Growing up with Yerba Mate in Idaho
I don’t remember the first time I had mate. It was surely mate cocido con leche, the tea in a cup that’s more milk and sugar than tea. As a child, I would watch my parents drink the herbal infusion from a gourd or a special cup and a beautiful bombilla they had lovingly brought from Argentina to the United States, which is where we immigrated to. The tea leaves – yerba – was hard to come by in the small town in Idaho where we lived, but eventually became easier to find as the years rolled by.
My mother would tell me that sometimes, when she was done drinking her mate and the straw had cooled down, she let me put the tip of that bombilla into my mouth, so I could pretend to drink it and inhale the beautiful bitter air. I loved doing anything the adults were doing, so this became my version of a “tea party” whenever my mother would allow it. I remember her teaching me how to lick my finger and stick it in the sugar section of the yerba and sugar container, but only when my dad wasn’t looking because he would pretend to get grumpy about it and then we would all laugh.
Pouring culture into my soul
Then one magical day, someone (I can’t remember who, it may have been my mother, it may have been an aunt or my abuelita) arrived from Argentina and brought two child-sized mates; one for me and one for my little brother Pancho. We were so excited to have our own part of the rite of tea, we could barely wait for my mother to cure them for us.
As soon as they were ready, we would have our mother serve us tea as often as possible. We felt so grown, so important. We talked as we assumed the adults did, laughing loudly over jokes we invented like they did, but weren’t as funny as theirs were. Our little hands spilled the tea and my mother was patient with us, knowing she was pouring more than water into our mate: she was pouring culture into our souls. To this day, Pancho and I are still avid mate drinkers and put on the tea kettle whenever we manage to spend time together.
Mate, mi compadre
When I was in high school, my family took in an Argentine who needed a place to stay for a while. He lived in my house and worked at my school and we became buddies. We drank mate every day, morning and night. He taught me to drink it out of a grapefruit. He taught me to drink it with chicory. He taught me that it would be my best friend in college. He was right.
College and beyond, my mate has been my constant companion. From late-night studying to calming my nerves when I was preparing my first big work presentation to sharing a cup with my friends in a guitar circle to sharing a summer’s sunset with me on the porch, to finding a man who actually enjoys drinking mate with me once in awhile and marrying him, to 3am baby feedings, to working out the budget buddy, to traveling the world in my handbag, my mate is my compadre. We’ve been through it all. And we’re going to stick together.