Agave Festival Marfa distilled to 3-day event

MARFA – Agave Festival Marfa returns June 25 to 27 to celebrate the agave plant, its cultural influence and its connection to the Chihuahuan Desert by serving up a potent cocktail of history, culture, ecology, binationalism and tequila. While the event took a year off in 2020, organizer Tim Johnson has revived the festival in a pared-down form that invites locals to join in on a weekend of free programming.

Johnson began the festival after hearing a Marfa Public Radio piece on the agave lechuguilla plant, an indicator species for the Chihuahuan Desert. “I thought that was a very beautiful idea in a culture that is defined by all kinds of national and ethnic forms of division,” he said. 

The plant grows on both sides of the border in the Chihuahuan Desert, and actually helps scientists better understand and diagnose the health of the ecosystem. “The same story was telling me that climate change had reduced the population of agave lechuguilla significantly over 30 to 40 years. I also learned that agave lechuguilla had been a significant part of indigenous culture in our area for many thousands of years. Immediately I felt the incredible power of this single plant.”

Earlier this month, Johnson quietly announced the festival’s return, offering a three-day gathering of live music, talks, food and a hefty serving of agave spirits. Last time Marfa hosted the festival, it was a 10-day affair, but this year’s shortened event will cater mostly to local and regional guests who are passionate or curious about agave plants and spirits.

“Many of the guests scheduled for 2020 were coming from central, western and southern Mexico, because I want the festival to be binational in nature. The core of agave culture, which includes the American Southwest, is definitely in historical Mesoamerica, a lot of which today is Mexico.” But with travel at the U.S.-Mexican border still being restricted as a vestige of COVID regulations, Johnson feels like he can’t fully honor the binational nature of the festival.

Johnson considers himself an enthusiast, so he relies on experts in the botanical, cultural and spirit history of the plant to put on an educational and entertaining event. 

This year, spirit makers will offer public tastings, five border journalists will have a round table on agave, and to kick off the weekend, local agronomist and landscape designer Jim Martinez will converse with Rainer Judd and Bertha Gonzalez Nieves of Tequila Casa Dragones about the importance of public spaces and native plants in Judd Foundation’s newly unveiled public agave garden. 

Drinks and revelry will round out the weekend, with celebrations at The Sentinel, The Pool, Para Llevar and other to-be-announced locations. Claudia Saenz, founder of Chulita Vinyl Club, will be doing a special DJ set, joined by two local DJs, Yasmine Guevara and Tana Vargas, on Saturday night.

Johnson is looking forward to the outdoor gathering at the USO Building’s Visitor Center Pavilion where a group of all-Latino journalists with decades of experience in their field will discuss agave, the border and the binational changes they have perceived over the past six years, including the Trump presidency and the pandemic, but also the years leading up to it.

“I grew up in Texas, I was educated in Texas, there are things I know about Texas which are very important to me,” Johnson said. “All of that still left me far, far short of understanding in a more deep historical and cultural way where I come from.”

“It’s my own sense of wanting to know where I am more deeply and a sense that I am alienated from that culture. I think there’s a lot of things that are responsible for that alienation, but I want to undo it to the extent that I can. I think a lot of people feel that way.” For him, the festival is a way to connect experts, enthusiasts and those curious to learn a little more about the thousands of years of human history in the Chihuahuan Desert.

“Policing the border by both the U.S. and Mexico, and the Spanish before the Mexicans, has divided the actual communities of indigenous people living in this area in the 18th, 19th and 20th century and even today,” Johnson believes. “To survive, a lot of those people had to hide aspects of their culture or cloak them in different ways. I think by talking about agave, it helps to bring back the ways that these cultures continued in new forms and also how they continue in old forms, but how they nonetheless exist under contemporary forms of contestation, and really, frankly, forms of oppression, both in the United States and Mexico. I obviously am just an Anglo person, but I definitely know that this is a part of where I live and, honestly, who I am. So I’m trying to figure out how to be a part of that conversation.”

Agave Festival Marfa begins Friday, June 25. Visit www.agavemarfa.com for a full schedule.