You’ve probably never heard of Bacanora.
It’s a crazy ass-kicking form of alcohol. And the name of the town where it’s made.
When I visited this town I was 15 years old, the daughter of the professor leading a cultural geography field trip from the University of Montana. We were on the 7th day of a two-week trip that embraced spring break. We had departed during finals week and would return after registration began. The year was 1982.
My father’s field trip to Mexico every spring included a guest professor or two, and 16 students. I kept a journal for the three such trips I took with him, but my memory is more clear than my writing. My father began with a puritanical lecture before the scheduled departure. He warned of the deplorable condition of Mexican jails and the lack of justice in general should you land in one. He warned of the certain downfalls resulting from excessive consumption of beer and the general unsanitary conditions in which we would all live south of the border. He collected fifty dollars from every student to form a kitchen kitty and gave it to me for safekeeping. I would pay for all groceries on the trip, which we would take turns cooking on a camp stove or over a fire. We would sleep outside.

mexican doorway
A photo I took in a small Mexican town, probably in 1982.

Bacanora — the alcohol — a sort of moonshine, was made from agave bacanora, my father told us and I noted in my journal. Its production, possession, consumption and trade were illegal.
Naturally, when we arrived in the town of Bacanora, Papa thought it would be fun to try to obtain some. When two GMC Suburbans-ful of students watched my father emerge from the town bar accompanied by a policeman after he went looking for a sample, we were all concerned.

Papa, a tall, blonde man who spoke Spanish as a native, walked down the street with the uniformed officer, away from us, without glancing back. He and the policeman were engaged in animated conversation. I assumed Papa was talking his way out of something.
Papa was the man who had slipped three twenties into my passport to get me through the border without the notarized permission letter from my mother that had been demanded. I remember the passport going under a desk for a moment, the bureaucrat’s eyes on the paper before him as though he didn’t know what his left hand was doing. His right hand stamped the paper with a huge multi-action metal device, clearly larger and more complicated a device than was truly necessary to simply place some ink on a piece of paper.
The now-empty passport and now-stamped paper quickly returned to us and we were free to enter hot, dry Mexico.

Bacanora — the town– hides in the mountains of south eastern Sonora. We saw no other cars in town when we arrived. We learned that a beer truck visited the town weekly on its way to Sahuaripe and that other vehicles came and went. But the afternoon we were there the only thing in the street was a mangy sleeping dog who was in very little danger of being run over.
Houses here did not look different from houses in other small towns we visited. Adobe walls painted tints of yellow or blue punctuated by dark unlit doorways lined the dirt street. The tops of walls in these towns often featured broken bottles set into concrete to discourage anything but bougainvillea from climbing them. The poverty was heart-wrenching.

My journal describes faces appearing in a dark doorway, first one, then two, finally nine smudgy faces in one door.
The doorways did not appear to actually have doors. My father turned into one such rectangular entrance, marked only by a flower pot from which a screeching pink bougainvillea climbed. The policeman emerged shortly and returned to the bar.
A sweaty half-hour later, my father stepped out alone, gripping a liter-sized brown beer bottle stopped with a rag, a huge grin on his face.

That night, at a campsite in the desert, one of the students poured a little of the bottle’s contents on a rock and lit a match. The stone caught fire.  My journal doesn’t record what happened next and although I’m sure I didn’t taste the stuff, I don’t have any memory of that night. My father was not a drinker and undoubtedly released the bottle to the students with some words of warning before going to sleep.  He and a guy named “Hans” were forced to sleep separate from the rest of us because they snored so disturbingly. I remember two students, both named “Dave” who learned more cultural geography than probably anyone else, simply because they always went straight to the bars.  They had the most to report as we shared notes around the campfire.

I remember the morning after Bacanora, all the sleeping bags flat out on the tarps, no one moving, just my father making cowboy coffee in a huge light blue pot. He would dump all the coffee right into the water and turn up the heat on the Coleman stove so it sounded like an airplane. Spotting the brown bottle next to the fire ring, he held it upside down and not a drop came out. He then raised his eyebrows and looked around at the motionless sleeping bags and shook his head.  I’m sure he didn’t want me to see it, but there was a tiny smile there.