salaam, (an edible root) and others, but we didn’t have time to get them because of the Mexican soldiers. They were after us there, how could we look for food?
—Larry Evers & Felipe Molina