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Tracing the origins of yerba mate

January 31, 2023

ASU professor uncovers history of South America’s most beloved caffeinated beverage

If you browse the energy drink aisle at any grocery store you’ll find a great variety of canned, caffeinated options, including an abundance of coffees, nitro cold brews and sugary carbonated beverages, that can help you feel awake or focused. But in recent years, you may have noticed something different on the shelf — yerba mate.

Portrait of ASU Associate Professor .

Julia Sarreal

Yerba mate is a caffeinated drink with Indigenous origins that is widely consumed in South America, especially in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. The bitter, herbal, tea-like beverage is brewed from the leaves of a native species of holly tree that can be found in the forests of South America.

Over the centuries, the drink’s popularity in Argentina faltered at times as coffee and tea took hold of the caffeinated beverage market. However, because of its unique qualities and distinctive flavor, the beverage has seen a resurgence since the 1980s. In fact, yerba mate is so popular that South American soccer players brought over 1,000 pounds of yerba mate with them to the World Cup in Qatar last year.

Arizona State University Associate Professor Julia Sarreal of the School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies has dedicated years of her career studying and uncovering the origins, production and cultural significance of yerba mate. In her new book, “Yerba Mate: The Drink That Shaped a Nation,” Sarreal shares her findings on the evolution and storied history of the beverage. Here, she discusses her book and the story of South America’s favorite caffeinated beverage.

Question: How did this book come about and how did yerba mate become a topic of interest for you?

Answer: The roots of this project started in 1998 when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Paraguay — that was the first time I was exposed to yerba mate. Everyone drank it, and sharing it was critical to integrating into the community. All of the Peace Corps volunteers learned to drink it. My intellectual fascination with yerba mate was sparked several years later while living in Buenos Aires for doctoral research on a different topic. I was intrigued by the co-existence of yerba mate with the vibrant coffee culture in the city. After finishing my dissertation and turning it into a book, I turned to researching yerba mate.

Trained as a colonialist, I was originally going to do this project about yerba mate in the colonial time. But whenever I spoke with anybody, be it somebody in South America or be it somebody in the United States, and I told them I'm going to be working on yerba mate in the colonial period, they immediately would turn to the present day. So it became very apparent to me that I couldn't just study the colonial period; the evolution of yerba mate to the present day was really interesting to people.

Q: How would you describe yerba mate to those who have never tried or heard of it?

A: It's a caffeinated beverage that comes from the holly family — and it's a tree, not a plant like tea, but it's very similar to tea and coffee, especially with the caffeine; it's a stimulant. In South America, it is very closely tied to national identity. It's a symbol of being Argentine and being from this region of Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and southern Brazil. It's also a social practice in South America — the idea of sharing mate is really important. In South America, a gourd is typically filled with yerba mate, and there's the bombabilla, or special straw. Then you pass it around; it's a shared drink. 

About 10 or 15 years ago, the brand Guayakí came onto the scene in the United States. They started with tea bags, and then they moved to mate lattes and eventually got to the product we see today. … I like to think of it as a healthy energy drink. There's different iterations of yerba mate. There’s the traditional South American version, and then the canned and bottled energy drink is really big with college students, artists and musicians. They're completely different things. 

Q: What makes your research stand out among other research on yerba mate?

A: I look at both the production and the consumption. It's very unique the way that it's consumed, and so people have looked into the folklore surrounding mate: What is the meaning of drinking mate? What is it a symbol of? That's all very important, but on the flip side, I think we also need to study the production of it because the production of it is what makes it possible to buy yerba mate.

It's very inexpensive in South America, and consumers demand it to be so in Argentina. The government has always given subsidies or implemented price controls in order to keep the price of yerba mate accessible to workers. In order to understand how it's inexpensive and the meaning of that, it's important to look at the production. 

Read more: South American drink ritual a window into culture

Q: What was the research process like for your book?

A: For my first book about the Catholic missions among the Guaraní in 18th-century Paraguay, I used a lot of accounting statistics and data analysis in order to figure out what daily life was like for the Guaraní. Given the importance of yerba mate as both a food ration for the native people and a commercialized product that generated large revenues, I already had a lot of the material to start this project. 

My first research trip was a summer trip to Madrid and Seville (funded by an Institute for Humanities Seed Grant) where a lot of documents from the period of Spanish rule are housed. I found some really good materials that gave me a big-picture understanding of the role yerba mate played in the Spanish Empire. But the bulk of the material for the book was obtained in Argentina when a yearlong sabbatical enabled me to immerse myself in my research. I visited various archives, libraries and government ministries, in addition to making several trips to the yerba-producing region in the northeastern part of the country. In the U.S., I received summer fellowships to do research at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University and the Huntington Library in Pasadena. 

The research has been a lot of fun. And, of course, I've found a lot of material on the internet. As historians, we have to kind of be detectives, sleuthing around for information. I'm fortunate that I have been able to travel to a number of places for my research — it has led to a much more comprehensive understanding of yerba mate over time and what it teaches us about Argentina.

Q: How do you incorporate your research on yerba mate into the classroom?

A: I use my research on yerba mate in all of my classes. I find that it fits with most everything. I use it when I teach about food in Latin America, when I teach colonial Latin America, when I teach modern Latin America, and I teach it in my commodities class also. If it's an in-person class, I always come with a suitcase full of yerba mate paraphernalia to show the students.

