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Episode 85: El mate de hoy (Mate of Today)

By Duolingo on Thu 27 May 2021

Uruguay consumes more mate than any other country in the world. But for a hundred years, almost all of that mate has been imported. Now, Rodrigo Patrón is trying to bring back mate production in Uruguay, in a way that respects both the environment and the famous tea’s origins.

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Transcript

Martina: It’s early 2016 on Rocha Mountain in Uruguay. Rodrigo Patrón and a group of friends are combing the peak, crossing rocks, slopes and the valleys carved by streams. Rodrigo stops every now and then to carefully examine flowers and bushes.

Rodrigo: Yo busco un árbol en particular y estoy convencido de que está aquí. Para encontrarlo, busco, sin descanso, hojas negras en el suelo porque sé que se ponen de ese color cuando caen.

Martina: The tree Rodrigo’s looking for used to be very, very common in South America…and is widely consumed in Uruguay, still today.

Rodrigo: Yo busco yerba mate. A pesar de la larga relación de Uruguay con esta planta, mi país no la ha producido desde hace cien años. Mi objetivo es cambiar eso.

Martina: Mate is a traditional South American tea, made with the dried leaves of the yerba mate plant. It’s traditionally served in a container made from a gourd and sipped through a metal straw. It’s the national drink of Argentina, Paraguay…and Uruguay — which consumes it at a higher rate than anywhere else in the world. But even though Uruguayans drink a lot of mate…they produce almost none of it.

Rodrigo: La yerba mate producida en Uruguay era muy poca. Se encuentra en algunos árboles nativos y en pequeñas plantaciones, pero no es fácil verla en la naturaleza. Yo quiero devolverle la yerba mate a mi país. Después de caminar por las montañas durante horas, yo siento que debemos buscar cerca del agua; es una intuición. Caminamos en esa dirección siguiendo mi corazonada.

Martina: Rodrigo’s corazonada, or hunch, leads the group to a large pool of water. They stop to inspect the branches.

Rodrigo: En ese momento, me doy cuenta de que una hoja verde, similar a la hoja de yerba mate, me está tocando la cabeza. Corto una y la miro con atención. No lo puedo creer… ¡es yerba mate! Mi misión acaba de comenzar.

Martina: Bienvenidos and welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast. I’m Martina Castro. This season, we’re taking you on a special journey across the Spanish-speaking world… From Spain to the Americas, a new generation of Spanish-speakers is working to keep their cultural traditions alive…with a contemporary twist. In today’s episode we travel to a place that’s very dear to my heart, it’s where my family is from: Uruguay.

A quick note about Uruguayan Spanish: you’ll hear that Rodrigo pronounces his LLs and Ys as “sh,” like in the word “bombilla” — “y una bombisha.”

As always, the storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish and I’ll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again. We also offer full transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com.

Martina: Like most Urguayans, the first thing Rodrigo Patrón does in the morning is put a pot of water on to boil, or hervir. Then, he carefully selects a cup to drink his mate — which is also called a mate — and fills it with the mate leaves, three quarters of the way to the top.

Rodrigo: Yo pongo el agua a hervir y después la dejo enfriar unos minutos. Creo que esa es la temperatura ideal para tomar el mate. Me gusta tomarlo bien caliente.

Martina: Mate has an earthy, tannic taste and a refreshing, citrusy smell. This morning ritual has been part of Rodrigo’s life since he was a teenager.

Rodrigo: ¡En Uruguay todos tomamos mate! Tomamos mate en nuestras casas, pero también en la calle mientras caminamos. A los trece o catorce años, es normal recibir como regalo tu primer equipo para tomar mate. ¿Qué hay en ese equipo? Un mate, un termo y una bombilla.

Martina: The bombilla is a straw. It can be made of metal, or a hollow reed that’s used to filter out the mate leaves as you drink.

Rodrigo: Cuando un uruguayo recibe su primer equipo, eso simboliza, de alguna forma, la transición de joven a adulto. A mí me lo regalaron en mi cumpleaños número quince. Mi madre me despertó con un mate nuevo, un termo de metal y una bombilla de boca ancha. Con mi propio mate, yo me sentí un adulto.

