Staying sober in Mexico City
Anthropologist discovers an AA tradition steeped in Catholicism

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs


book cover

01 May 2002 | When anthropologist Stanley Brandes was invited by his Mexico City shoeshine to attend a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, the longtime scholar of food and drink was a bit surprised, but immediately agreed.

That first visit to Emilio’s AA meeting turned into hundreds, as Brandes conducted a detailed ethnographic study of the AA group – one of thousands flourishing in Mexico and Latin America. In his newly published book, “Staying Sober in Mexico City” (University of Texas Press), Brandes tells the stories of the men he met there.

Brandes says he was intensely curious to learn how AA — which in the United States is generally associated with Protestant faiths and has a significant middle-class clientele — proliferates in a Mexican culture characterized by poverty, ardent Catholicism, and often a hard-drinking machismo.

Mexico’s first Alcoholics Anonymous groups were begun in the 1940s by English-speaking “gringo” residents; some 16 years later, records show just three Spanish-speaking AA groups in the country.

Today it is estimated that Mexico City alone has 1,500 AA groups and about 300,000 members, while Latin America is believed to account for one-third of AA’s membership worldwide.

Throughout Mexico, about 90 percent of AA’s members are male; an interesting thing happens in meetings, Brandes says, as participants redefine what it means to be a man in Mexico City.

“A lot of what goes on in the bars [also] goes on in the meeting rooms,” Brandes says, recalling AA meetings in which men boasted, cantina-style, of their sexual exploits and misbehavior.

Brandes notes that although AA is not allied with any religion, it is often associated with Protestant faiths because of the religion of its founders, its focus on abstinence from drinking and its many references to the Bible. Yet, he said, Mexican AA members have managed to infuse their meetings and group structure with popular Catholic symbolism and form.

He cites, as examples, AA members’ telling of personal stories in a manner reminiscent of Catholic confessions, and alcohol-free sobriety anniversary celebrations that mirror Catholic celebrations of baptisms, confirmations and marriages.

Also, Brandes describes how, in Mexico, the AA “sponsor,” which is a mentor for newer AA members, becomes the equivalent of a religious godparent, or “padrino.”

In a number of ways, the AA meeting room “replicates the kind of sacred space that would be familiar to any Mexican Catholic,” he writes. “The chairs are arranged, as in any church, in congregational fashion. The podium functions as a kind of altar…. Sacred texts hanging on the meeting room walls add to the overall religious imagery.”

Brandes believes that the growth of AA in Mexico is due in part to the migration of villagers to urban centers in search of work. Among these migrants, he theorizes, many with drinking problems turn to Alcoholics Anonymous groups as substitutes for the small communities they lost when they left rural villages or stopped drinking.

Surprisingly, AA in Mexico City is anything but anonymous and no one seems to mind, Brandes found. Meetings he attended were interrupted by small children racing in to chase dogs or retrieve balls, and neighbors looking for neighbors they knew could be found at the small storefront meeting.

Members routinely keep the meeting entrance open and passersby can easily overhear what is said inside, Brandes says.

This open identification of AA members is probably the most dramatic contrast been AA groups in Mexico and the U.S., he writes.


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