Before COVID-19, I would share it with everybody; I would first serve it and then I'd have somebody volunteer and they would serve it to the class. Now I bring tea bags to share while I drink it out of the gourd. I pass around the loose leaf so they can smell it and such. Almost every semester I've had a student that's picked up the habit — not just the tea bags or the Guayakí — they use the gourd or they make it in a French press. My students will send me pictures of it if they find it at the supermarket; that’s always fun to see. I think it has a lot of relevance and students appreciate that. 

Sarreal’s book, “Yerba Mate: The Drink That Shaped a Nation,” is on sale online and in bookstores now. Learn more about the book here.

Emily Balli

Manager of marketing and communications , New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences

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O’Connor Justice Prize ceremony honors UN human rights commissioner

January 31, 2023

ASU awards Louise Arbour for her commitment to the rule of law, human rights

Former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Louise Arbour had the honor of receiving the 2023 O'Connor Justice Prize on Jan. 28. 

The award, administered by the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, is inspired by the legacy of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. It is presented to those with a lifelong commitment to the rule of law, judicial independence and human rights. 

Arbour, who is also the former U.N. high commissioner for human rights, is in good company — former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk, both Nobel Peace Prize recipients, are among the previous winners. 

Arbour's legal accomplishments are rare and far-reaching. She has fought for human rights with courage and a certain “chutzpah” that marked her style and contributed to her success. 

In Canada, Arbour battled sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces as well as the country’s prison systems. 

As chief prosecutor for the U.N.’s International Criminal Tribunals (from 1996–99), Arbour secured the first conviction for genocide (in nearly 50 years) during the Rwanda Civil War and brought the first indictment for war crimes against a sitting head of state, Serbia President Slobodan Milosevic. 

“When I reflect on your career, I can't help but see similarities with former Supreme Court Justice O'Connor,” said Barbara Barrett, attorney and diplomat who served as the United States secretary of the Air Force. “You've championed the rule of law and human rights at every level from the community to the nation to globally. And you've done it with grace, fervor and indeed, style.” 

Sandra Day O'Connor was the first woman to lead a state senate, the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court and the first woman to have her name attached to a law school. As Supreme Court Justice, she wrote 645 opinions during her tenure, including 114 cases in which she was the deciding vote.

“I admired her judicial prism,” added Barrett, an ASU alumni who engaged the audience with stories of O’Connor. “She raised three boys, so she saw right through excuses.” 

The evening kicked off with the former Arizona Supreme Court Justice Ruth V. McGregor, who welcomed nearly 125 guests to the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia and recognized members of the O’Connor family, as well as  judges, state officials and Mexican dignitaries. 

Woman speaking at lectern during event

Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law Dean Designate and Regents Professor Stacy Leeds delivers remarks during the 2023 O’Connor Justice Prize event on Saturday, Jan. 28, at the Omni Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Montelucia. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

ASU Law Dean Emeritus Doug Sylvester, who established the O’Connor Justice Prize in 2014, also attended the event. 

The evening was marked by voices from the legal community, including Stacy Leeds, ASU Law's newly appointed dean. Russell Brown, the puisne justice for the Supreme Court of Canada, highlighted the qualities that contributed to Arbour’s success. 

Brown said Arbour's understanding of criminal law at a domestic and international level made her an important presence.

“Arbour had a clarity of analysis that could only be the product of having dug deep and deliberated thoroughly through the issues,” he said.

“She had the admirable and elusive judicial quality of untangling complex issues, cutting through legal bloviation and asking lawyers incisive questions that directed them and her colleagues away from the rhetorical distractions and shiny objects to the heart of the problem for the law, and just as importantly, if not more so to her for the people it serves,” Brown added. 

Like O’Connor, who fought for women’s rights — in the 1970s, she worked to gender neutralize the entire Arizona revised statutes — Arbour also had her eye on injustices toward Canadian women. She investigated an all-male emergency response team that was conducting strip searches of women prisoners at a federal prison. 

Arbour talked about her path to success before delving into deeper questions of law as it relates to interrogation, migration and climate change. 

People greeting Louise Arbor on stage to receive prize

Louise Arbour (second from left) is welcomed to the podium by (from left to right) Ambassador Barbara Barrett, retired Justice Ruth McGregor and Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Russell Brown at the presentation of the 2023 O’Connor Justice Prize, Saturday, Jan. 28, at the Omni Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Montelucia. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Arbour framed her talk around an approach that O’Connor employed, using the words “attractive and unattractive” to diplomatically voice her opinions. 

“The poverty of our moral and ethical thinking in the public discourse is very unattractive,” Arbour said. 

She talked about diversity and inclusiveness as it relates to marginalized groups including women. She discussed stereotypes attributed to women, such as collegiality, empathy and nuance, in contrast to their male counterparts who are seen as more decisive, combative and opinionated.

“To what extent is professionalism and legal training, in our case, one of the great equalizers that overtake gender characteristics?” she asked.

Arbour concluded her talk by juxtaposing “unattractive matters” like the rise in disinformation and polarization with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, which demonstrates the incredible potential in each of us to reach for the stars. 

"As scientists propel us into a better future, I would like to see a rise in the justice sector — that lawyers will continue to apply their remarkable skills in the best tradition of our profession," she said.

“People like Sandra D. O'Connor have paved their way. I'm delighted that you've given me an opportunity to echo her call.” 

Top photo: Louise Arbour listens to a tribute to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor at the presentation of the 2023 O’Connor Justice Prize, which was awarded to Arbour on Jan. 28 at the Omni Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Montelucia. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Dolores Tropiano

Reporter , ASU News