Jonathan Barbieri Surrenders his Soul

ArticleR. E. ToledoComment

It is hard but tempting to lose your soul. American artist, Jonathan Barbieri, is helping us do just that by bringing the soul-rendering, ancient tradition of drinking mezcal to New York.

What does it mean to give up your soul? For whom or in what circumstances would you be willing to render it? New York seems to be the right place to lose your soul. Jonathan Barbieri traveled thousands of miles south, to the Mexican state of Oaxaca, in search for the right place and means to do it, and now he is making this experience available to New Yorkers. It is called Pierde Almas, a highly-rated, artisan-made mezcal, produced with the finest, organic ingredients. His mezcal is conjured respecting the most traditional production process.

THE INTERVIEW. I don’t know if it was the fact that by the time he arrived at the dim-lit East Village Mexican bar, I was half way through a shot of Pierde Almas, or if it was his hat and leather jacket, but when I saw Jonathan for the first time I felt my soul loosening. Jonathan Barbieri is a tall, slender, middle-aged man, with grayish hair, an open smile and a firm hand shake. He makes you feel like you are catching up with a well-known family member. As it was his preference, we conducted the interview in Spanish. His Spanish still carries an echo of his English mother tongue attached to the end of some words. Jonathan arrived in Oaxaca in the eighties, in search of the right environment to paint, and this is how he came to be a Latin Lover.

A SIX-MONTH STAY IN OAXACA. In the eighties, he planned to go to Spain because Spain was more alive than ever after Franco’s death, especially Barcelona, with its artistic community and all its expressionist movements. “But before crossing el charco, I thought, I am going to spend six months in Mexico”.  So he headed south and visited the central region of Mexico looking for places conducive to his painting. Not finding what he was looking for, Jonathan decided to go back to Oaxaca, which he had visited years earlier. “It was such a long trip”, he recalls. “In those days it took more than twelve hours to get there by bus, so I had lots of time to think and to strip myself of many things -- like for example, the movies. I always liked films so much, that I was thinking while looking out through the window that I was not going to have access to movies while I was out there, and so on. Suddenly, the bus had a terrible accident with a taxi. It pushed the taxi off a cliff and I saw the people being thrown out of the car. It was a human drama, and so I thought ‘No chingues ca, what do you need movies for?!’ I knew then I was getting to the right place. And so, what was supposed to be a six- month trip turned into the rest of my life,” he says proudly. He has been there since then. It has been twenty seven years.

AN ENCOUNTER WITH MEZCAL. A love-hate relationship. “El cariño”, says Jonathan, “is part of the story. It is a love-hate relationship because when you really love a place, you see it in all its facets; you have to get into it in order to survive. One of things that was very important for me, since the beginning, was mezcal. It was a way to get to know the people of the place I was trying to make my home. You can try to see things from the other person’s perspective, and say “Hmmm…” for hours, but you get to the other side in fifteen minutes if you take the mezcal road,” and he laughs out loud. “But apart from that, I opened myself to the people; I went and knocked on doors, and I got to know Oaxaca, which is the root. I could have explored Oaxaca from the top down, but I did it the other way around.”

Jonathan spent eleven years, painting and preparing for shows in the interior of the state before moving to the state’s capital city, Oaxaca. He lived in Asunción Etla for two years and then in Reyes Etla for 9 years. “In those towns there is always something to celebrate, there is always a fiesta. It might be a quinceañera; it might be a wedding, or a funeral. So it is through these celebrations, through these events, that you really get to know people and the place youre living in, in a more genuine sense. My art was very influenced, of course, by these places, by these people, and mezcal gets its own place as part of life. Mezcal isn’t only something you drink: it’s a spiritual drink. It is a spirit, it means culture. Mezcal takes you on a journey where you get to know the families that have been producing it for centuries. It gives people unity and a sense of belonging because it is present in all of life´s events. Tradition isn’t something you get out of a drawer every year, traditions are lived every day. So what was supposed to be a six-month stay turned into a full investment of my time, of my treasure, of spirit, of everything, everything.”

LET’S MAKE US SOME MEZCAL. It took him a few years to discover the palenque he is currently working (a palenque is the physical space where the mezcal is produced, with its machinery, animals, and people, etc.). “After a few years of painting and living there, I discovered that palenque. It was like diving totally into the life of the family who worked it, a family that took me in completely. Don Fausto Rasero, my founding partner got very ill at that time, so we took him to hospitals, and took care of him. I was involved in the whole process. My acceptance into this family was fundamental for me. His sons are like my brothers now. They became my family.”

When they started bottling Pierde Almas they didn’t have any intention of selling it or making it a business. They were only doing it for friends. “Until one Sunday…” he recalls “when we had spent the whole day handwriting the labels, because we were doing it all by hand, we realized we had to take the next step. It was a very hard step for me to take, because I had to break away from my way of living as an artist, leave my aesthetics behind, become a businessman. But since the beginning we had the same goal for producing it and the same philosophy in mind: to preserve the family tradition first and secondly, to support this family and the other families that depended on us.”

