How Repurposed Agave Is the Key to New Building Projects in Mexico

This nonprofit is creating rain-harvest systems, building libraries, and providing for local families.

Santa Maria Ixcatlan, Oaxaca
The rain-harvest system built by SACRED in Santa Maria Ixcatlan, Oaxaca. | Photo by Alvin Schultz for SACRED
The rain-harvest system built by SACRED in Santa Maria Ixcatlan, Oaxaca. | Photo by Alvin Schultz for SACRED

Lou Bank holds a captive audience of 15 to 20 Latinos at Comercio Popular, a store in Chicago’s Little Village—a predominantly Mexican neighborhood, on the South West side. The store is a cultural hub and has self-described “made in Mexico vibes.” Except Bank is not Mexican. He is white and he has earned the respect of a number of community members due to his commitment to Mexican culture.

Bank is the founder of Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education and Development (SACRED), a nonprofit organization working to reverse the damage done to rural Mexican communities as a result of the worldwide interest in agave spirits, such as tequila and mezcal.

“What we do with SACRED is to go to a community, ask what their problems are, and ask what their ideas are for solutions,” Bank says. “Then, if those solutions are things that we can support financially, we do it.”

The organization began in 2017 when Bank was contacted by SiKanda, a non-governmental, sustainable development group in Santa Maria Ixcatlan, Oaxaca. The organization asked if he could use 10,000 seedlings of tobala agave—a small, rare plant that takes about 12 to 15 years to mature and produces a highly fragrant mezcal—grown by a local school.

“When you ask what mezcaleros need the most, they tell you agave,” Bank remembers. “We knew we had to get them agave.”

Bank purchased the seedlings at $1 per seed, three times the current market rate value, and gifted them to local families in the area. He acknowledges that this not an immediate solution due to the years it takes for an agave plant to mature. But it does create an opportunity for the people native to the land to have a stake in a growing worldwide market, and Bank continues to purchase seedlings from the school in Oaxaca, which acts as an economic stimulant for the community.

Since SACRED launched, more than 35,000 agave seedlings have been donated to families in Oaxaca, who are struggling to access the plants they need. “And I want to be really clear about this—this is not charity to the school or the community,” says Bank, who receives funding from private donations. “This is literally an economic transaction.”

Agave seedlings
Agave seedlings that were donated to local families. | Photo courtesy of SACRED

The SACRED organization is entirely built around the needs of mezcaleros, who lead Bank from project to project. One mezcalero came to him with a request for help funding a library, but after talking with elders in the community, they felt it was most important to solve the community’s ongoing drought issue—so they asked for help building a rain harvesting system.

The first system was completed in Zaachila during the middle of the pandemic. The second one finished in March, in Santa Maria Ixcatlan—a mezcal community of 500 people. Since then, Bank’s work continues to grow and attract potential partners. The National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago has worked with Bank for a number of years and credits his support for helping expand their reach among new audiences and donors.

“Lou meets the exact needs of the community in order for them to carry out traditions authentic to them, and that’s so impactful,” says Lucia Angel of Luce Ends, a consultancy that assures brands are avoiding cultural appropriation and insensitivity.

While Angel herself is not personally a fan of the divisive spirits brand 818 Tequila, aka Kendall Jenner’s entrepreneurial venture, she was impressed when the brand announced a partnership with SACRED to turn leftover agave fibers, an environmental concern for the spirits industry, into adobe bricks.

The bricks were used for infrastructure projects local to Jenner’s distillery in Jalisco, Guadalajara and 818 funded two additional projects: a library in Zapotitlán and a tasting room (otherwise known by its slang tachica name in Spanish) in southern Jalisco.

The benefactor of the tachica is Don Arturo, a fifth-generation mezcalero from Tuxpan, and it’s being overseen by Chava Periban, and designed by architect Eric Gómez Ibarra of Tierra Cruda. All three are native to the land they’re being hired to build out, develop, and eventually own.

“The solutions to problems like climate change, water insecurity and food insecurity, live within the imaginations of the people who are growing up with multi-generational wisdom, in the very communities affected by these problems,” says Bank. “We need to have more conversations with them to implement their ideas and actually help them execute.”

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Ximena N. Beltran Quan Kiu is a Thrillist contributor, native of Mexico City, and communications specialist based in Chicago.