In the north-western highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, Armando Acevez is a jimador, or cultivator of the blue Weber agave plants whose nectar is the lifeblood of the lucrative tequila industry. The craft of the agave harvest, still done entirely by hand, has remained virtually unchanged since around 1600 when tequila was first invented by the Spanish conquistadors. It is also one that has traditionally remained in families, with each generation teaching the next, ensuring that the mechanisation of the tequila harvest has been kept at bay. Yet traditions of the jimador, a figure still cloaked in romantic mystique in literature and even Mexican telenovelas, are slowly disappearing. While the demand for high-quality tequila is rising year on year, with the industry worth over $1bn and seven out of 10 litres produced now exported worldwide, the younger male generations who would once have taken on the mantle of their fathers to become jimadores are turning away from the agricultural way of life in droves.
“Almost every man in my family has been a jimador, going back generations, it is a tradition,” says Acevez. “As long as I can harvest I will keep being a jimador. But most of the jimadores now are old people because none of the young people want to work on the harvest. You find a few young jimadores but there are less and less. I do think we need to start worrying about the future of the traditions because I see the people who start in the harvest are much older than they used to be. I have a son who is 11 and I would not want him to be a jimador.”
Out in the craggy ground of the agave fields, Acevez works alongside a team of about a dozen jimadores, including his brother and his nephew, hacking skilfully at the cores of the succulent – known as piñas because they look like large pineapples – to remove the bitter leaves. Once harvested, these hearts are taken to the nearby Patrón distillery, where they will be cooked, crushed and fermented to become premium tequila.