Raised in Oaxaca, Francisco Javier Perez Cruz saw the hardship that followed families making mezcal. This was part of their heritage but the life was hard and unsustainable, forcing families to separate.
Knowing first-hand what it meant to leave family behind in search of work, he thought that if he could keep the hard-working families together and devise a way for them to work towards a common goal, they could be successful.
After retuning to Ejutla with his own family, Francisco was appointed Treasurer of Ejutla in 1996 and Mayor in 1999. He learned how to grow and harvest Espadín working with his brother Bertoldo’s farm. His mother, who had started an agave nursery with neighboring women, taught him about the best conditions for growing strong plants. Both mother and brother passed away soon after, but Francisco Javier continued with the work his family started.
In 2004 he was elected president of the National Mezcal Council, and later received federal funding to establish nurseries and reopen distilleries around Ejutla. He founded the Consejo Oaxaqueño del Maguey Mezcal (Oaxaca Mezcal Maguey Council) as a platform for local mezcaleros and members of the industry to organize.
His work, inspired by his own family, has changed the tradition of making mezcal into a community, one committed to the quality of their craft, and raising one another other up. Today, the Banhez Cooperative of farmers and producers, unified by Francisco Javier, form the Unión Productores de Agropecuarios del Distrito de Ejutla de Crespo (UPADEC) and is run by his son, Luis.
The life of a mezcalero once meant inconsistent work, low wages and an uncertain future. The 36 farming families behind the Banhez Cooperative are changing this, improving lives now and for generations to come.
TO GO FORWARD, WE MUST look BACK
The story of mezcal cannot be told without agave, maguey or ‘the century plant’ as it is also known. There is much speculation around when mezcal production began though evidence suggests that the use of agave by humans may have BEGUN as many as 11,000 years ago. After people began cultivating the plant, the agave’s genetic makeup began to evolve as it was grown in different regions by various native groups, including the Aztec, Zapotec, Mixtec and many more.
The agave became an important part of daily life, used to make clothing, tools and medicine. It was worshipped in ancient Mesoamerica; the personification of the maguey plant, Mayahuel, was recognized as the goddess of fertility and nourishment.
In Oaxaca, rugged landscapes meant that communities could live in isolation from one another, over time allowing for many different dialects, traditions and a variety of methods for making mezcal. And because agave can thrive in a variety of climates, the environment in which it is grown plays an important part in the complexity of its taste.
It is this vast history and cultural diversity that has made mezcal one of the oldest and most complex spirits in the world.