The consumption of alcohol plays a key role in Tarahumara society. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that almost every social activity that the Tarahumara engage in includes tesgüino. From organizing communal labor to performing marriage ceremonies, the role of tesgüino in Tarahumara culture is crucial. In fact, the use of alcoholic beverages is often cited as the defining characteristic of Tarahumara culture. Kennedy (1963:635) states that, “it is no exaggeration to estimate that the average Tarahumara spends at least 100 days per year directly concerned with tesguino and much of this time under its influence or aftereffects.” The creation of tesgüino is a simple process that all households perform on a regular basis. The Tarahumara call tesgüino batári, sugíki, or paciki depending on how the brew is prepared. Sugíki is the general term for alcoholic beverages made from fermented maize, while batári is maize beer made with a particular catalyst of the same name; paciki refers to tesgüino made from fresh corn stalks (Pennington 1963:149-150). The varieties of tesgüino made from maize are the most important, but the Tarahumara also make similar drinks from agave hearts or stalks, cactus fruits, berries, peaches, apples, crabapples, wheat, and Mesquite seeds (Pennington 1963:149-157).
Different batches of tesgüino are said to have various qualities by the Tarahumara. Tesgüino that is sweet is also considered to be rather weak, while tesgüino that is bitter is considered strong. Tesgüino that is burned or sour tasting is also considered to be weak. The strength or weakness of tesgüino is extremely important to the Tarahumara because the purpose of drinking is to reach a state of complete intoxication. It has been estimated by Merrill (1978:103-104) that it takes approximately four liters of strong tesgüino per person to become drunk, which is the ultimate goal. He further estimates that each liter of tesgüino requires approximately 1/4 liter of maize kernels to produce. Therefore, a tesgüinada with 100 participants would require approximately 400 liters of tesgüino per person for everyone become intoxicated, using a total of 70 kg of corn. Kennedy (1963:634) estimates that the average family uses about 200 pounds of its annual corn crop making tesgüino. Holding tesgüinadas can obviously become very expensive, and only very rich individuals may be able to throw such large parties or have a tesgüinada more than two or three times a year. In fact, holding numerous large tesgüinadas is one of the main ways that the wealthy can increase their status among the Tarahumara.
As already mentioned, tesgüino is of overwhelming importance to the Tarahumara in large part because of the nature of their settlement system. Tesgüinadas provide a way of bringing the people from scattered ranchos together for social events. The most common justification (95%) for holding a tesgüinada is for cooperative labor or a curing ceremony. If a man needs help with agricultural work, building a house, or some other labor-intensive task, he will invite certain nearby households to come and help in return for providing them with tesgüino. As might be imagined, the work is often not entirely completed because the guests get too drunk to continue. Payment for work in the form of tesgüino is expected and assumed, but the Tarahumara do not phrase the exchange in economic terms. Instead, they treat tesgüino as a gift, and even those who do not help or show up late are still allowed to drink. This labor exchange system has been referred to by Kennedy (1963:625) as the “tesgüino network.” The series of social relationships that are formed in the tesgüino network provide the only meaningful community for the individual above the household in traditional Tarahumara society.
Tesgüino is also very closely tied with religious practices. In their origin myth, the Tarahumara cured the Sun and the Moon and aided in the creation of the world by dipping crosses in tesgüino and touching the Sun and the Moon with them (Sheridan 1996:142). The Tarahumara hold curing ceremonies for people, animals, and agricultural fields that involve sprinkling tesgüino on the thing to be cured or dipping crosses in tesgüino and touching the thing to be cured. Tesgüino is also connected with rituals that take place at important times in an individual's lifetime including birth, puberty (for boys), marriage, and death. A number of other social functions have also been identified for tesgüinadas. One of the most important appears to be psychological release, since norms about fighting and sexual behavior are relaxed during the tesgüinadas. Among the gentiles, tesgüinadas are also the only place where trials are conducted and punishments are decided upon because the alcohol relaxes the ordinary restraints on confronting others that characterizes Tarahumara society. Marriage partners are also often found at tesgüinadas. The tesgüinadas are also a great deal of fun, and their entertainment value for the Tarahumara should not be underestimated.
Reproduced from the Southwest Agave Project http://www.ic.arizona.edu/~agave/ceram_feast_tarah01.htm