Freelance writer, reporter, and editor Ted Genoways has spent nearly a decade researching the violence surrounding the tequila industry’s modernization throughout the Mexican Revolution, U.S. Prohibition, and the implementation of NAFTA. And after what began as a few articles for Bloomberg and Mother Jones, Genoways is in the final stages of research for his upcoming book Tequila Wars (working title). The Reporting Project’s Riley Halpern sat down with him over Zoom in February.
A lot of your work—poetry, prose, journalism—is historical. What is it that draws you to working on projects based in history?
The history stuff is just the way my brain works. I’m always trying to figure out not just what things are right now, but how they came to be that way. I understand a thing—whether that’s something very concrete or practices or policy—a lot better when I would look back and see the forces that shaped it. There’s an assumption that things are purpose-built to suit our moment, but it’s often just the opposite—that things are purpose-built to fit a moment that’s gone.
And we’re dealing with the legacy and the difficulty of changing things after they no longer make sense in their particular moment. And for me, that’s always a kind of opening for writing about something.
How long have you been working on Tequila Wars?
The original idea was to do a book about recent conflicts in the tequila industry. And I started looking back to when tequila became a modern, industrialized product and discovered that there was a period—especially about 1914-1929—where it was just constant upheaval. That was partly driven by the Mexican Revolution and by the banditry and violent assaults on landowners. But after the revolution was over and the industry was sort of in ruins, its lifeline was Prohibition, and everything geared toward trying to produce and ship into the U.S. But that led to conflicts between the families trying to control those shipping routes and markets. And what had been an external war—where they were all trying to survive—turned into an internal war they were fighting with each other.
This is a tremendous amount of conflict and fascinating stuff, but everyone I talked to said that history is lost, that I’ll never find an actual record of what happened, which was all the motivation I needed to focus on that. They were sort of right—there are actual gaps in the record that come from destruction of materials at the time—but there’s a surprising amount of stuff that exists scattered around archives in Mexico and the U.S. as well—especially in the national archives here with the governmental intelligence gathering that was going on in Mexico. So it’s been [at least six] years of going through all of that and trying to piece it together. And thankfully the research never really ends until the book is fully written. But the research is mostly complete, and it’s a matter of writing and putting everything together and just trying to tell the story at this point.
Did you anticipate it being this long of a project?
No. I always say that the only way you get into a project is that you’re like, “This is going to be easy.” But you have to have that mistaken idea. If someone says, “Here’s something that’d be interesting but it’ll take a decade to do,” no one in their right mind would do that. But this project started as what would only be a magazine article or two. And my intention was, “This’ll get me to Mexico. It’ll take me to some places that I’d like to see. It’ll get me some free tequila. This is going to be fun.”
And the first trip, I was absolutely hooked. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here and I want to write more about it. And it just kept going and going.
How did you navigate the shift from your original idea—a 150-year chronicle of the tequila industry—to the 35 years it covers now?
Some of the hardest work in a long project is doing a lot of research on something, and it’s especially hard when you get great stuff that’s not part of the project. To understand what [the warring families] were doing in the nineteen-teens, I needed to understand where those families and the conflicts between those families came from. And there’s 100-plus pages worth of stuff I’ve accumulated about that, and eventually you look at it and say, “There’s no one in their right mind who wants to read 150 pages of buildup before stuff starts happening.” But as the writing goes forward, there are places to incorporate some of that. So it’s not that it’s all lost material, but it’s just trying to keep the focus tight enough that it’s possible to go deep. Though if you’re going to get to that level of detail, the whole scope has got to be really narrow; you can’t do 150 years at that scale.
Did Prohibition in the U.S. prolong the violence in the tequila industry that was inspired by the Mexican Revolution?
For a decade, warring factions were all trying to find the cash and resources they needed to keep fighting. A small village like Tequila was a prime target for revolutionaries. But as they encountered various levels of resistance, there would be reactions to that. When Tequila would put up a fight, [the revolutionaries] would inevitably be defeated by superior numbers. But someone would get really pissed off and burn down a distillery or burn the entire town. The industry was literally in ruins by the end of the Mexican Revolution. So there’s this moment in 1919 when the tequila industry is figuring out how to rebuild itself exactly at the moment the U.S. is saying, “We’re going to empty this country of alcohol, and then it’s going to be illegal.” And the tequila makers recognized that this is going to be great. Mexico was in shambles; there were very few people who could afford any kind of luxury. But at the same time, the U.S. is in a place where anyone who wants alcohol is willing to pay a crazy premium. So all of [Mexico’s] production and distribution goals shift toward the U.S. and that of illegal trade.
How did Prohibition change the way tequila was produced?
The problem that Mexico always had is that anyone trying to produce any sort of luxury good has been in a country where there’s huge income inequality, so there’s a very narrow band of people within Mexico who can afford those luxury goods. But that means a lot of Mexico’s economy has been aimed at the U.S. as the eventual consumer, which means that you start tailoring your product toward what Americans like. Aging tequila is a product of trying to appeal to American whiskey drinkers. A lot of that creates friction; if you’re engaged in producing something that’s really thought of as a heritage product–something that has these international legal protections–there’s some disagreements that come out of that.
And the more recent battles are really a product of that. All of the conflict that arose in the ‘90s was the result of NAFTA and the U.S. saying, “We’re going to open the borders and remove certain tax obstacles.” But now everyone has to agree on how certain things are made. And in that equation, the U.S. and Canada have far more influence than Mexico did.
Riley Halpern is from the suburbs of Chicago. She is a third-year student at Denison University majoring in English with a focus on creative writing and a concentration in narrative journalism.
**Some language has been altered for clarity and concision.**