The Peruvian Mate Cup


Mate symbolize social interaction for South Americans. It is a traditional way to gather and share moments. During the extended lockdown, my mate cup became my only mate, taking me back to memories of my people and my country, Peru. Here, I reflect on how objects in such circumstances can shift their value for us.

 “yet another morning goes by, and I still feel like I have been anchored to this white-walled home-island where time seems to have stopped. I look through the window and slightly feel the warmth of the sun on my face while holding the colorful fabric of my Peruvian mate cup”.

As my fingers started to follow the shape of the Machu Picchu leather print, I remembered how my mate cup and I met. Our story began in a handcraft Indian market in Lima city.  Back in 2018, I was moving overseas, so I was looking for a Peruvian souvenir to bring with me as a way to have something from my culture anywhere I would be. After looking in many stalls, chatting, and unsuccessfully bargaining with Rosa, owner of a small stall and mother of 4 kids, I found a suitable and beautiful piece: my Peruvian mate cup.  And, as a mate-drink lover, I was directly convinced to buy it. 

Ronda de mates. Photo captured by Adriana Torchia

In comparison with the traditional and most common mate cups, which are equivalent to calabash gourds, my mate cup is a ceramic piece customized with a wrapped colorful typical Peruvian fabric, which carries the vibrant rainbow colors of the Cusco flag, a famous city from Peru, and the capital of the Inca empire back then.  It also has a Machu Picchu toasted-brown leather print surrounded by a slogan written in Spanish, which says “maravilla del Mundo” (world wonder). 

The Ritual of Drinking Mate

Typically, to drink mate, people fill the cup with the characteristic pale green color yerba mate, made out of chopped leaves of the Ilex Paraguariensis tree (a typical South American tree from some regions of Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, and Uruguay). While pouring some hot water into the cup, a unique aroma arises from the yerba; a mixture of wood, tobacco, dry herbs, and cacao. The bombilla is a special metal straw to sip the drink that has an oval opening on the top, whereas its bottom is closed and has particular tiny holes to filter the drink from the soaked leaves. The mate has a unique sour, earthy, and bitter taste with hints of herbal flavor.

Porter (1950) states that mate was firstly used by Quichuas, Peruvian aborigines (p.37). The author claims that its consumption and use were found in remnants from pre-Columbian tombs in Ancon, close to Lima city (1950, p.37). Mate became popular among South American indigenous to increase resistance to fatigue (1950, p.37). This ritual was observed and adopted by the Spanish when they occupied Paraguay. Later in the 18th Century, yerba mate consumption spread widely across the region, regardless of race and socioeconomic status (Sarreal, 2015, para. 14.). According to Sarreal (2015), elites, Jesuits, slaves, and indigenous valued drinking mate daily (para.14.). Over the course of the years, its significance shifted from a way to avoid fatigue to a social practice embedded in the daily routines. Famous Argentinian writers, like Cortazar, defined mate as “the spared lung for lonely Argentines”, while Borges relates it to “a way to measure empty hours”. 

Drinking yerba mate became a social and cultural activity. Alone or in a group, drinking mate is ceremonial (yerbally, para. 3). Traditionally, by making a ronda de mate (the round of mate), people share the drink repeatedly in a circle and pass the mate gourd on to each other (yerbally, para. 9).  With the circulation of the gourd, round after round, conversation flows, and people cherish the moment to relax with friends, family, co-workers, or even strangers (Sarreal, 2015, para. 2). According to Sarreal (2015), “mate is not only about friendship and conversation”, but also a way to build connections; it is an open invitation to engage with someone new (para. 9). Moreover, this ritual of drinking and sharing the yerba mate can be taken as an inclusive social activity, bringing people together, regardless of the social and economic background (Sarreal, 2015, n.d).

In my case, after moving overseas and settling in Europe, rather than using it as a cup for drinking mate properly, I used it as a decorative item, giving my place a bit of my cultural identity, and as a memory of my roots. Within this period, I had to move twice, meaning also getting rid of stuff and, at the same time, carrying belongings that were still sharing a story with me (including my never-used mate cup).  According to Hoskins (2006), objects are subjects of biography, which developed a life trajectory with us (p.79).  Some pieces have a longer life span than others, as they become entangled in how we interact with them, what is shared, and the kind of value we associate to them in different phases of our life, “its life span resembles that of an individual” (Hoskins, 2006, p.81).

