History of the Mexican Cantina

A real gringos mind may jump immediately to the thought of cheesy enchiladas and guacamole laden tacos at the sound of the word ‘cantina’, but I’m here to tell you that a true Mexican cantina is something a world apart from the ‘tex-mex’ style cantinas Americans have come to know and love. This article was brought to you by our friends at TastyBitesFoodTours.com.mx. So, if you want to immerse yourself into the sticky floored, tequila scented world of Mexican Cantinas? Read on

What exactly is a cantina?

A true Mexican cantina is a very far step away from thebars serving fruity margaritas adorned with colorful umbrellas. While in early cantina culture, cantinas were mostly frequented by well off men, nowadays the rich have moved on to trendier bistros and bars, so cantinas have become the watering hole for the hard workers of Mexico looking to get away from the stressors of every day life by looking deep into their cerveza or tequila (with sangrita of course).

Mexican writer/activist Carlos Monsivais sums it up perfectly in his essay ‘Elogio de las penumbras’: ‘A cantina is that somber corner where you take refuge to calm the pains of love, but also where men go to endorse their virility and show their comradeship accompanied by a bottle’. As a tourist in Mexico, if you really want an authentic look at Mexico, find your way to the nearest cantina. Don’t worry there are plenty of modern takes on the classic cantina as well.

The Rise of The Cantina

Mexican cantinas came to be about midway through the 1800’s. They probably reached their highest point in popularity under president Porfirio Diaz who held office from 1876 to 1911.  During this time, women, children, men in uniform and even dogs were forbidden to enter the establishments. The cantinas served as a haven away from life and the wife. As mentioned earlier, during this time it was more the higher-class men of Mexico frequented cantinas.

Cantinas in the Mid-Twentieth Century

By the 1940’s and 50’s cantinas have penetrated through to the working class culture as well. It is also during this time that almost all Mexican films that came out featured at least one scene where macho men are seated drinking in a cantina. Just to elaborate on how popular cantinas were in film culture during this time, Hernan Vera, a Mexican actor who played in many films during the mid 1900’s played the roll of cantinero or hombre de cantina a whopping forty one times!

Cantinas Today

Today cantinas have loosened their ‘rules’ a bit and women are allowed to join in on the drinking and bar talk, however, a good amount of ‘macho culture’ still exists in the more authentic joints. Head to a cantina to drink beer or tequila, often priced at just 25 or 30 pesos a pop, and to sip on complimentary spicy little shots of caldo de camaron or shrimp broth and to nibble on botanitas such as jicama sticks loaded with chili powder. In the trendier parts of Mexico City., such as the hipper then ever area La Condesa, its becoming a common sight to see old cantinas with a ‘face lift’, now more ‘hip’ than authentic, but nevertheless a great place to drink a cold beer after a hard day.