While working on an M.A, in Toronto, Alvin Starkman was a florist and taught social anthropology at a community college. Academic tenure streams were then rare, so rather than begin a Ph.D., he decided to enter law school. While remunerative and enabling his family to lead a comfortable existence, life as a litigator became burdensome and unenjoyable. At the first opportunity he retired, at age 53, after only 18 years of practice. His wife and him bought a piece of land, built a home, and moved to the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca, known for colonial architecture, craft villages, pre-Hispanic archaeological sites, the country’s best cuisine, and mezcal, that is the agave distillate much less known than tequila. As a resident of the state capital Oaxaca de Juárez, he now writes articles promoting tourism and investment in this part of the country, and operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca, teaching about the spirit. The income permits him to support worthy charitable causes, and lead a life he could not have dreamt of while a practicing Canadian lawyer.
Q. Hello Sir, It is an honour to have you with us today. How would you describe your time at York University?
My years at York University were extensive; (a) Specialized Honours B.A. in Social Anthropology, (b) M.A. in Social Anthropology, and finally (c) LL.B. [now J.D.] My anthropology studies were rewarding. I thrived in my final undergraduate year and throughout the M.A. courses and thesis experience. My first year of law school was a struggle because I had been out of academe for a few years when I entered. But thereafter I found my groove and was excited to soak it all up.
Q. Mr. Starkman, you worked as a lawyer for close to 2 decades and at the time of switching, you were a partner, something many aspiring lawyers only dream of becoming. What prompted you to make this choice and what made this shift possible? When did you start thinking that it might be a good idea? How did you get your start on the Mezcal Educational Tours?
When I graduated from law school I was several years older than most of my classmates. I was not interested in working as a junior in a large firm for several years only hoping to make partner. And I was not interested in working horrendous hours as juniors tend to do when working for large firms. So I consciously selected employment with a small firm of two lawyers; one corporate commercial partner, and the other the litigator. I was lucky I suppose when the litigator gave up private practice in favour of initially becoming an arbitrator and eventually a Superior Court justice. Her departure put me in the role of the firm’s sole litigator. My billings were significant, and I got along well with my then boss, so he offered me a 50/50 partnership which I jumped at. I enjoyed the first decade of practice, but the last eight years were not self-fulfilling although the money was good. Most was family litigation. You see people at their worst. Many clients want you to advocate on the wrong side of the ethical line. As my dislike of what I was doing grew, I became enamoured with the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca …. as did my wife. We visited 2 – 3 times a year, typically for six weeks each summer. I could get away from the law firm as much as I wanted for two reasons: (1) I had a very competent law clerk who was able to put out fires and handle matters in my absence without phoning me. (2) The partnership was a 50/50 split of all revenue produced, so because I was always billing 50% or more even annually taking several weeks vacation, my partner could never complain.
Two judges, one a family court judge, and the other a Superior Court justice, approached me about applying for an appointment to The Bench. But they knew that my passion was Mexico and not continuing in the legal profession. They knew we had purchased a piece of land with the plan being to get out of Dodge as soon as possible, once our daughter had graduated high school, and we had completed construction of our dream home. And of course our financial advisor had said that given our incomes, expenses, assets and liabilities, we should probably be in a position to afford to retire to Oaxaca in 2004.
Upon relocating to Oaxaca we initially set up part of our home as a B & B. It was interesting, but after several years became a burden receiving strangers into our home. So we stopped. We decided to look after the education of a bright young indigenous woman from a rural family of extremely modest means. At the same time my expertise about the agave distillate mezcal was increasing, and more visitors to Oaxaca, the state where most is distilled, wanted something more than a cursory explanation by a generalist tour guide. I decided to seek permission from the federal government to take visitors to small family owned and operated distilleries. My background in anthropology helped me to explain not only how mezcal is made, and about agave growth, but about the culture of the indigenous Zapotec makers and their families. My business grew, to include as clients those wanting to start their own export brands, documentary film producers, those wanting to open up their own mezcal bars, and those wanting to buy at a fraction of retail, etc. When I set out on this mission no one else was doing what I developed as a nice little niche. And so the income earned has enabled my wife and I to put Lucina initially through high school, then medical school, then internship, then the required social service year. September 29, 2021, she writes a residency exam, wanting to become a surgeon. She has been living with us for over seven years, is now a god-daughter, and she has been a joy. Using the money from my mezcal excursions, we have also been able to take her to Canada 3 – 4 times. Two years ago she was a bridesmaid at our daughter’s wedding just north of Toronto. We also took her mother and aunt with us for those festivities. They had never dreamed of being out of Mexico. So the money earned from the mezcal excursions has dramatically changed the life of this impoverished rural Zapotec family.
