In the midst of political, religious, national, and personal battles, there is one thing that unites all Argentines: Mate.
Mate (pronounced máh-teh), despite what you may have heard, is not an herbal green tea. That makes it sound sissy. It is a tea-like drink made from a green-colored yerba (herb), but it is much more robust than tea. For Argentines, mate is the very heart of life.
Mate is drunk by the old and young, rich and poor, Peronists and Radicals, parents and children, among students while they study, during winter and summer. After years of conflict, Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner greeted the new Pope Francis with . . . a beautiful mate set—el “mate de la paz”—after which the pope asked her to stay for lunch with “unos mates” to follow.
“A longstanding Vatican protocol forbids the Pope being seen consuming anything but the Eucharist,” as Rocco Palmo noted on the occasion, but that did not stop Francis from being photographed enjoying the drink.
A text on mate given to me by a friend puts it this way (my translation):
When you meet someone for the first time, you drink mate. People ask, if they’re unsure: “Sweet or bitter?” The other responds: “However you take it.” The cracks in the keyboards in Argentina are filled with yerba. Yerba is the only thing that is always around, in every house. Always. With inflation, with hunger, with militaries, with democracy, with whichever of our eternal plagues and curses. And if one day there is no yerba, a neighbor has some and he’ll offer it. Yerba is denied to no one.
Everyone I know from Argentina proudly emphasizes the inclusivity of mate. In the hymn “Argentina Comparte el Mismo Pan” mate is even likened to the Eucharist:
Nos dicen qué es la Iglesia:
como un gran Río, el fluir lento de una esperanza.
Y qué es la Eucaristía:
como en el mate, no hay excluidos y siempre alcanza.
They tell us this is the Church:
Like a great river, the gentle flowing of hope.
And that this is the Eucharist:
Like mate, no one is excluded and there is always enough.
There is even a “Lady of Good Mate,” recognized by John Paul II on May 1, 1993 when he declared, “With all our hearts we grant the implored Apostolic Blessing, under the auspices of Nuestra Señora Gaucha del Mate.” The special prayer to María del Buen Mate asks her to “Teach us to drink mate . . . that mate may be good news, a song of friendship, a way of loving and giving life.”