Tereré: Yerba Mate and Social Practice in Paraguay
Click the button above to download this article as a PDF.
I’m sitting outside, blanketed by a heat so dense you feel an urge to surface for one more breath. Around me are three Paraguayos. We’re wearing jeans, grinning as we discuss evening plans. It’s Friday and work is tough. The Innovations for Poverty Action team has spent months organizing fieldwork, training surveyors, and preparing test packets. In the midst of our discussion, the boy next to me passes a once unfamiliar object. I take it eagerly and sip from a protruding straw. The tereré is bitter and earthy. There’s a note of mint. The straw percolates – an indication that I’ve emptied the vessel. It’s time to refill and pass. Each member of the group repeats this process. Sipping and passing. Our stories fill the empty space between us. I hear questions of home and family. I talk of Texas and Trump. Each group member recounts a childhood memory, last night’s soccer game, the peaceful protest turned violent last weekend in the city center. Meanwhile, through a choreographed performance of deliberate hand movements, we pass the tereré. We are brought together by our work. We are bound by our fascination for one another. The drink is a vehicle for our cultural exchange. Sip and Pass.
If you say the word aloud, it sounds a lot like a stutter. In the U.S. we call it yerba mate. In our grocery stores, it’s marketed as an energy drink substitute. It promises to boost productivity and focus. The colorful cans display buzzwords like “green” and “natural.” In Paraguay, tereré refers to a method of consumption. The yerba mate is served in a hollowed out vessel like a bull’s horn or a thick tree branch. The more decorative ones are made of metal and personalized with engravings like “María” or “Olimpia.” It’s called a “guampa.” The yerba mate, or “yerba,” fills this guampa. You insert a filtered straw made of metal called a “bombilla.” You add ice-cold water and drink the entire serving in one long draw. The temperature of the water is essential to making tereré authentically Paraguayan. Their Argentinian and Uruguayan neighbors exclusively use hot water. They affectionately refer to their national beverage as “mate.” I’m told this drink is very different. Sip and Pass.
Preparing tereré for solo consumption is frowned upon. It’s a communal tradition. Families drink it together on weekend outings. Ministry officials share it while planning meetings. The bus driver passes it to the restless passenger behind him as they curse Asunción’s traffic, “Un desastre!” The Paraguayos hang thermoses filled with ice water from their shoulders. They carry packets of their favorite yerba blends.
A tereré session can last anywhere from five minutes to several hours. There’s talk of politics, soccer, and the unbearable heat – all this while thrusting the cool refreshment into your companion’s face. Its consumption is pervasive throughout the entire country. Every third person can be seen carrying an “equipo” complete with thermos, guampa, bombilla, and yerba. Each carrier is more eager to share than the last.
This practice, fairly alien from any found in the U.S., is part of Paraguay’s cultural indoctrination. Coworkers and strangers alike stand smiling with outstretched arms, their little cups of tradition in hand. They speak of the yerba’s health benefits, its ability to cure stomachaches and manage weight. They have their favorite brands and vendors. But in preparing tereré, drinking tereré, conversing about tereré for the sake of itself, it quickly becomes clear that each offer of a sip, each refilling of a guampa opens a rarely opened door. Like the sharing of the peace pipe or spinning of the bottle, a tereré is an invitation into an unseen world. Sip and pass.
Paraguay falls victim to what I assume is an unintentional neglect. You won’t find this country in the heart of South America hosting any of its most popular wonders. There is no Machu Picchu. There is no Amazon jungle. There is no Mexican food. When foreigners walk into a local bar, their faces are often met with quiet bewilderment. Paraguayans will ask why you would come to their country of ALL places? As if you were breaking a traveler’s code, entering a restricted zone.
Despite their initial reactions, Paraguayans will tote their nation’s achievements proudly. “Did you know Over 90% of Paraguay’s population is bilingual?” Sip and pass. “Along with Spanish, Guaraní is an official indigenous language with contemporary use even in the nation’s capital. Our Spanish is often riddled with Guaraní slang in a hybrid known as Jopará (pronounced yo-pa-rá).”
“Also, did you know the country is home to the largest and one of the highest yielding hydroelectric dams in the world?” Sip and pass. “The Itaipú dam sits along the Paraguay-Brazil border and provides over 90% of our country with clean, renewable energy.”
“Also, in the late 1800s, Paraguay participated in the bloodiest battle in the Western Hemisphere known as the Triple-Alliance War?” Sip and pass. “This war decimated over 60% of our male population and led to a land grab that reduced Paraguay’s size to 1/3 of its original.”
“And now, our current party in power has pursued legislative amendments to rewrite the constitution to allow indefinite reelection?” Sip and Pass. “In April 2017, this pursuit led to a massive demonstration in the heart of Asunción. Youth protesters like you and me set the congressional building on fire and a member of the riot police shot and killed one of our own! It was one of the few moments in recent history that our country received international attention.” Sip and Pass.
Tereré is a national beverage. It’s commonly consumed by both the impoverished and elite. With each passing of the guampa or pouring of the yerba, there is some story to tell, a peek inside your neighbor’s experience. As we place our lips on a communal straw, we are acknowledging humans and their peculiar disposition – one part self and one part other. In this practice, the unintentional neglect is broken down. It’s an opportunity to learn. It’s a social tradition I came to cherish during my time there. It’s a social behavior that briefly turns strangers into companions. Sipping and passing. Learning and loving.
Banner Photo Credit: "DSC_1535," by Abriles_, Flickr