Q. You currently are an author, documentary consultant and a planner of educational excursions. What does a day in your life look like?
I work no more than three days a week doing excursions. I’ve taken out as little as a single person to teach about mezcal, and as many as a group of 70 in town for a destination wedding. Some clients want 2 – 3 days with me, others a single day but return annually for yet further and different experiences. On work days we visit about five small distilleries each at a different stage of production, Clients learn about both ancestral distillation using small clay pots, and more traditional copper alembic production. Both methods are very rudimentary, quite different from what one encounters doing a tequila tour or along the whisky trail. Clients can even participate in various stages of production. A quarter of my work days are with people wanting to start their own brands, or with photographers and documentaries wanting to capture it all. I have had clients from naturally the US and Canada, but also the UK, Australia, Costa Rica, France, Italy, etc.
The remaining four days a week are spent writing articles about Oaxacan cultural traditions, now mainly about mezcal and a pre-Hispanic fermented drink (pulque). I write for both online and print magazines and newspapers. For the past 20 years I have been writing a bimonthly column entitled Legally Speaking for a Canadian national antiques and art magazine. That keeps my legal mind active. I am regularly researching Canadian cases dealing with antiques and art, dealing with fraud, misrepresentation, auctions, estate matters, etc.
Q. You have been gladly accepted and praised by the indigenous residents and ethno-linguistic groups of Oaxaca with respect to your entrepreneurial adventure in the region. Any recommendations for our young entrepreneurs on how to run a successful business in tandem with the demography around?
Learn your host society’s language. It need not be perfect, but be able to effectively communicate with locals. I can’t speak Zapoteco, but my Spanish is sufficient. Lucina noted above is 100% bilingual Spanish / Zapoteco, with a working knowledge of English if pressed by us. Most of the distillers are also similarly bilingual.
Treat the residents of the host society as you would treat your friends of your own socio-economic background, and you will be treated as equals, invited to fiestas, rites of passage celebrations, etc. Give back to the communities in whatever way you can. All foreigners living abroad should understand that it is a privilege not a right to be able to live in a foreign country. Those of us who work abroad will often subtly be accused of living off of the backs of the locals, cultural appropriation, etc. You cannot avoid that perception, so all you can do is your part to do the right thing. I was one of the founding directors of www.canfro.ca, a Canadian charity which benefit worthy Oaxacan causes, and am now a director of a different Mexican charity.
Q. How would you compare your current work environment and satisfaction to when you were practising law? How important is your background as a lawyer to what you do?
Practising law, I would get the odd bottle of booze around Christmas and perhaps a couple of other times a year; and occasionally a thank you note. By contrast, teaching about mezcal I receive praise and accolades weekly if not more often, on www.tripadvisor.com, through emails, etc. Over 90% of my law cases settled. The sign of a good settlement is when neither side is completely satisfied. Because of the cost of litigation, and since you never know what a judge will decide, most people settle. So at the end of a case, no matter how good a job you do, there is rarely complete satisfaction on the part of your clients. It’s the opposite for me now. I routinely exceed client expectations.
My anthropology background is equally important to my legal background. The former enables me to give clients a glimpse into the lives of those in a different culture, and because I am not ethnocentric, and understand the importance of cultural relativism, I am accepted by the rural locals. This translates to my clients also being accepted by them.
When I am working with someone who wants to start a brand, there is typically an inequality of bargaining power in favour of my clients. So I do a balancing act, representing the client, but also ensuring that I redress that imbalance by advising the distillers about how I think they should proceed with, for example, contractual matters. To an extent I am in a conflict of interest, but I ensure that the client understands the extent to which his position is different from the distiller’s, often because of a lack of formal education and business acumen.
