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John Riceburg: Is my favourite Mate racist?

John loves mate! So much so that, in order to keep drinking his favourite fizzy energy drink with a clean conscience, he emails their HQ about their questionable branding...

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Photo by John Riceburg

When friends from Argentina come to visit, I always show them one tourist attraction first: Mate sodas! These caffeinated energy drinks, based on the universally-loved mate tea from Latin America, are now available in countless varieties: besides the original, ubiquitous Club Mate there’s also Mio Mate, Mate Mate, BioZisch and about a million more. My personal favorite – besides the cinnamon-flavored Club Mate Winter Edition – is Ultichá Mate. It has a sour, fruity tang in comparison to the hypersweet brands, and the green/melon flavor is perfect for those hot summer days on Tempelhofer Feld.

But every time I grab a bottle, I have to wonder: Is this brand just a little bit racist?

The yerba mate plant is originally from a region that today belongs to Paraguay, home of the Guarani people. Every bottle of Ultichá Mate informs us that the plant was “discovered in 1534” – referring to the year Europeans arrived in the area. Now why is it that only white people are allowed to “discover” things? Don’t indigenous peoples also have human consciousness? I asked the company in an e-mail, and they correctly pointed out they are not the first people to use such a Eurocentric formulation. Lots of people say Columbus “discovered America”, when in fact he didn’t do much more than show up and start a viral genocide.

But it’s not just this term. The Ultichá Mate label features a Native American with a war bonnet typical of the Plains Indians. This costume is from the wrong continent, at least 7000km away from where mate was originally used (by the Guarani). The company said they only noticed this problem after their logo had been set. And they pointed out that it’s hard to switch an old logo for a new one, so they kept it “with a heavy heart”.

Still, this leaves me wondering: Why does it seem so hard for Germans to conceive of the indigenous peoples of the Americas as actual human beings? I don’t think anyone would make a drink called “Türk Mate” and then include a logo with a Chinese person. But Native Americans are often thought of as fictional characters from Karl May stories. As Rachel Glassberg reported in this magazine, no one worries about insulting them any more than offending the Na’vi people of Pandora.

No brand of Mate seems to do without troubling iconography. One brand has a silly-looking gaucho – another features Simon Bolivar. Still, Ultichá Mate seems to include some particularly bad copywriting: Who would call mate a “South American national drink”? Or make an advertising poster with a hypersexualised cliche of an Asian woman, of all things? Maybe they can go to Paraguay to find some more appropriate symbols? Or maybe, if that’s too much trouble, they can drop by the Paraguayan Embassy in Berlin (Hardenbergstraße 12).

I would sure feel a lot more comfortable drinking a refreshing bottle of Ultichá Mate if I didn’t have to wonder about subtle racist messages. They just changed their name from “Ulti-Mate”, and they seemed so nice in their e-mail, that I’ll raise my bottle to the hope they’ll change their logo too.