5 HISTORICAL FACTS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT CHICHA

If you’ve been lucky enough to be around Bogota’s oldtown, I’m sure you’ve run into this magical street:

Yes, the Chorro de Quevedo is a special place, mainly, because it’s one of the few places you can get Chicha in Bogota. Get what? CHICHA, a gift from the Gods…or, in other words, a fermented corn handcrafted drink indigenous people used to have during religious ceremonies. The Spaniards mixed it up with sugar cane and took away its religious background, giving it a new – let’s say – “recreational” meaning.

Nowadays, you can get there a bottle of Chicha for 4, 5 or 6 thousand pesos to get the party started. Students from Bogota’s downtown universities do it every day, especially on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Besides, you can find Chicha from time to time in some street festivals around the city, where is actually promoted as a symbol of culture, heritage and identity.

Sounds cool, right? Well, it is now, but it wasn’t always the case. Chicha has a long and complex history, extremely tied to the history of Bogota itself. And as I know someone who spent years doing some research about it – myself -, today I bring you “5 historical facts you probably didn’t know about Chicha” as my first contribution to this blog.

1. Back in the day, Chicha was a communal drink, and it was consumed by everybody…sort of.

Nowadays, nobody could deny beer is Bogotá’s favorite alcoholic drink. But long before it was brought to the country, people used to drink Chicha. Of course, poor people, who, until some 40 or 50 years ago, were the majority of Bogota’s population.

This humble people would go to a chichería (see next point) and they would collect some money among themselves to buy a communal bowl of chicha. Then, they would drink it the same way indigenous people used to: taking a sip, and then passing it to the next person. Yes folks: it may sound gross, but Chicha, by definition, is a communal drink; designed by the Gods to bring people together.

That powerful concept is still alive today…with some modern adaptations. In the Chorro, you see people all together, drinking chicha from the same bowl…but using straws.

2. Back in the day, Chicha was not sold on fancy chicha bars or street festivals, but on CHICHERIAS.

Chicherias were – still are! – special places. They were born in the 17th century, just after Chicha consumption went widespread among Bogota’s population.

Chicherias were multifunctional places where poor people could find everything at hand: groceries, meals, table games, dancefloors, beds – some worked as little hotels -, and, of course, chicha. Maybe, they were the only establishments this people could actually go to have fun.

Chicherias were all around the city, especially in downtown, surrounding public markets and artisans shops. Every neighborhood had several, and every night people would leave those places totally drunk to get some sleep back home.

Hidden in what we call “popular neighborhoods” – low and low middle class ones, far from the spots you would normally go to -, Chicherias still exist today, as places frozen in time where you could hang out with some of the most amazing humble people you could ever meet. A couple of sips and they’ll make you feel home almost instantly.

3. Back in the day, Chicha considered food and part of almost every meal.

To “chicha drinkers”, the fermented one was not only alcohol, but food. They would have it with lunch and dinner, as Bogota citizens would have fresh juice or soda nowadays.

It was an important part of “piquete” a typical popular meal made out of potatoes, yucca, blood sausage, chicken, and some unusual parts of pork and cow (intestines, lungs, udders). Piquete and chicha would be the best affordable meal you could get outside your house, cheap enough to fill your belly for a full day.

Even some middle class citizens and students would go to chicherias to have some of this delicious banquet…

4. Back in the day, selling Chicha was a lucrative business.

So lucrative, that even politicians owned chicherias and even chicha factories! That’s right: in the 1920s many of these facilities started to work. There, chicha was produced and stored in barrels which were distributed among chicherias using donkeys or even tank cars. There was a rumor that a former president – who used to talk very bad about chicha – made a fortune out of this operation.

One block away from Chorro de Quevedo, you can still see the former headquarters of El Ventorrillo, downtown’s biggest chicha factory. It is a big and beautiful colonial house which, sadly, is not open to the public.

5. Back in the day…the Government banned Chicha

Chicha consumption and chicherias were frowned upon, almost since their beginning. Colonial authorities saw them as threats to public peace. After the independence, the Church, the Government and the Medical Community saw them as sources of physical and moral degradation: a cancer of the society should get rid of in order to achieve progress. The war on chicha was officially declared.

One of the fiercest – and most curious – battles was fought on newspapers. A huge publicity campaign was activated, telling everybody Chicha made people dumb and spawned crime.

Chicherias were loaded with taxes and legal limitations, but it wasn’t until 1948 that Chicha got totally prohibited. Yes, folks: Chicha was and still is prohibited in Colombia. Actually, all fermented drinks not made through an industrial process are.

After a long war, the Government finally banned Chicha on November 1948. El Bogotazo – a huge riot that basically destroyed Bogota’s downtown – had a lot to do with it, as the Government blamed chicha for the widespread destruction. According to them, that event was only possible through the actions of people drunk on the “yellow poison”.

The new edict was not totally obeyed, though. Chicherias disappeared from downtown, but moved to popular neighborhoods around it. Basements and backyards were transformed into Chicherias, as the police of Bogotá started a huge persecution against them…

But how is it possible that Chicherias still exist? How is it possible that you can buy Chicha freely in Chorro de Quevedo? How is it possible that it’s even considered heritage on festivals promoted by the City Hall? Well, that’s part of another story…

I hope you’ve enjoyed this one. All thoughts welcome on the comments.

See you around.

Jeff.

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