Martina: As a kid, Rodrigo learned that drinking mate is a tradition that originated with the guaraní — the indigenous people of the region — who used to cultivate the yerba mate plant.

Rodrigo: Yo creo que la característica principal del mate es que representa la unión entre las personas. Siento que el mate es mi compañero y es un regalo maravilloso que nos da la tierra.

Martina: In school, Rodrigo learned that the guaraní, like many other indigenous peoples of South America, lost their independence and many of their traditions when Spanish colonizers arrived.

Rodrigo: En el pasado, ellos utilizaban las hojas de yerba mate para hacer esta bebida, pero también como moneda de cambio. La yerba mate era un regalo sagrado de los dioses para ellos.

Martina: Rodrigo found himself particularly drawn to the history of the guaraní because, like many in Uruguay, he has guaraní heritage.

Rodrigo: Mi abuela Rosita era descendiente de los guaraní. Esa parte de mi identidad significa mucho para mí. Me interesa mucho su cultura y siento que todavía tengo que aprender mucho más de ellos.

Martina: Reading about the history of mate and the guaraní, Rodrigo learned that the way people consume the leaf has changed over time. Originally, they would chew it. Then it was brewed as a tea, but filtered through the teeth. And then finally, people started using gourds as cups and reeds as straws, the way Rodrigo and his family still drink it.

Rodrigo: Mi abuela fue la persona que le transmitió a mi madre su amor por el mate y, luego, mi madre me lo transmitió a mí. Cuando mi abuela preparaba el mate, ella decía que había que echarle un poco de agua fría para la planta y un poco de agua caliente para el espíritu. Esa frase viene a mi cabeza cada vez que lo preparo.

Martina: As he dug further into the history of mate in Uruguay, Rodrigo learned that when the Spanish colonized the Americas, they tried to outlaw consumption of mate. The Jesuits considered it a “devil plant.”

Rodrigo: Pero, por lo mucho que intentaron, los españoles no pudieron acabar con el mate. Hace cuatro siglos, en el territorio uruguayo actual, había una gran cantidad de bosques nativos donde la yerba mate era un elemento común y muy abundante. Pero en el último siglo, eso ha cambiado. Y actualmente, esa no es la realidad.

Martina: While Rodrigo was always interested in mate, for a long time, his main passion was soccer — the other cultural obsession in Uruguay and Latin America in general. Soccer was part of his life from the time he was a little kid.

Rodrigo: Al igual que mi padre y mi abuelo, yo jugaba al fútbol. Era lo más importante en mi vida y lo hacía todo el tiempo, en todos lados: en la calle, en la escuela y con mis amigos. Cuando era adolescente, no me interesaban las cosas que se hacen a esa edad, como ir a fiestas y tomar alcohol.

Martina: Rodrigo was so good at soccer that after high school, he turned it into a career. He played for several clubs in Uruguay and worked as a coach. But then…he had his first kid. He was 25, and being a father forced him to reevaluate his life choices.

Rodrigo: Cuando nació Tiago, mi hijo, sentí que no quería estar más en ese mundo tan estresante. Pensaba que, si ganaba, era el mejor y, si perdía, el peor. Esos valores ya no me representaban.

Martina: Rodrigo and his wife began to think about the values they did want to pass on to their son. Love for the environment was a priority.

Rodrigo: Queríamos enseñarle el cuidado y respeto por la naturaleza, el amor a los animales y la coexistencia con el medio ambiente. Desafortunadamente, yo veía todo lo contrario en el fútbol.

Martina: Rodrigo imagined moving to the mountains and living a simpler life. And part of that dream was growing a few mate trees, so that his family could brew their own mate.

Rodrigo: Yo me imaginaba junto a mi familia tomando unos mates hechos con nuestra yerba, bajo la sombra de un árbol. Para mí, esa era la imagen de felicidad, y era la imagen que quería dejarle a mi hijo.

