Cultural appropriation of yerba mate

By Lela Gabriela, Contributor

Yerbaé Sparkling Water is a product sold in states across the U.S. including here in Minnesota and even at Augsburg. The website claims it is an “enhanced sparkling water with a blend of yerba mate, white tea extract and guarana tea extract,” and that it is proudly non-GMO as well as sugar- and calorie-free. You’ve likely seen it displayed at Einstein’s and Nabo; it’s the tall black can with a big green, red-eyed tree frog on the front.

The moment I saw it advertised on campus, I felt uncomfortable. I’m a Paraguayan-American citizen, and I have indigenous Paraguayan ancestry (my mom is actually half-indigenous). I was uncomfortable because yerba mate is a plant native to Paraguay, as well as upper Brazil, and parts of Uruguay and Argentina. However, my ancestors, the Guaraní people, were the first known cultivators and users of yerba mate several centuries ago, and the plant was integral to many of their practices and has remained an integral part of Paraguay’s culture. My family and I enjoy it ourselves — my dad even drinks it daily!

Traditionally, yerba mate is enjoyed as a loose-leaf tea which is drank from a gourd with a special metal straw called a bombilla. Depending on where the yerba mate is prepared, the mate could be finer milled and therefore more powdery (like in Uruguay). However, in Paraguay, it is often a bit chunkier. The leaves and stem of the plant are dried and chopped. You fill the gourd almost to the top with this mixture and pour water in, careful not to overflow it. Then you place the bombilla in the center of the mate (don’t swish it around!) placing your finger at the top to make sure no water escapes. Now you can sip and enjoy, pouring water in whenever the leaves dry.

Though the mate can be enjoyed with hot or cold water, I prefer drinking it in its cold form which is referred to as tereré. It’s the best beverage for coping with Paraguay’s hot, dry summers, but my family and I enjoy it this way even in Minnesota’s frigid winters.

Seeing yerba mate used in an American brand as a gimmick is displeasing. While yerba mate is a plant with many health benefits, and is even as caffeinated as coffee, in the U.S. it is often marketed as some new-found miracle plant and is appropriated in a way that does not even acknowledge the culture and history surrounding it. Putting yerba mate in a soda water is not blasphemous, but it is disrespectful to do so without acknowledging mate’s traditional uses or at least where it’s coming from. I scoured Yerbaé’s website and social media accounts for information regarding the origin of their ingredients and recipe, and the most I could find was a brief and frankly patronizing Facebook post saying, “Did you know: Yerba Mate is an herb native to the subtropical highlands of Brazil? Yerbaé transformed this herb to bring you an exotic and tantalizing experience straight to your hands!”

Yikes. Exotic? Really? Never mind the blatant exoticization of Brazil (also never mind the fact that the herb is actually referred to as chimarrão in Brazil), the assertion that this American brand “transformed this herb” is upsetting on its own. A popular example of cultural appropriation is using cultural stereotypes and iconography in Halloween costumes — the white guy with a sombrero and mustache or the white girl with a Native American headdress. White people are not “transforming” anything by appropriating things, but whether it’s meant to be or not, it’s just exploitation.

This article first appeared in the Friday, November 17, 2017, Edition of The Echo.