Women Make Their Place In Growing Industry For Sonoran Agave Spirit Bacanora

By Kendal Blust
Published: Wednesday, April 1, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Wednesday, April 1, 2020 - 8:07am

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Karina Valenzuela
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Rosario Tesopaco Mayor Karina Valenzuela gives a speech at the second-annual Bacanora Fest on March 14, 2020.

Live Mariachi music rang through the main plaza of Rosario Tesopaco as hundreds of people gathered under rows of brightly colored banners rustling in the breeze for the second annual Bacanora Fest in early March.

"Welcome to Bacanara Fest 2020!"

Mayor Karina Valenzuela opened the festival with a speech about the pride and passion this small town, deep in Sonora’s rugged Sierra Madre mountains, has for Bacanora, a traditional Sonoran agave distillate.

Alejandra Peñuñuri
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Alejandra Peñuñuri passes out samples of La Carabina Bacanora.

"Rosario Tesopaco is good people and good Bacanora," she said to the cheering crowd.

Valenzuela started the Bacanora Fest in 2019, shortly after being elected mayor, to celebrate the spirit’s long history here, and as a way to promote economic prosperity among families who have been making the traditional Sonoran agave distillate for generations, through prohibition and persecution.

Unlike it’s better-known cousins tequila and mezcal, Bacanora was prohibited for decades until 1992. But it’s gaining recognition on the international market. In February, the European Union recognized Bacanora as a unique regional product.

"I'm the daughter of a Bacanora producer," Valenzuela said. "And I have a huge commitment to him. He lived through prohibition, but he dreamed of seeing Bacanora's boom."

The first female elected mayor in Rosario Tesopaco, Valenzuela said she's working to help Bacanora producers in her town take part in the blossoming market for Bacanora in her father's honor.

"And we women are the ones pushing Bacanora forward," she said.

Luis Nuñez, head of tourism promotion in Sonora, agrees.

"There's enormous potential for the market for Bacanora to keep growing," he said, calling the spirit the pride and symbol of the state. "And the role of women is essential to the promotion of this spirit."

Women Of Bacanora Past And Present

Laura Espinosa
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
Laura Espinosa is president of the Women of Bacanora, the Sonoran arm of an association for women in agave spirit industries in Mexico.

Women have always been part of the Bacanora-making process — their roles just weren’t visible, said Laura Espinosa, head of the Sonoran branch of the Mexican Women’s Agave Spirit Association.

“The wives, the sisters, aunts, they’re all helping the 'maestro mezcalero' in this activity," she said.

Now, women’s roles have expanded. They work in the agricultural sector growing agave, in marketing and distribution, and many own their own brands of Bacanora.

But it’s been hard to change perceptions.

Espinosa said for many men, “The first question that came to their minds was, 'Are you the wives of the producers?' Because they don’t imagine women (making) Bacanora. Our answer was straight out: 'No, we are the owners. We are the women that (made) these brands.'”

Moving Forward

And slowly minds are changing, as women like Alejandra Peñuñuri are taking the helm.

Alejandra Peñuñuri
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
Alejandra Peñuñuri has been elevating her family's brand of Bacanora by creating new products, designing a label and bottling the spirit in glass rather than plastic bottles.

"The truth is, yes, it's been a huge challenge, because this is a world dominated by men," said Peñuñuri, who was passing out samples of her family's brand of Bacanora, La Carabina, during the Bacanora Fest. "But there's a lot of opportunity in the marketing of the product."

She said her husband knows how to distill Bacanora, but she’s been the one who’s elevated their product — registering the brand, creating a label and bottling the spirit in glass rather than plastic.

"It's given a huge added value to our brand,” she said, adding that she's also started selling a Bacanora coffee cream based on a recipe her grandma used to make.

Her dad, Ruben Peñuñuri, works for her now, too, helping to produce Bacanora on his small farm just outside of town.

"It makes me proud that she cares about something as special as Bacanora," he said. "And I'll do everything I can to help her. I'd like to see her become a great businesswoman."

It’s the same for Don Gerardo Valenzuela, who was working at his family’s distillery with his daughter Gisela.

Gerardo and Gisela Valenzuela
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
Gerardo Valenzuela is teaching his daughter Gisela to make Bacanora.

"Women have great determination, and they have so much courage to get ahead, and, well, to make Bacanora," he said, adding that the Bacanora-making tradition was being forgotten in Rosario Tespocao, but now women like his daughter — and his niece, Mayor Valenzuela — are the ones animating and innovating the industry.

Back at the Bacanora Fest, Mayor Valenzuela said the Sonoran spirit is now in demand around the world. And the only way to meet that demand is to leave old ideas behind, and make room for new ones women are bringing to the table.

"We're keeping this tradition alive," she said. "And women are a key piece in that."

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