In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Alcohol Use

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Ancient Indigenous Alcohol Use
  • Colonial Control and Consumption
  • Criminalizing Alcohol
  • Drinks and Drinking Establishments
  • Engendering Studies of Alcohol
  • Alcohol Identities and Politics
  • Alcohol, Healing, and Ritual

Latin American Studies Alcohol Use
David Carey
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0255


In a region where historians have emphasized the impact of such export and subsistence commodities as coffee, bananas, and corn, they largely have neglected the crucial role of alcohol. A burgeoning field ripe with the potential of understanding Latin America’s past in innovative and original ways, the historiography of alcohol in Latin America pales in comparison to the rich corpus of literature on Europe, Africa, Asia, and the United States. With the postmodern and social history turn in the last decades of the 20th century, scholars used alcohol as a lens through which to examine gender, ethnic, class, and race relations. Even as the field continues to grow as the 21st century unfolds, the role that local vendors and community leaders played in making alcohol readily available demands closer examination as does the study of how integral and essential alcohol was to indigenous and Afro-Latin American life. These and other topics promise to be rich lines of inquiry. What makes studying alcohol challenging is that its social meaning (particularly in indigenous communities) and economic significance are often elusive. Alcohol could unite or divide people. As ritual consumption and production customs demonstrate, alcohol drinkways reconstituted and revived communities across time. Ranging from a social lubricant to medicine and a substitute for potable water, alcohol served many functions and played many roles. Countervailing gendered interests are on full display in studies of alcohol from the women who produced, sold, and consumed moonshine on the one hand to the females who emerged as the rank and file of prohibition movements on the other. A number of scholars who study gender and alcohol also shed new light on notions of masculinity. Although moonshining, bootlegging, and corrupt officials make quantifying its impact difficult, licit or illicit alcohol revenue fueled colonial and national budgets and local economies. Whether as payment, inducement, or entrapment, alcohol also was intimately tied to labor recruitment. From elites to lower-class men and women, entrepreneurs maintained or improved their lot via the alcohol economy—legal or otherwise. The moonshiners who pled poverty or vulnerability as exculpatory, the perpetrators of violent acts who claimed they were drunk to mitigate their sentences, and those arrested (legitimately or otherwise) for drunk and disorderly conduct are but a few manifestations of the complex concatenations of alcohol and the law. Yet the extent to which alcohol production and consumption influenced state formation is hard to nail down. As a commodity, currency, and cultural icon, alcohol influenced Latin America’s past and historical reconstructions.

General Overviews

The seminal work on alcohol in Latin American history is Taylor 1979. While Taylor 1979 shines a bright light on the relationship between alcohol and violent crime and rebellion, Hernández Palomo 1979 focuses primarily on economics, specifically the production, sale, and taxation of pulque. An edited collection, Schwartzkopf and Sampeck 2017 is particularly interested in the relationship between commodification and colonialization. Although Taylor spawned rich historiographical veins in the areas of violence, resistance, and rebellion, few historians picked up the mantle of alcohol. Most historians who explored the role of alcohol did so as part of broader social and cultural histories. Not until the turn of the 21st century did historians begin to analyze alcohol as a primary subject of their research. Although no monograph captures alcohol in Latin America, some single-country studies offer rich details in national contexts. Interdisciplinary in the author’s methodology and analysis, Mitchell 2004 reveals how alcohol shaped Mexico’s history and culture from the ancient Aztec Empire through the 20th century. Toner 2015 analyzes how both fermented and distilled alcohol shaped national imaginings in 19th-century Mexico. Although much of the literature focuses on Mexico, a few edited volumes enrich our understanding of alcohol’s many uses and influences over time in Latin America more broadly: Pierce and Toxqui 2014, Carey 2012, and Sánchez Santiró 2007. These edited collections have brought together scholars to examine what alcohol tells us about subjectivity, power, hegemony, resistance, ethics, economics, politics, and culture. Some works—like Curto 2004, which demonstrates the critical role Brazilian wines played in Africa’s alcohol trade—explore how Latin American drinks have shaped histories abroad. For a fascinating introduction to the ways alcohol became medicalized and its consumption pathologized, Calvo Isaza and Saade Granados 2002 provides astute analysis of how chicha influenced and was shaped by Colombian society, public health, and politics.

  • Calvo Isaza, Oscar Iván, and Marta Saade Granados. La ciudad en cuarentena: chicha, patología social y profilaxis. Bogotá, Columbia: Ministerio de Cultura, 2002.

    With their study of the medicalization of chicha in Colombia, Calvo Isaza and Saade Granados demonstrate how alcohol shaped healing, public health, and scientific medicine. By distinguishing between alcoholism and chichismo (chicha addiction), they analyze the ways chicha and those who consumed it became pathologized. Through the lens of chicha, Calvo Isaza and Saade Granados also reveal how scientific developments and racist thought determined the intertwined processes of modernization and state formation.

