This Farmer Is Fighting for the Future of Tequila
Tequila is more popular than ever, but the art of harvesting agave is in decline. Meet Antonio González Magallanes, one of the jimadores who are preserving this centuries-old tradition.
Text & photos—Ayesha Habib
Antonio González Magallanes starts his day at three in the morning. The sky is still heavy with darkness as he prepares hot tea sweetened with agave nectar. A terrain of blisters and scars mark the strong hands that hold his steaming mug. These are the hands of a jimador: an agave farmer of Mexico’s tequila-making industry.
Jimadores have tended to Jalisco’s arid desert fields for centuries, perfecting the craft of harvesting agave by hand—a craft that still endures today. But as tequila demand soars higher and jimadores become increasingly rare, the future of this tradition is uncertain.
Gradients of pink lighten the sky as Magallenes drives his truck to the agave fields in Tequila, a commute of two hours. The town’s namesake volcano, Volcán de Tequila, hugs the horizon in the distance, and the signature turquoise of the agave leaves burst into colour across the desert-brown fields.
A jimador’s work starts at dawn and ends around ten in the morning, to avoid the blaring sun of day. In those six hours, Magallanes and his team of forty men must tend to between 3,000 and 3,500 agaves each across 4,800 hectares of land. They’ll each drink between ten to 13 litres of water in that time and fill about three truckloads of ripe agave per jimador.
The art of agave harvesting is a practice in patience. The plant takes about seven years to mature. Sharp, spiky succulent-like leaves sprout from the ground as the heart of the agave—the piña or core—ripens underneath the soil.
Jimadores routinely trim the tips of the sharp leaves each year to ensure the sugars are condensed in the piña, which can reach anywhere between eighty to 300 pounds once they’ve reached maturity and resemble a large pinapple. The piña’s are then unearthed and cooked in large ovens where the sugars are extracted, fermented, and finally distilled to make tequila.
In the heavy heat, Magallanes demonstrates how to dig out a piña. A pristine white shirt hangs over his massive shoulders and hairy chest as he swings a flat-bladed hoe called a coa, the primary tool for a jimador, through an agave plant, sending bits of leaves flying in the air around him.
It takes him less than 30 seconds to cut out the plant—a dexterity acquired from 30 years of experience. His leathery face splits into a coy smile when he shares his personal record of extracting 4,500 agaves in six hours.
Four centuries of tradition
Like most jimadores, Magallanes was taught by his father, who brought him to work in these same Jose Cuervo fields when he was just thirteen. Jimadores are usually an inherited vocation—Magallanes is third in a line of Jose Cuervo jimadores, and his kids, too, will follow the tradition.
“It’s not an easy job,” he says through a translator, but it pays more than other manual labour jobs in Mexico. Pay, however, is typically contingent on the amount of agave produced by each jimador. “How much you make depends on how much you do,” he says.
Still, the craft is distinct and takes time to learn properly. Wrong moves can lead to injury. He lifts his pant leg to show off a silver scar, about six inches long, across his ankle: coa’s are sharper than they look. Magallanes recalls one jimador who lost three fingers from a coa accident.
The jimador’s process has largely remained unchanged since its inception 400 years ago; there’s no machine that can match the exactitude of their touch—right now, at least.
But jimadores like Magallanes are becoming increasingly rare as younger generations are less inclined to follow their fathers. And yet, tequila demand has been rising steadily, especially in North America—a trend supported by the pandemic-influenced liquor boom.
The tequila industry is projected to earn $24 billion by 2031. But since agaves take years to mature, supply hasn’t been able to keep up with rampant demand. Boom and bust cycles are natural in the tequila world, but the loss of jimadores could change this industry forever.
While the job is still viewed and respected as a distinct Mexican tradition, young people are more likely to head to a city for work these days. Still, Magallanes is steadfast in promoting the job to new blood: six years ago, he opened up a school to train new jimadores. These days, he says, many new jimadores come from non-jimador families—a break in the typical generational tradition.
Being a jimador is a source of pride for Magallanes. He wants to pass the role down to his kids and beyond. Despite the physical toll, it relaxes him; “I feel good with God,” he says.
Magallanes’ work ends before the sun reaches its hottest. The sky is a cloudless brilliant blue; the 30 degree heat tingles your skin. A jimador’s day concludes with a feast. The team has each brought something to share: pork, chicken, beans, rice, and, of course, tortillas. They heat the food over a fire and sit together to eat. The tradition, for now, continues.
Ayesha Habib is a writer and photographer with an interest in culture, environmental issues, and people. As a generalist, her reporting has ranged from meme culture to the opioid crisis. Her work has taken her from Uganda to Utah. Find her byline in AFAR, NUVO, Montecristo, Narcity, and more.