The label shows a factory. A white one-story building with a red-tile roof and brown smokestack stands beside a beige two-story building. In front of the buildings on a green lawn, three barrels and two crates lie at odd angles as if tossed down and forgotten. The label's artist seems to have been making a statement.
The label appears on thousands of bottles of aguardiente de caña, cane liquor, produced in a small town I visit in central Mexico. The town is 90 minutes southeast of Mexico City and 30 miles northwest of Popocateptl, a large and active volcano that huffs and puffs and lends a sense of futility to human endeavor conducted in its shadow. Fields of sugarcane and sorghum encircle the small town. Local men work in the fields for a few dollars a day. On weekends they drink beer, or cane liquor.
Most rural areas in Mexico produce their own version of aguardiente, and, like American moonshine, it's generally considered low-class tuff. Certain states, however, produce fruit-flavored aguardientes that even Mexico City sophisticates esteem. Chiapas uses peaches. Puebla, apples. Yucatan, guavas. In the small town I visit, the factory sometimes makes an aguardiente flavored with a bitter brown nut gathered in the forest. I've asked what this nut is called. No one seems to know.
The woman I visit is American and some years ago married into the Vivanco family, an artistic clan that's lived in the town for at least a century. ~ The Vivancos have produced a number of well-known painters, sculptors, antique dealers, and eccentrics. A few Vivancos iive in Paris, a few in New York, a few in Mexico City. Those Vivancos who return or never leave are regarded with affection by the other townspeople. They provide color and excitement.
Near the center of town my friend's brother-in-law, Hector, a carpenter, built a home. On its white plaster facade he mounted a hand-painted tile bearing the words "Casa de Desengo," House of Disappointment. Two years ago he was found dead in his living room. He'd been bludgeoned with a bottle of aguardiente. The state police ruled his death and "accident."
The Vivancos are fond of their local cane liquor. Luis, Hector’s brother, who hangs out near the church, is rarely without a bottle. He was gone for a number of years until, as my friend explained, “he escaped in one of those famous Mexico City asylum escapes. You know, someone opens the doors and all the patients run out into the street.” The Vivancos agree that aguardiente stabilizes Hector better than any of the medications he was given at the asylum. He occasionally waits in front of the elementary school to corner children and tell them he’s going to kill their parents. The children laugh and move on.
The local aguardiente is smooth and clear and has a mild vanilla flavor that comes perhaps from the cane. Although 40 proof, you can drink a great deal of it without suffering a hangover, which is its first danger. The second is its price &mdash 50 cents a liter or, if you bring your own bottle to the factory, 25 cents. Other than the Vivancos and aguardiente, the town offers little entertainment.
In the dry season you can go to the hot springs four miles away where the same geological forces that rumble through Popocateptl pump 80-degree water into four vast pools. The entrance fee is 75 cents. For a little more you can rent a locker, of which there are 560. The times I've visited, I've never seen more than a dozen other people. An old man always sits in a cabana near the entrance. For a few pesos he'll lop the top off a fresh coconut and fill it with aguardiente.
Once when no taxis or buses were available, I left the hot springs on foot. About a mile away, in the middle of nowhere, I came across a squat building that advertised Itself as a clinic. Peering through the windows I saw a dusty examination table. Cobwebs trailed from white-enameled medical cabinets. A sign posted on the front door said the clinic was operated by a Dr. Delgado who received his degree in parapsychology from the University of Mexico' City. I later called a friend who teaches linguistics there and asked if the school had such a depatment.
"Perhaps," he said. "The University is so old and so huge, it could have a parapsychology department. Somewhere, I mean, it's entirely possible."
The last time I was in the small town it was a few days after Day of the Dead and the govemment's volcanologists had upgraded Popocateptl's status to Code Yellow, which meant an eruption was possible but not certain. My friend and l went to visit Hector's grave, still littered with mairigold petals, melted candles, and empty bottles of aguardiente, Someone from the Vivanco family had placed a purple papier-mâché dragon's head atop the headstone, I asked my friend why. She shrugged. "That'sjust the way they are," I would have pressed the point but mosquitoes filled the air and dengue fever is endemic in that area. I suggested we go. As walked back to my frlend's house I asked if she would ever return to America.From the bottom of her street we had a clear view of Popocateptl, the wreath of cloud around its cone. My friend said she might come back someday, but so far has not made the effort.