At any given time of day, yellow cans and bottles of Yerba Mate accompany Occidental students to and from their daily activities. Its bright colors and the “Yerb-mobile” — Chevy Volt delivery vehicles wrapped in the Yerba Mate logo — are common sights on campus. The caffeinated tea, available on campus through vending machines, the Tiger Cooler and the Green Bean, is a version of the traditional South American tea known simply as “mate,” distributed by a California company named Guayakí.
Since the tea, colloquially known by Occidental students as “Yerba,” came to campus a little over 10 years ago, it has been a constant companion of Occidental students, according to Robert Starec, the Associate Director of Campus Dining. Starec also notes that Occidental has been serving the bottled version of Yerba Mate since the company started.
“We probably go through at least 80 to 100 cases per week,” Starec said. “And each case is 12 units [cans] per case. So it’s quite popular.”
Traditional mate, also known as “tereré” when served cold, has been around for centuries, serving as a staple drink in countries such as Paraguay and Argentina, according to The National Institution of Yerba Mate. The indigenous Guarani people were the first group to cultivate the leaves. Made from the holly (Ilex paraguariensis) plant, mate is often drunk out of a gourd. The drink is rich in benefits, containing many vitamins and a powerful compound known as chlorogenic acid, a strong antioxidant. For many people in South America, the drink holds much historical significance as the Guarani people used mate as “drink, cult and currency in their exchanges with other prehistoric cultures.”
Professor Gloria Orozco, an associate professor of Spanish and French studies, compared the tradition of mate in South America and its current form in the U.S. to the criminalization of the coca plant in Colombia. The coca plant has been sacred in South America, specifically Colombia, dating back to ancient Latin American civilizations. Coca has been used for medicine, religious practices and food. Unfortunately, the cultivation of the coca leaf has been criminalized and production persecuted without regard for its traditional significance, often targeting poor farmers who have no other means of income, according to Orozco.
Yerba mate’s powers have been translated into popular energy drinks enjoyed by college students across the U.S. According to Hannah Huang (junior), a Tiger Cooler employee, this means restocking cans of Yerba Mate every shift. She says most people buy the drink at lunchtime or during the nighttime rush hour around 9 P.M.
“When Guayakí was first introduced to us, it was advertised as being a product designed by college students, for college students,” Starec said. “They also don’t like to bill themselves as an energy drink, because it’s all natural ingredients. It doesn’t have the carbonation or the chemicals that you find in most energy drinks.”
According to Starec, Yerba is popular because it presents itself as a healthy source of caffeine.
“Every day I will see someone in class with a drink,” Huang said.
However, Huang is not necessarily a fan of the drink herself.
“I’ve only had it twice when I was really stressed and I really needed to keep myself awake. But afterwards, I felt like my heart beat really fast and it just doesn’t feel great,” Huang said.
Guayakí was founded in 1996 by a group of five white men who wanted to bring the product into the U.S. market.
According the Guayakí website, the founders “channeled an activist mentality to pioneer a revolutionary Market Driven Regeneration business model that empowers customers to drive tangible change with every purchase of Guayakí Yerba Mate.”
The founders’ main goal is to give back to South America, specifically the Amazon region, by using their profits to support fair trade and fair working conditions in the Amazon. By 2020, they hope to transport their products without using any fossil fuels, according to Guayakí’s 2017 “Global Impact Report.”
According to a company case study, “by purchasing Guayakí’s Yerba Mate, customers help support reforestation of the South American Atlantic Forest and improve the economic conditions of the farmers and indigenous communities that supply Guayakí.”
A recent company report stated that 81,066 acres of rainforest have been stewarded by Guayakí and they have created 670 living wage jobs related to Yerba Mate production. They are also a Certified B Charitable Corporation with a current “B Impact Score” of 119.8 out of 200.
The product’s popularity has grown over the last few years as Guayakí has introduced themselves to even more college campuses, according to the company’s Global Impact Report. While they remain a privately owned and operated company, their rise within the tea and yerba mate markets has increased to over $60 million in revenue in 2016.
While Guayakí’s influence in the U.S. spreads, traditional mate remains an essential part of South American culture. As Guayakí continues to profit off of the popular tea, its origins seem to have dissolved in the sugary version.
Preserving mate’s historical importance is necessary to understand the bigger picture of Latin American culture, according to Orozco. She said she tries to emphasize this idea in her classes.
“It’s part of the ritual, it is crucial to their culture and their system of knowledge,” Orozco said. “To me it’s important to understand the history [of traditional products] because it gives that [context], and then it becomes really interesting.”
In terms of Guayakí’s production and the employment of workers from the indigenous Aché and Marrecas communities, there are costs and benefits, according to associate dean and professor of Spanish and French Studies Salvador Fernandez.
The idea reminded him of the song, “Sixteen Tons,” about a coal miner in debt who feels owned by the coal mine.
“They artificially create towns, or they come into a well established town, and they drain the material. Then once they’re no longer producers and there are no more materials, then the town dies,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez also called upon the misrepresentation of products such as yerba mate in consumer-driven images.
“The marketing in the image, and the ideas behind those images, the images that we consume, I think that’s really important to critically analyze how those products are represented,” Fernandez said.
For both professors, the cultural exchange of traditions across countries is valuable and should continue. Fernandez believes the introduction of new commodities through migration is a cultural transaction, especially when trading or sharing skills.
Not all see Guayakí’s Yerba Mate as a medicinally beneficial drink.
“I’d never had it until I was at Occidental,” said Peter Bird (junior), an avid consumer of Yerba Mate. “They seem like they are like soda with a lot of caffeine.”
Compared to energy drinks, Yerba Mate does not seem as harmful to Bird, but he said he sees drinking mate as a means of becoming more awake. In terms of work, Bird does not see a huge difference in output.
“I’ll get all caffeinated, energized and then find myself not even getting that much done. I don’t think it automatically means that you focus a bunch or are super productive,” Bird said.
Meanwhile, Starec appreciates Yerba’s energizing qualities.
“If I’m feeling a little down or it’s particularly long day, you know, it does provide the boost that I need while still being refreshing,” Starec said.
As Guayakí continues to employ indigenous workers and remain a charitable presence in the Amazon, for Orozco, it is important to recognize the power dynamic between Guayaki and local communities. While the company is helping underprivileged areas, they are still exercising control over the Aché and Marrecas populations.
“[Villages] want the exchange,” Orozco said. “I mean, I’m sure [Guayaki is] trying to do the right thing.”
For students at Occidental, the exchange often takes place at the Cooler.
“One pattern that is true is that it’s rare to see a student go through the cashier without having Guayakí,” Starec said.