AS A TEEN, Graciela Angeles wanted to become the president of Mexico. Angeles grew up in Santa Catarina Minas, a remote pueblo outside of Oaxaca City, but planned to leave town after high school to study economics at UNAM, Mexico City’s top public university. According to her plan, she would then go on to become president. “That was my dream, so why wouldn’t I?” she says. Now the co-owner of Real Minero mezcal distillery, Angeles has remained determined, industrious, and progressive to the core. She has an insatiable thirst for creating meaningful change, and pays little mind to social norms.
In her last few weeks of high school, Angeles went straight to the person in charge of granting university scholarships. “I was chasing him for over a week,” she recalls. He told Angeles if she enrolled and found a way to pay for the first month of her tuition, the school would cover the rest. At the time, it was 6,000 pesos (currently $295) for the enrollment fee plus the first month’s tuition, but Angeles’ family didn’t have the money. Her father, a third-generation mezcal maker, proposed selling cooked maguey (the plant from which mezcal is distilled) at a fair happening in the next town over. “It was such a gamble, I didn't know if it was going to happen,” says Angeles, “but I really think that when you want something, when you really want it and work for it, life gives it to you.” She came home with exactly 6,000 pesos that day — not a peso more, not a peso less.
At UNAM, Angeles turned her attention away from economics, earning her master’s degree in sociology in 2002. Along with making one of the world’s finest mezcals, she now devotes her life to the community of mezcaleros, or mezcal makers, from which she came. Through education, her aim is to empower them to become financially independent decision makers. “Education is the driver for social mobility. In my case, education was the tipping point.”
In 2013, Angeles founded a community library in her hometown, based on the concept that mezcal profits should uplift and enable the mezcaleros instead of going straight into the pockets of Big Alcohol executives. “The mezcaleros are the ones who have preserved the knowledge; they are the ones that provide the worthiness and value to the drink,” says Angeles. “Through education, the mezcaleros can stop thinking of themselves as solely a mezcal laborer and put an end to this modern exploitation system.” She wants the people in her community to learn how to negotiate, review a contract, and gain marketing skills so they can promote their own brand.
I really think that when you want something, when you really want it and work for it, life gives it to you.
When it comes to how women participate in the mezcal industry and in her community, Angeles is, once again, rewriting the script. She explains that there are no day cares in her pueblo, which means women who are mothers can’t work. “If the mother can’t work,” she explains, “her child is going to grow up poor, and if they’re poor, they will not be able to study.” She refers to this as a “circle of poverty.” To break this cycle, Angeles made sure that her female employees could bring their children with them to work — it’s one of the first things Angeles changed when she and her brother took over Real Minero from their father. Today, 60% of her staff are women.
A year before Angeles graduated from UNAM with a master’s degree, she got pregnant unexpectedly. Wanting the baby, but knowing she didn’t want to get married, she decided she was going to be a single mother. “If I didn't have the support from my family, I would have never managed to be a single mom who was able to study, work, and travel.” Angeles says the women who work for her become part of the family, and that everyone on staff looks after one another. “Now these women are confident. There's no man who can extort them, and they don’t depend on anyone.” Her philosophy: When you have financial freedom, no one can stop you.
Angeles feels strongly about holistic sustainability, and argues that social responsibility is just one piece of the sustainability puzzle. She warns that if mezcal producers continue with the way they are making mezcal (such as using natural clones of the mother plant, which saves time and labor) and fail to propagate their agave through seeds, certain types of agaves will become extinct. “We need to preserve the DNA of these species and the only proper way is through seeds,” she explains. With the profits from Real Minero, Angeles started an agave seed bank in 2018, and her goal in the near future is to turn the seed bank into a research center for agave. She says that big corporations are profiting off of agave and mezcal, yet the research they do is private. “This knowledge is only valuable if it’s shared with the mezcalero communities,” she argues. “Otherwise it’s worth nothing.”
It’s clear Angeles is out to change the way things operate in the world of mezcal, and the way consumers perceive the spirit. “The portrayal of the lazy mezcalero is something that people from the outside brought into this country. They are imported ideas that have been imposed,” Angeles laments. “Especially in the U.S., they come looking for mezcal with the foolish idea that if it's properly bottled it's not the real thing. They want to see their little plastic container being filled in an unsanitary palenque [mezcal distillery]. That is so wrong and fucked up. Why would they think we are not capable of doing better?”
Angeles is the embodiment of the people of Mexico, working incredibly hard to achieve their dreams. But she knows that she must continue to do everything in her power to help her community be autonomous and build the skills that will give them financial freedom. Only then can mezcaleros choose their own path, and take it upon themselves to forge a bright and sustainable future for the industry.
Erin Mosbaugh Writer
Erin Mosbaugh is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in Los Angeles. Her clients include clients include Airbnb, Headspace, Soho House, Zola, Food & Wine, Standard Culture, LA Weekly and Los Angeles Magazine.
Sean Sullivan Photographer
Sean Sullivan is a New York City—based photographer, curator, and art director. He is currently an art director at Departures.