Martina: But just as he was getting ready to quit soccer, and make his dream of living in the countryside a reality, Rodrigo was offered a job as a trainer for a soccer team in China. It was an amazing opportunity — economically and professionally. His dad was ecstatic. But when it came time to sign a contract…he just couldn’t go.

Rodrigo: Yo sentí que no podía hacerlo. Me di cuenta de que el fútbol no me hacía feliz.

Martina: Rodrigo turned down the job. And in a stroke of luck, at the same moment, an opportunity came up to buy a piece of land with some friends in the Rocha Mountains of Uruguay. He was finally going to make his dream a reality.

Rodrigo: Mi sueño era vivir en la naturaleza con gente como yo, con los mismos valores. Yo solo quería tener una vida más simple y feliz.

Martina: The place was beautiful and it had everything Rodrigo wanted.

Rodrigo: En ese momento, mi esposa y yo decidimos tener una vida más comunitaria y dejar atrás la vida egoísta en la ciudad. Estábamos pensando en tener una familia más grande y queríamos que nuestros hijos tuvieran la posibilidad de crecer en libertad. Queríamos enseñarles valores como la solidaridad y la amistad.

Martina: The group got together and bought 450 acres in the Rocha Mountains. Their plan was to turn it into a reserve, for the protection and restoration of biodiversity in the region. That was the beginning of Ambá, a non-profit Rodrigo founded with friends and colleagues.

Rodrigo: Comenzamos a buscar la regeneración de los ecosistemas saludables. Somos parte de la naturaleza y queremos ayudar a recuperar esa conciencia. Conservar ya no es suficiente y lo sabemos. Tenemos que regenerar y recuperar las especies extintas o degradadas, entre ellas, la yerba mate.

Martina: As Rodrigo’s family began to grow, so did his obsession with mate. Uruguyans drink upwards of 22 pounds of mate per person, per year… But they produce almost none of it. That really bothered Rodrigo. He began to educate himself more about the history of mate, and why it was no longer grown in the country.

Rodrigo: Yo quería saber por qué Uruguay ya no producía yerba mate. Descubrí que se dejó de cultivar hace más de cien años por razones económicas; pero fue incluso peor. Durante la segunda guerra mundial cuando Uruguay comenzó a exportar mucho carbón vegetal, ese carbón se hacía con la madera de los árboles nativos y por eso hubo una gran deforestación de los grandes campos de yerba mate.

Martina: Because of that massive deforestation, Uruguay has been importing yerba mate from Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay for decades.

Rodrigo: Mi sueño era reactivar la producción local. Eso iba a generar puestos de trabajo. También les iba a ofrecer a los uruguayos una yerba de origen nativo y orgánica. Es decir, cultivada sin pesticidas ni agroquímicos. Me siento triste al saber que en Uruguay importamos yerba cuando en realidad tenemos todas las condiciones para producirla.

Martina: In September of 2016, Rodrigo and a group of friends teamed up to travel to eastern Paraguay to meet with the Aché Guayaki, an indigenous community that still cultivates mate the traditional way.

Rodrigo: Mi objetivo era claro: aprender todo sobre la yerba mate, en especial, su cultivo tradicional.

Martina: The traditional process involves several stages: drying, grinding, and aging.

Rodrigo: La yerba pasa por tres procesos principales: el secado, la molienda y el estacionado. En el cultivo tradicional, todo eso se hace a mano.

Martina: In Paraguay, Rodrigo was invited to participate in the sapecado — an ancient process of toasting mate leaves over a flame. To Rodrigo, it was important to learn the traditional techniques from the experts. He needed help to start his journey to produce the native plant in his own country.

Rodrigo: Fue muy importante para mí aprender las técnicas tradicionales directamente de sus expertos. Porque siento que exploré el origen de todo. Todavía no sabemos exactamente cómo se crearon todos estos procesos hace tantos años y, prácticamente, sin recursos. ¡Eso me parece increíble!

Martina: Back in Uruguay, Rodrigo and other members of the community began to survey their new property. Based on what they had learned from the Aché Guayakí, they expected they would find some mate trees growing in the wild. But they didn’t know where they would find them.

