Drinking mate is intimately woven through most of my memories of my time in Mendoza. Looking back, mate is sitting on the picnic blanket next to my IFSA friends and me as we sit in Plaza Independencia and journal together during sunny afternoons. It comes along in the car with us when we head to the nearby lake for a day of kayaking and picnicking. I see all the families sharing it when I go for walks through the park near my house. It gets passed around the table at the hostel as we plan our next activities in a new city.
Getting into the habit of drinking mate made me feel “Argentine”—I loved surprising locals by drinking it amargo (bitter, without sugar), and for always being the one in my group of friends to whip it out halfway through a long class. But drinking mate is so much more meaningful than just a cool Argentine practice this gringa picked up during her time abroad. It has a real cultural significance—something that was explained to us during the IFSA-sponsoredSpanish language class through the following poem:

Mate is not a drink.Well, yes…it is. It’s a liquid, and it goes right through the mouth.
But, it’s not a drink. In this country nobody drinks mate because that person is “thirsty.”
It’s more of a habit, like scratching yourself.

Mate is exactly the opposite of television: It makes you chat if you’re with someone, and it makes you think when you’re alone.

Whenever somebody arrives at your house, the first thing that is said is, “Hello,” and the second is “¿unos mates?” (Would you like to drink some mates?).
This happens in everyone’s house. In the house of the rich and of the poor.
This happens among chatty and curious women and also among serious and immature men, as well.
This happens among the old people who live in nursing homes and among the adolescents while they study or get high.

It’s the only thing that parents and children share without having arguments about it.
Peronists and radicals, they share mate without hesitating an instant.

In winter or in summer.

It’s the only thing in which is similar to victims and murderers; the good and the bad.

When you have a child, you immediately give them a mate when they ask for it. You give it to them rather warm, with lots of sugar and as soon as they receive it they feel as if they are also adults. You feel such a tremendous pride when a little fellow who shares your blood starts to drink mate.It almost makes your heart beat harder, so hard that you feel afraid it will come out of your chest.

Then they with the years, he/she will chose whether to drink amargo or dulce; hot or tereré; with some tangerine peel or with different herbs, or even perhaps with a little lemon.

When you meet someone for the first time, you drink some mates with that person. People ask, when there’s not much confidence with each other: “Dulce or amargo?And the other answers: “como tomes vos,” (As you wish).

Keyboards in Argentinahave their words full of yerba mate.

Yerba is probably the only thing that is always in every home. Always. With inflation, or hunger, during military coup d’états or while democratic governments, during every of our pests and eternal curses. And if one day, we run out of Yerba, a neighbor won’t hesitate to give you some; because Yerba Mate can’t be denied to anyone.

This is the only country in the world in which the decision to stop being a kid and start being a man happens on one particular day.
It has nothing to do with long trousers, circumcision, university or living far away from your parents. Here we start being adults when we feel the necessity of drinking some mates by ourselves, alone. It’s not a coincidence.
The day the child puts the kettle in the fire and drinks his first mate without anyone being at home, in that minute; that means he just found that he has a soul. Or he’s dead of fright, or incredibly in love, or something else; but it’s not an average day. None of us remember the day we drank mate all by ourselves for the first time. But that day was probably a very important day for us, because inside us there’s some kind of a revolution going on.

Mate is nothing more and nothing less than a demonstration of values…
It’s the solidarity to keep on drinking those mates lavados because the chat is good.
The chat, not the mate.

It’s the respect for the times of speaking and the times of listening, you speak while the other drinks (i.e. listens).
It’s also the sincerity of saying: “enough, let’s change this yerba!”
It’s friendship.
It’s a boiling water sensibility.
It’s the tenderness of stupidly asking, “it’s really hot, isn’t it?”
It’s the modesty of whom makes the best mate.
The generosity of drinking it to the last drop.
It’s the hospitality of an invitation.
The justice of one by one.
It’s the obligation of saying “gracias” (thank you), at least once a day
It’s the moral attitude, and loyalty of finding each other with no more expectations than that of sharing.

By: Lalo Mir
Translated by: Victor Thea & Mateo Askaripour

Reading and discussing this poem in class helped me to understand what mate stood for in Argentine culture. During the rest of my time as a mate drinker in Argentina, this herbal drink led me to have a more selfless and generous experience. I felt that sometimes, it was easy to be self-focused while living abroad—I knew that this time was for me to explore and grow as an individual, but sometimes that independence led to isolation. It was the act of sitting with others and sharing a matecito that centered me as a member of a community.
When you drink mate with a group of friends, you engage in conversation: while sharing mate I learned about a Chilean friend’s experience attending university in Argentina, I learned that my host mom gave her children mate with milk when they were younger, I learned what my IFSA friend missed most about home, and I learned about a local friend’s opinion of the U.S. In this way, mate was my “way in”—my entry point into engaging in community with the people who made my study abroad experience so profoundly wonderful.
Sharing mate led to sharing stories, and sharing stories led to building relationships. As a busy college student here in the U.S., I was worried that as soon as I returned to my normal life, I would miss out on those precious opportunities to spend quality time with friends. Once again, mate was the answer. Now, mate serves as an entry point to slow down in my relationships, and selfishly, it provides me an opportunity to share more about my experience in Argentina! Sipping mate brings me right back to my favorite Mendozan memories, and enjoying it with friends reminds me of what that city taught me.
Leah Moat is a student at Gustavus Adolphus College and studied abroad with IFSA on the Mendoza Universities Program in Mendoza, Argentina in spring 2017.