  • Carey Jr., David, ed. Distilling the Influence of Alcohol: Aguardiente in Guatemalan History. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012.

    DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813041629.001.0001

    Drawing from archival documents, oral histories, and ethnographic sources, the contributors to this volume analyze how aguardiente (distilled sugar cane spirits or rum) affected Guatemalans lives and the formation of communities, colony, and nation, providing an opportunity to closely consider the give and take between power brokers and subordinates. They demonstrate that aguardiente was a marker of social position and cultural identity, a crucial component in state building, and a commodity around which different cultural traditions and policing policies developed.

  • Curto, José C. Enslaving Spirits: The Portuguese-Brazilian Alcohol Trade at Luanda and Its Hinterland, c. 1550–1830. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2004.

    In this study of the intertwined histories of the transatlantic trade of enslaved Africans and alcohol, Curto reveals how American libations bested European stock in ways that altered the course of history. West Africans’ taste for Brazilian cachaça (sugarcane brandy) dislodged Portuguese wine and liquor, facilitating Brazilian merchants’ dominance in Western Africa and spawning a vibrant trade based out of Luanda. Missionaries aided that preference by deploying cachaça as a tool to convert Africans.

  • Hernández Palomo, José Jesús. La renta de pulque en Nueva España, 1663–1810. Seville, Spain: Escuela de Estudios Hispano Americanos de Sevilla, 1979.

    Focusing primarily on economics, Hernández Palomo explores the production, sale, and taxation of pulque in colonial Mexico. Employing, inebriating, and enriching many people, pulque shaped economic, political, and social relations in colonial Mexico. As much as the government came to depend on its revenue, wily producers and vendors sought ways to circumvent taxation.

  • Mitchell, Tim. Intoxicated Identities: Alcohol’s Power in Mexican History and Culture. New York: Routledge, 2004.

    This far-ranging study examines such phenomena as binge drinking from its roots in the ancient Aztec Empire to its contemporary contexts. Mitchell’s nuanced analysis eschews an abstinence/addiction binary that neither condemns drinkers nor ignores alcohol’s public health threats. Claiming tequila (and by extension its consumers) best represented lo Mexicano or being Mexican, Mitchell demonstrates that “patriotic alcoholization” (p. 5) has deep historical roots in Latin America where alcohol producers linked their products to nationalism.

  • Pierce, Gretchen, and Áurea Toxqui, eds. Alcohol in Latin America: A Social and Cultural History. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014.

    The contributors to this volume analyze how alcohol was inextricably linked to cultural traditions and economic and social relations. As Pierce and Toxqui demonstrate in their introduction, the alcohol economy funded individuals and states throughout Latin America. When including those who transported, sold, and served beer, tequila, pulque, and other drinks, the number of people who stood to lose their jobs to temperance movements was well over half a million.

  • Sánchez Santiró, Ernest, ed. Cruda realidad: producción, consumo y fiscalidad de las bebidas en México y América Latina, siglos XVII–XX. Mexico City: Instituto de Investigaciones Dr. José María Luis Mora, 2007.

    Although the majority of this volume’s contributors focus on late-19th- and early-20th-century Mexico, a few essays explore alcohol’s effects in Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina. Pulque and tequila figure prominently in this collection’s analysis, though scholarly attention to beer and wine reveals how the production, distribution, and consumption of alcoholic beverages shaped colonial and national economies, politics, and society.

  • Schwartzkopf, Stacey, and Kathryn E. Sampeck, eds. Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017.

    Although not a general overview of alcohol per se, Substance and Seduction offers wonderful insights into the role alcohol played in colonial Guatemala and Mexico. Half of the essays in this volume take alcohol as their central subject from mead and aguardiente in Guatemala to pulque in Mexico. The contributors are especially interested in how alcohol (and other seductive substances) was commodified in ways that both advanced and undermined Spain’s colonial power.

  • Taylor, William B. Drinking, Homicide, and Rebellion in Colonial Mexican Villages. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1979.

    Taylor encourages scholars to examine the social meanings of alcohol. Indigenous consumers who turned to alcohol to temporarily escape their plight and privations also played upon Spaniards’ assumptions about their penchant for alcoholism to subvert colonial rule. As he explores pre-Hispanic indigenous people’s shift from consuming alcohol primarily in ritual contexts to more widespread imbibing during the colonial period, Taylor surmised that the type of liquor and where it was produced shaped people’s perceptions.

  • Toner, Deborah. Alcohol and Nationhood in Nineteenth-Century Mexico. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1d989zz

    In this model of interdisciplinary analysis, Toner draws upon the fields of history and literature to demonstrate how alcohol shaped the ways 19th-century Mexicans envisioned and constructed their nation. Alcohol informed such varied developments as urban planning, familial relations, male bonding, and modernization. In addition to exploring debates about the effects of distilled versus fermented alcohol, Toner examines how medical professionals advocated the salutary benefits of pulque.

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