BARRIO — 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 August surrounded by bottles of various types of viche, its liquid the colour 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.
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 longstanding 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.
It’s 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, Ms. 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, Ms. 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 Pineda, president of the regional chapter of the Colombian Association of Bars. “We have viche.”
The aim, he said, is to ultimately go global.
Source: The New York Times