TEQUILA — Just beneath the angel statue at the front corner of the town square, a young girl in a frilly lavender dress runs through a swirl of soap bubbles, her arms outstretched, a magic wand waving above her head. Her smile is so large, it’s like the first time a child sees snow. Above her rises the rough stone facade of the Santiago Apostol church whose tower is topped by a great neon cross with a tiny heart at its center.
The deliciously sleepy town of Tequila — population 30,000 — is quintessential Mexico. At first blush it’s hard to imagine that it is at the center of a big industry, yet the city’s coat of arms is festooned with the agave plant used to create the spirit that is the economic heart of the region.
Here, men wear cowboy hats, Wrangler shirts, jeans, and boots, and children scramble freely through the streets. Much of the town is surrounded by distilleries such as Cuervo and Sauza. Beyond them are thousands of square miles of the spiky, blue-tinged agave plant whose middle, known as the piña for its pineapple shape, is cooked and crushed to create the juice that is distilled into Mexico’s national spirit and is a big favorite north of the border.
Guillermo Erickson Sauza grew up straddling that border as the son of an American father and a mother whose ancestors founded the Sauza distillery in 1873. While the brand name and much of the distillery were sold by his grandfather in 1976, Sauza revived what was left as Tequila Fortaleza, where instead of answering to the whims of the market, he seems to answer only to himself and his ancestors.
“My grandfather wasn’t exactly the ‘come sit on my knee’ type,” Sauza says, communicating a reverence for his ancestors’ work ethic in every word. “We did about 7,000 cases last year. That’s about as small as you’re going to get,” he says. “We will never be a million-case brand,” he says, referring to the production capacity of some of his neighbors. “I’m not interested.”
We amble down to La Capilla, the unofficial name for a nameless hole-in-the-wall bar par excellence run by Javier Delgado, 89.
With yellowed walls, posters depicting the history of the tequila industry, antlers, bottles, and trophies, a beat-up bar, and an afternoon crowd of locals who emit a happy, relaxed vibe, “The Chapel” gives you the feeling that you have just walked into the best bar in Mexico. It’s also the birthplace of the improbably-tasty batanga, a blend of Coca-Cola, tequila, and lime served in a highball glass with a salted rim. La Capilla is the kind of place that consistently makes best bar in the world lists, but none of that really matters. People come here to be near Delgado.
“I’ve been a bartender for 75 years, and this is my father’s house,” Delgado says, gesturing around the room and behind the bar — toward his “nephew,” his sister’s grandson, Aaron de Jesus Mercado Aguas, 20.
I ask Aguas if he feels any pressure about eventually taking over the bar and he nods and blushes. When I ask why the bar is important, he simply says “Tio” — uncle.
“He has a lot of love for people, a lot of respect,” he says, repeating the second half of his sentence. “People leave here feeling better about themselves.”
I ask Delgado himself about the importance of the bar and he, too, blushes a bit, his dark skin and wrinkles making the blue rings around the outside edge of his irises glow brighter.
“I think people like to help me because I’m old,” he says.
He looks around again, skimming past the decor and focusing on the crowd. There’s a group of friends at a large table with a mother rocking a baby in a stroller, a few of Delgado’s friends, and my wife, Elisabeth, and me. If there’s a care in the world, it’s been checked at the door.
“I think people care,” says Delgado. “God brought us here to be together.”
We wave goodbye and walk out into the late afternoon, taking in the bright-colored exterior walls of the homes, the lengthening shadows, and the aromas of grilling that waft from the taco stands. We wander back toward the town square which, at this hour, is buzzing.
Everyone seems to live within walking distance of the square. They tip their hats and check in with each other, slowly creating that architecturally-inspired sense of community that city planners dream about.
“We were sitting on the plaza on Tuesday and it had an energy like something was about to happen, but it was just life,” says César Gutierrez Franco, a singer from Guadalajara who comes to Tequila about once a month with his wife, Claudia, and their infant daughter.
Sitting in front of a cafe, nibbling snacks, they’re basking in the town’s glow and sipping cantaritos, a tequila, citrus, and soda mix they’ve ordered from a bar around the corner.
“The town is a celebration of what being Mexican is all about. The small towns, the villages, the culture, and the ideas,” he says, gesturing at the plaza, then the churches that face each other at either end, where people invariably make the sign of the cross as they pass.
“Our culture is based on religion,” Franco says. “I’m an atheist, but I embrace it because it’s part of who we are.”
“I used to say that Tequila is better known in Moscow than in Guadalajara,” he says, seemingly conflating the town and the drink. “You could come here and see this little town in Mexico — sometimes friends would come with us and say, ‘Is this it?’ But the simplicity is the magic. It’s so simple, but it’s our legacy to the world.
“I like that.”
Joe Ray can be reached at joe-ray.com.