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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Mexico has tequila. Peru, pisco. In Colombia, a push for viche, now legal.

Ana Copete, the director of the Petronio Álvarez Pacific Music Festival, in Cali, Colombia on Aug. 14, 2022.

By Genevieve Glatsky and Julie Turkewitz

As a child, Lucía Solís watched her family bury a stash of cherished but prohibited cane sugar liquor, called viche, in the woods, fearful of police seizures and even arrest.

Yet here she was this past August surrounded by bottles of various types of viche, its liquid the color of amber or cream or crystal, and she was swamped by customers eager for a now-legal taste.

She was selling her own brand of the liquor at a stand at one of the largest celebrations of Afro-descendant culture in Latin America, the Petronio Álvarez Pacific Music Festival, where 350,000 visitors turn a broad swath of the city of Cali, Colombia, into a giant party.

“Sixth generation!” shouted Solís, 56, straining to be heard over the sounds of deep bass drums and melodic marimba as she explained that she was just one in a long line of women to produce viche. “My grandmother, my great-grandmother, my great-great-grandmother. The ancestors!”

Viche, made of distilled sugar cane, was invented by formerly enslaved people in the region around Colombia’s Pacific coast and gained popularity as the homegrown response to the monopoly held by the government on cane liquor — becoming a sort of Colombian moonshine.

It is distinct from other cane sugar liquors, including Colombian aguardiente, because the sugar cane must be grown next to the sea or a river and alongside other crops native to the region that producers say give viche its distinct smoky-citrus taste.

Outlawed for generations, viche (pronounced VEE-chey) became a symbol of the long-standing exclusion of Black culture from Colombia’s national narrative — its ban further evidence, according to critics, that the country was failing to recognize the community’s many contributions.

The Petronio Álvarez festival is a powerful response to any attempt to ignore or dismiss Colombia’s Afro-descendant culture. Named after a musician who celebrated that culture in his songs, it began in 1997 as a music event and has grown into a blend of a regional reunion, fashion week, a series of master chef contests, a dance festival and one of the most important concerts of the year.

For some, annual attendance is tradition, akin to a cultural pilgrimage. (Petronio, as the event is commonly called, went virtual in 2020 amid the pandemic, and took place in a reduced format last year.)

The festival itself takes place inside an open-air sports complex, where a music contest that is sort of the Colombian Idol of the Pacific coast this year awarded one of its biggest prizes to the band La Jagua.

But its legendary after-party spills into Cali’s streets, and this year there was a special appearance by Francia Márquez, the country’s first Afro-Colombian vice president, who, fresh off a series of visits with South American presidents, appeared on a balcony, waving and blowing kisses to a crowd chanting her name.

After generations in which Black Colombians were mostly excluded from the highest echelons of national politics, Márquez’s recent political rise — she was born into deep poverty, then became a lawyer and environmental activist before winning the vice presidency — has electrified many voters.

At the festival, Afro-Colombian food and drink is an essential part of the scene, and viche is the only alcohol permitted at the event. Vendors attempting to sell beer are escorted away by security.

Viche’s elevated role at the festival is all the more remarkable considering its outlaw history.

But in 2019, the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that a law providing protection for ancestral beverages in Indigenous communities must also apply to Afro-Colombian ones. This paved the way for Congress to legalize viche and declare it the collective heritage of the Afro-Pacific people.

Last year, viche was granted status as a cultural heritage product.

Now, Solís and others are part of a push to convince Colombians beyond the Pacific to embrace viche as a cultural emblem of the entire country.

“Mexico has tequila, Peru has pisco, Scotland has whisky,” said Manuel Piñeda, president of the regional chapter of the Colombian Association of Bars. “We have viche.”

The aim, he said, is to ultimately go global.

“It is very important for us to respect those grandparents who brought it to this moment,” he said. “But we want the world to know this story.”

The festival’s prevailing mood is one of exuberance and cultural pride, and attendees of all races and ethnicities are welcome.

Viche is everywhere. In bottles at small stands. Poured into plastic sample cups. Sold out of coolers at concerts. Tucked into pockets and backpacks. Passed among new friends. Celebrated in an entire pavilion with more than 50 viche-producing families, called vicheras.

“A drink so charged with symbolism, with values, seems delicious to me,” said Neila Castillo, 68, who stood by Solís’ stand, sampling viches with a college friend, Marta Espinosa, 67. They tucked bottles of clear white viche puro into their bags to enjoy later.

In 2008, viche became the festival’s official drink when organizers made the bold decision to market it during the event as part of an “awareness exercise,” even though it was still illegal, said Ana Copete, the festival’s director and granddaughter of its namesake. At the time, viche was granted informal protection under the framework of the event, she said, and vendors were allowed to sell their products without interference from authorities.

Viche represents the only income for many families in the Pacific region of Colombia, and in 2018, Copete launched a collaborative effort with producers and local organizations to put viche legalization on the public agenda.

The group soon secured support from Colombia’s Ministry of Culture and other policymakers who saw the economic potential of the beverage.

“It has been a struggle to keep it alive, to keep the tradition from disappearing,” Copete said. Its prominent presence at the festival, she added, “allows other people who are not from the Pacific to know this drink and to know what it represents, to consume it — that helps the vichera families.”

Solís grew up with the drink as part of daily life in Buenaventura, a Pacific port city about 70 miles from Cali. It was taken not only as a spirit but also as a traditional medicine used to aid childbirth, cleanse wounds, soothe menstrual cramps and treat infertility.

When she was 7, her aunt told her that she was going to instruct her in local knowledge more than 300 years old. She would cover the child’s eyes with a scarf and teach her to identify plants only by their fragrance.

Solís was one of the first vicheras to have her company, Seeds of Life, registered with the country’s commerce authority, even before it was declared an “intangible cultural heritage of the nation.”

When she found out about the registration, she cried, jumped, shouted, hugged her son and gave thanks to God. The feeling, she said, was indescribable.

Legalizing and honoring viche, she said, “was a tremendous joy because it is a struggle of many.”

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