Q. You’ve contributed many pieces for Mexico Today, how did that shape you as a person? Do you consider yourself a writer? The tours focus greatly on local artists, in your opinion how do such tours and workshops help local artists?
I had two different contracts with the federal government’s Mexico Today program, actually entered into with American promotional companies contracted by the feds. I had already been writing about Mexico, and that’s why the American companies hired me. I had been shaped through my writing long before Mexico Today came along. However, before contracting to write for Mexico Today, I was rarely if ever paid for my work. Then all of a sudden someone saw a monetary value in my work, which was kind of neat. But no, I do not consider myself a writer, not having taken any courses in writing or journalism, but I muddle along, and over the past couple of decades I have gotten better at writing.
My tours help local artists including distillers because (1) it brings dearly needed income to them, especially with the peaks and valleys of Oaxacan tourism, now in a deep cavern because of COVID; (2) it dispels the common perception of the Ugly American insofar as I tend to work with nice people interested in learning about skilled artisans and distillers. Almost to a number, my clients show the utmost deference towards and respect for the locals to whom I introduce them.
Q. Most of our readers are either students in law school or just graduated. What advice you would like to give these young minds in choosing career purely driven by passion than just mere compulsion/convention?
A law degree is marketable. Corporations and other businesses understand the value of having a lawyer on staff. Perhaps not straight out of law school, but certainly after having practiced for a couple of years, one’s way of thinking and worldview change dramatically, for the better, and hence we are in a strong position to negotiate our way through life. For me, as it turned out practicing law was a means to an end, a way to make money which enabled me to then proceed with my passion, Mexico and anthropology. Lawyers tend to keep working until they drop, beyond paying off the mortgage, and putting the children through university until well settled emotionally and financially. Why do lawyers keep working into their 60s, 70s and even 80s when financially they don’t have to: (1) No matter how much money a middle class lawyer has, he irrationally fears that if he retires he will run out; (2) He is afraid he will not know what to do with his time except spend everything he has.
Develop hobbies which will perhaps keep you occupied during “early” retirement. Collect something. I collected antique depression glass and vintage wooden duck decoys. I learned taxidermy, and enjoyed picking up road kills and mounting from as small as a hummingbird to as large as a fox. The thrill of stuffing my first squirrel was amazing. Still today I have that first mount and two doves in my home office. Don’t worry about what others will think of your hobbies. When my daughter was five years old, I started buying her exotic pets. We had snakes and an assortment of other non-venomous reptiles, hairless guinea pigs, rabbits, etc. Don’t think about what other lawyers are doing or their country club memberships. Once your mortgage is paid off, don’t buy a bigger house unless dictated by your family size. Same with a car. I suppose I can afford a Mercedes, but my motorcycle and hybrid 4 cylinder loaded Toyota RAV4 SUV is just fine. In Toronto my favourite car was my Honda Accord, my wife her Civic. We never aspired to more.
Find out more about Alvin Starkman –
- Qualifications: https://www.oaxacamezcaltours.com/qualifications.html
- Website: https://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com/
- Reviews on www.tripadvisor.com (ranked No. 1 of 174 tours in Oaxaca): https://www.tripadvisor.com/UserReviewEdit-g150801-d6384952-e__2F__Attraction__5F__Review__2D__g150801__2D__d6384952__2D__Reviews__2D__Mezcal__5F__Educational__5F__Tours__5F__Distillery__5F__Single__5F__Day__5F__Excursion__2D__Oaxaca__5F__Southern__5F__Mexico__2E__html-Mezcal_Educational_Tours_Distillery_Single_Day_Excursion-Oaxaca_Southern_Mexico.html
- Shorter bio here: https://www.tripadvisor.ca/Profile/Mezcal_Tours?fid=98dc6f6f-7aeb-486a-a270-7ce52dcbbcc9
- Twitter: www.twitter.com/MezcalTours
- Facebook: Alvin Starkman (page: Mezcal Educational Tours of Oaxaca)
- LinkedIn: Casa Machaya Oaxaca Alvin Starkman
Disclaimer – All views and opinions expressed in this interview are personal and belong solely to the interviewee(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the LAABh Foundation or the individuals and institutions associated with LAABh Foundation.