Yerba Mate: Tradition and Commodity

Argentines are known, perhaps unfairly to their neighbors of the Southern Cone, for a tremendous fidelity to yerba mate. My main research interest concerns the role this drink and its traditional consumption plays in everyday sociability. This concerns not only the practical uses of the drink, but also the consciously presented image or, more specifically, the recognition of yerba mate as a part of authentic Argentine culture. And so, as with Guinness in Ireland or Champagne in France, it has become obligatory for travelers to experience the tradition at least once while visiting the country. However, unlike the previous examples, yerba mate is not a copyrighted brad name with distinct geographic origins. How then can one approach yerba mate, which is most definitely being presented as a unique commodity in Argentina, that relies almost entirely on its cultural representation?

In order to explore this theme I have decided to focus on the presentation of yerba mate to foreigners and tourists by not only local shops, but Argentines in general. On one hand there is the question of marketing. How have the rustic mate gourd, bombilla and other associated instruments been transformed into a commodity targeted at tourists? A striking example of this can be seen in one shop I visited in downtown Buenos Aires called Artentino. Although their products are certainly colorful, modern and aesthetically appealing in their own way, they do lack a certain authenticity. In fact, when asked if they would ever purchase such a stylish mate and bombilla, all of my Argentine contacts said no, some even laughed, although others admitted they might make a ‘nice gift’ for someone in the United States who had no idea about these things.
The previous explanations is representative of one extreme. At the other end are the estancias and haciendas designed to attract tourists through promoting an image of rural simplicity. Among the can’t miss things to do includes drinking mate. In the coming week, I hope to travel to one of these ranches in the province of Corrientes, which is home to some of the most well-known yerba mate plantations in the country. In what ways is the most ‘traditional’ form of a national tradition being consciously produced to appeal to tourists and foreigners? What exactly this says about yerba mate, its place in Argentine history and present day society, is something I hope to understand. How does the custom in its current form coincide with the traditional form of consumption being reproduced specifically for tourists? These are some questions I hope to have addressed in the coming weeks.
Ashley Roseberry, MA Candidate, CLACS

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