Personal Nostalgia: The Sorrow and joy 

During these last two years, while living in a foreign country, I didn’t experience any symptoms of homesickness until the Covid-19 pandemic reached the West, forbidding me to travel, and the possibility to visit my beloved ones and my culture, as my homeland became unreachable. Stuck in this everlasting period of isolation overseas provoked in me a sense of emptiness, solitude, and worry about how the pandemic was hitting my country so hard. I even dreaded watching the news, fearing to see the number of deaths further increasing. I felt more than ever the need to go back, but I couldn’t and still cannot. 

“This overwhelming homesickness feels deeper than ever, as the possibilities to go back to Peru have vanished and keep vanishing. I think I spend most of my timeless time staring at my mate cup, I keep bonding with the past and wondering about the uncertain future, evoking memories that whisk me away from my cage of walls until I finally feel the warmth of my beloved ones and the connection to my culture”.

Nostalgia comes from a Greek compound consisting of nostos (returning home), and algia (longing).  Boyms (2001) argues that nostalgia does not mean to look back and recall the past as it was, “but to elide, distort, and occlude its realities in the light of what has happened since” (p. xiii).  At this turning point in my life, in this period of great sorrow, hopelessness, and fear, I found in my Peruvian mate cup a companion and a confident, bearing with my emotions and helping me to cope throughout the lockdown. As Barajas et al. state (2020), embodying what words cannot (para. 3); a sense of serenity, a collection of joyful memories, a closeness to my beloved ones, and a whole culture.

According to Harding (2016), to understand how objects are valuable to us, we should note how they are involved in our lives (p. 5). By understanding how we use them, interact with them over years, we can understand their biography as we shared history with them (2016, p.8).  Thus, following Hoskins (2006), as subjects related to us, objects can influence our feelings and emotions (p.76). Like my mate cup, its meaning and value shifted completely, from an aesthetic souvenir object placed in my home to an intimate cup, encouraging me to find moments of levity through our interaction and rediscover the flavor of the yerba mate.  

The Missed Ronda: Dancing with Myself

In Argentina, there is a saying that drinking mate alone is as boring as dancing with your sister (Mendez, 2020, para.9). Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, rondas de mate as an embedded ritual and essential part in the Latin American culture is over.  Next to the restrictions on gathering and the imposed reduction of social contact, the Argentinian Government, for example, literally enforced sanitary disposals to avoid sharing mate cups and bombillas with anyone. 

Many national newspapers from Argentina and Uruguay (La Nación, 2020; La Nueva, 2020; Clarin, 2020) have raised their concerns regarding the risk of erasing this tradition from their culture. La Nueva reported that the practice of sharing the mate is breaking down the identity of their people (Minervino, 2020, para. 4). The restrictions are touching the “good manners” as it looks rude not to share a mate cup “but for now the mate cup is our lonely companion” (Minervino, 2020, para. 4).

Until this pandemic is over, mate drinkers will be “dancing with their sisters”. It remains to see what will be the long-term cultural and societal impact in the post-covid phase. Will this strong mate-culture, as a symbol of unity and community, be able to survive? 

Regarding souvenirs, the tourism industry has been anesthetized, related incomes have been reduced to the minimum or have even vanished for many families.  I wonder how Rosa and her kids have been surviving for almost more than one year, without her main income. 

Finally, we tend to appreciate things only when we have lost them. The freedom to travel and social interaction has been taken for granted, and now is subject to main restrictions. Society has adapted and found alternative activities to cope with the new reality. Time will show which of these new activities will remain and which of the old will come back. Will my mate cup go back to the shelf? 

“Mate?” A film by Awarded best Ibero-American Animation Commissioned Film (2020)

The Author

My name is Lucia Chirinos. I come from Peru. Currently, doing my MA at Maastricht University


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