Rodrigo: Un día recibimos la visita de un amigo productor argentino. Él era especialista en la cultura de la yerba mate y vino a conocer nuestro proyecto para ayudarnos. Salimos a buscar la planta con él. Caminamos mucho pero no la encontrábamos.

Martina: The group was disappointed. They searched and searched…until finally, Rodrigo had that hunch about looking near water. That's where he found a mate tree.

Rodrigo: Fue un momento mágico que nunca voy a olvidar. Creo que, en ese momento, la suerte nos acompañaba. Ahora es tiempo de trabajar duro para rescatar la planta completamente.

Martina: Rodrigo and his colleagues were thrilled with their discovery. Restoring mate to their property would be part of their project to create a protected reserve on the mountain. For Rodrigo, the environmental impact of growing mate was more important than the commercial output.

Rodrigo: Yo sé que nos irá bien con la yerba mate; nos tiene que ir bien. Confío en esos árboles porque son muy resistentes. Lo más importante de este proyecto es que aprendamos muchísimo y les daremos un gran ejemplo a nuestros hijos.

Martina: In the fall of 2017, Rodrigo and the rest of the community gathered on the mountain for their first harvest. They knew they would have to work fast.

Rodrigo: Cuando terminamos de cortar las plantas, un trabajo difícil, pero muy gratificante, solo nos quedaban 48 horas para iniciar el proceso de sapecado. Esa es la técnica tradicional que aprendimos en Paraguay.

Martina: For two days, they harvested, then everyone gathered for the traditional drying process that Rodrigo and his friends had learned from the Guayakí. They dried the mate leaves over a fire made of a special kind of native wood.

Rodrigo: Esa es una experiencia físicamente difícil. Hay que invertir mucha energía en la yerba, pero siento que esa misma energía regresa cuando tomo mate. Fue muy emocionante ver cómo todos en la comunidad dimos lo mejor y trabajamos juntos.

Martina: With that first harvest, they were able to produce an organic mate with a slightly smoky flavor.

Rodrigo: Estamos muy contentos con esta yerba. Ahora queremos compartirla con todos los uruguayos.

Martina: For Rodrigo, growing mate is part of a new kind of life. One that combines modern living with important ancient traditions. On a recent Sunday afternoon, Rodrigo’s children were playing outdoors at the farm while he and his wife drank mate under a huge tree.

Rodrigo: Cuando decidí cambiar de vida, solo tenía una imagen en mi cabeza: estos mismos momentos en familia disfrutando de la naturaleza.

Martina: Rodrigo Patrón is bringing mate production back to Uruguay after more than a century without almost any domestic cultivation.

This story was produced by Inés Ulanovsky, a journalist and writer based in Buenos Aires.

We'd love to know what you thought of this episode! You can write us an email at podcast@duolingo.com or call and leave us a voicemail or audio message on WhatsApp, at +1-703-953-93-69. Don’t forget to say your name and where you’re from!

Martina: Here’s a message from Winnie, in Colorado.

Winnie: Hello my name is Winnie Ortiz from Colorado, the US. I just finished listening to your podcast, “Leaving Venezuela.” And it brought back a lot of memories of me and my family moving from Hong Kong to the US back in 1996. I really love languages — Cantonese being my first language, and I also speak English and Mandarin. And I wanted to learn to Spanish because I am going to travel to Peru with my husband later this year and I want to be able to speak on my own instead of depending on him. I find it much easier to learn it from the app, and I enjoy it very much. So thank you so much, you’re doing a great job, thank you.

Martina: Thanks for your message, Winnie! Have a great time in Peru!

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The Duolingo Spanish podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. I’m the executive producer, Martina Castro. ¡Gracias por escuchar!

Credits

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Producer: Inés Ulanovsky
Narrator & Protagonist: Rodrigo Patrón
Senior Editor: Stephanie Joyce
Managing Editor: David Alandete
Mixed by: Andy Fechtenholtz
Production Manager: Román Frontini
Assistant Producer: Caro Rolando
Sound Design & Mastering Engineer: Antonio Romero
Executive Producer/Host: Martina Castro