A lonely mate
Weeks after COVID-19 left them out of work and without income, a couple of Uruguayans in London urgently asked on a Facebook group for help accessing state benefits and aid, since they could not even ‘afford their mate’.
Was it flour, pasta, milk? No. Rosa and Waldemar were desperate because money was too tight to buy yerba mate. ‘You can’t imagine the quiet and sadness in this home’, they shared with me.
A daily beverage, a ritual, a habit, and an identity marker for Argentinians, Brazilians, Paraguayans and Uruguayans, during migration mate takes a more prominent place in the suitcase than a toothbrush or even a change of clothes.
In the diaspora, it is a remedy for nostalgia. Otherwise, what else would a handful of South American migrants do thousands of miles away from their homeland, sitting in a circle, sharing one pumpkin gourd from which they drink some herbs through a metal straw?
As anthropologist Gustavo Laborde explains, this ritual ‘has been preserved over the centuries with next to no modifications’, since it originated among indigenous communities in present-day Paraguay. However, the global outbreak of a virus so invisible and powerful is depriving us of what is most important in life: human contact and social bonds. That is where the essence of mate lies: it cannot exist without the herbs, but it is the company of family and friends that give mate its taste.
From the Guarani to the world
The plant of yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) was discovered in pre-Columbian times by the Guarani, the native peoples in Paraguay’s current territory in South America. The word ‘mati’ comes from Quechua – the language of a large and dense indigenous community in the Andes region – and it refers to the gourd used to drink a sort of green grass infused with water through a metal straw called ‘bombilla’.
For the Guarani, mate was a divine beverage, drunk in a ritual led by a shaman. Some texts even suggest that the Guarani planted yerba mate in the same place where they buried the remains of their loved ones. Later, they harvested the plant and drank mate, sitting in a circle, so that the spirit of those people passed through to their bodies through the plant.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, with the Spanish invasion and conquest of what is now known as the American continent, the Lima Inquisition attempted to ban mate, considering it a ‘prompting of the devil’, as Jerónimo Lagier explains in his book La aventura de la yerba mate (‘The adventure of the yerba mate’).
Later on, around the 17th century, mate was at the centre of another large power controversy, when it became very popular among the religious missionaries of the Society of Jesus. The ‘Jesuits’ herb’ underlay the territorial expansion of the missions across large swathes of South America, while the Spanish Crown tried to impose the religion, language, and customs of the old continent. At the end of the 18th century, the Jesuits, who were the main producers of yerba mate, were expelled. But the age-old plant and its social rituals have remained.
With the Pampas region (‘plains’ in Quechua) as its epicentre and the Gauchos – the iconic South American cowboys – as the symbolic figure of the mixed-race man who drank mate in the countryside, the beverage kept being passed on from hand to hand, from one community to another, down through the generations over the course of the centuries. Today, it has become an irreplaceable staple of the working classes, even permeating certain cliques of the upper classes in South American societies.
We migrate, and mate migrates with us
In the last few decades, this tradition travelled across the Atlantic and around the globe, becoming, for instance, a highly popular drink in Syria, a country that receives over 70% of yerba mate exports from Argentina, the world’s leading producer (300,000 annual tons).
Mate made its way into the households in Damascus, as well as in Beirut, Lebanon, as it was passed around Argentinians and the Syrian-Lebanese migrants who arrived in South America in the first half of the 20th century. Migrants made empanadas popular and, in exchange, embraced the mate.
From the lush missionary jungle to bombed-out Damascus; from the humid Pampas to stately Cracovia; from the banks of Rio de Plata to the Pyrenees… Anywhere around the world, people share these bitter, warm sips, so ephemeral and familiar, and embark in the most trivial or substantial conversations. They capture sunsets, enhance anecdotes, and even plant the seeds of future romantic relationships.
‘Shall we make some mate?’ is a subtle way of saying ‘let’s talk’, ‘let’s spend some time together’, or just ‘I have something to tell you’, in a conversation that is usually led by the cebador (the person pouring the water from the kettle and passing around the mate).
In spite of centuries of unaltered continuity, the so-called ‘first social network’ has now found an unthinkable enemy: a virus that threatens the very core of the ritual: sharing.
A lonely mate?
‘When each person has to have their mate alone and we cannot pass it around, it is not the same’ is a common feeling these days. ‘The essence is lost without company’, they say in Rio de Plata through a screen, in a virtual mateada.
How will family or couple arguments be, we ask ourselves, without a mate in between? What about the grey autumn afternoons and cold winter mornings, the awkward silences and difficult confessions, the reconciliations, the late nights studying…? How will they all be without that final ‘Thank you’, symbolising the end of the mateada?
As Argentinian writer Hernán Casciari says, thanks to mate, it seems like ‘the world is a place solely designed for us strangers to keep each other company’.
And what if, one day, there is no more company?
Santiago Peluffo Soneyra
Santiago Peluffo Soneyra is a Latin American journalist, writer, and activist living in London. He was a reporter and correspondent for Argentinian, Latin American, British and European media. He is the co-author of the collections of short stories Visitantes, published by El Ojo de la Cultura in London. He is the co-director of British NGO Latin Elephant. Twitter/Instagram: @santuli23