He sips from his shot of Pierde Almas, and continues talking very proudly about the family’s natural process and their respect for the environment. “And suddenly, I start to realize that this whole thing of producing mezcal has so many ramifications. There’s the maguey/man relationship and the maguey/environment relationship—because we are not only bottling a liquid, we are building friendships, and fraternities with the farmers. But beyond that, there’s something even bigger: we’re part of a cultural tradition that has existed for thousands of years, and that is what has moved me the most: to be part of that cultural tradition.”

Then he talks to me about their growth strategy. “Because one thing is to want to do it, and then there’s the how to. Fortunately we had many friends that were supportive. Like Chef Alejandro Ruiz, who is one of the most recognized names in fine cuisine in Oaxaca, and Guillermo Fadenelli, a very important writer in Oaxaca. We started sponsoring cultural events, like supporting Casa Lamm, an important Oaxaca publishing house, and many other cultural events. So that’s the way we started putting our name out there and, very soon, we were at the forefront of the mezcal boom in Mexico City. Then, a couple of years later, we’re here in New York. We also have plans to expand to Europe, and Australia. But we have to do it by keeping our goal in mind: to produce our mezcal with the same ritualistic, natural, traditional method; so we have to be creative in order to expand.”

“This year we got a grant from the Mexican Secretary of Agriculture and Fishery to expand reforestation of Tobalá, one of the maguey species we use for our Pierde Almas. And we’re very excited about that. We got this grant because of the respect we have for the earth, its natural processes and the environment.”

Jonathan’s enthusiasm for Oaxaca, the maguey, and the mezcal tradition is not only evident, it is contagious too. His passion keeps glowing as he talks about how the labels are now printed on paper made from recycled natural fibers extracted from the maguey; or when he tells me how he personally designed the diving fly that is part of the logo, or explains how each batch has a different grade of alcohol content, just like the hand-crafted mezcal that families produce and drink. “We want people around the world to experience mezcal the same way that locals in Oaxaca do, as natural as possible, and we achieve this by baking the Agave hearts in earthen ovens for up to ten days, and mill them by using a stone wheel pulled by horses. It is a lot of work and it takes longer, but it is worth it. You can notice the difference when you drink any variety of Pierde Almas.”

LA PIERDE ALMAS. He talks and talks and I don´t get tired of listening, but I am truly intrigued by the name: “Pierde Almas”, literally “a loser of souls”. So, I ask him about it and his eyes brighten up. “I was waiting for you to ask about that, it is a great story,” and he gets ready by ordering another shot. He looks as if he were drinking water. Truth is, I don´t feel a bit dizzy either. Pierde Almas is strong but smooth. It awakens my awareness but doesn’t mess up my mind.  “In the nineties I used to spend almost fifteen hours a day painting and working. I had a very strange life. I grew my own fruits and vegetables and I killed my own animals. I had a guy that helped me prepare for painting, his name was Max. But Max would get lost every now and then and wouldn’t come back for days, and when he did, he always came up with an adventure to get out of trouble with me. One time, after he had been lost for several days, he came back and told me, ´You are not going to believe where I´ve been. I was at a cantina where the cantinero is called El Pierde Almas,´ so I told him that if he was going to take so long to come back he’d better take me with him, and he did.

“That place! We walked up and down rolling hills. We were around Santos Degollados, Etla. Suddenly, I see a wooden hut crowning the top of one of these hills. The path to climb up was steep and full of cactuses. I understood right then that it would take us several days to get down this hill. The inside walls of the hut were covered with newspaper to protect the place from the northern winds. There was only one room with a dirt floor and big tree trunks as seats. A hot pink dresser with golden filigree, was making do as the bar, right in the middle of the room. Behind the bar a small man was serving drinks. The “Pierde Almas,” as people called him, wasn’t taller than 4’6”. He was crippled, missing a hand, had a hump, blind in one eye and was missing some teeth, the rest of the crowd was equally different. Each person was a story. The scene made such an impact in my mind that years later I painted a whole series of 25 paintings, on the theme of this cantina. That scene was the Comedia Profana, the exact opposite of Dante’s Divine Comedy. All the vulnerabilities, all the failings, all the sins, were present there, in one room. So, this person and this place came to be the inspiration for so much of my work. I showed this collection of paintings in New York from 2000 to 2001. Later on, in 2006 I started collaborated with John Dickie, a screenwriter friend of mine on a screenplay about this cantina. It is called La Pierde Almas. Right now, we’re waiting to start pre-production in August and we hope to start shooting in October. It will be a black comedy about the encounter of two cultures. John will be directing it.”

The night washed away in the midst of these stories. The glasses clinking and plates clashing in the kitchen brought us back to the dim-lit East Village bar, but it was great to travel to the faraway places that Barbieri has traveled. A painter turned into business  man, turned into story teller and soul catcher, all under the influence of a Mexican tradition. One thing is certain: Jonathan Barbieri has given up his soul to art and to mezcal. He has been creating art since he was five and he asserts that for him, art is a path that has given him many satisfactions: “It is a journey, and a date with destiny.” Art took him to Oaxaca, a place where art and mezcal intertwine to become one and permeate life, the life of Jonathan Barbieri.